M. C. Richards (1916 – 1999) was a poet, potter, essayist, translator and painter, who taught at Black Mountain College in the late 1940’s and thereafter became an impassioned advocate of community in both art and life.
An artist who wrote poems about pottery and made pots inspired by her reading, Ms. Richards was perhaps best known for ”Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person,” a book of essays published in the middle of the tumultuous 1960’s that was impressive for its synthesis of thought, plain speech and incantatory momentum. The book, which became an underground classic, pulled together ideas about perception, craft, education, creativity, religion and spirituality, arguing for the richness of daily experience if carefully attended to, and the creativity of the average person. ”Poets are not the only poets,” Ms. Richards wrote.
Mary Caroline Richards was born in Weiser, Idaho, and reared in Portland, Ore. She earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and languages from Reed College in 1937, with a thesis titled ”Poetry of the Tang Dynasty in Relation to Western Imagism.” She went on to the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied Chinese and wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on irony in Thomas Hardy in 1942. She then began a brief marriage, and taught English at the Central Washington College of Education in Ellensburg, Wash., and at the University of Chicago.
In 1945 she married Albert William Levi Jr., her second husband and a social scientist who was invited that year to join the faculty of the experimental Black Mountain College, near Asheville, N.C. Black Mountain was a short-lived laboratory for innovative teaching and art whose faculty and students included Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg and Charles Olson.
At Black Mountain Ms. Richards taught writing, produced and, when necessary, translated plays by Cocteau, Satie and Yeats. She also danced and studied pottery with Robert Turner. Around 1950 she participated in what might have been the first ”happening,” with Cage, Olson, Mr. Rauschenberg and Franz Kline. In 1951 she separated from her husband, whom she later divorced, and in 1952 she went to New York with Tudor.
She studied pottery at Greenwich House in Greenwich Village, attended the meetings of the downtown avant-garde known as the Club and worked on the first English translation of Antonin Artaud’s influential Theater and Its Double, published by Grove Press in 1958.
In 1954 Ms. Richards, Tudor and Cage, along with Paul Williams, an architect, and Karen Karnes, a potter, who had both also been at Black Mountain, established a commune called the Land near Stony Point, N.Y. Ms. Richards lived there for a decade, working in a studio with Ms. Karnes; they developed a form of flame-proof clay that enabled them to make ceramic cookware.
Ms. Richards began giving pottery workshops in the early 1960’s. Reflecting the ideas that would figure in Centering, these became increasingly interdisciplinary, with titles like ”Clay and Words,” ”Clay and Movement” and ”Clay and Eurythmy.” She lectured and taught workshops at schools in the United States, Canada and Britain.
Ms. Richards’s books, which often mixed prose and poetry, included The Crossing Point (1973), Opening Our Moral Eye (1996) and Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America, a work of social philosophy. The Camphill community in Kimberton is one of 80 Camphills worldwide based on Steiner’s teachings.
In 1989 Ms. Richards, who has no survivors, added painting to her roster of activities. She then exhibited ceramics, poems and paintings together, most recently at the Works Gallery in Philadelphia in 1997. The Worcester Center for Crafts in Massachusetts is organizing a retrospective of her work that is to open on Oct. 9, with a public memorial.
Ms. Richards embraced old age with characteristic openness, writing a poem in 1997 in which she saw herself as ”living toward dying, blooming into invisibility.”