Laura Andreson, a spirited educator and renowned artist who guided UCLA's ceramics department for nearly 40 years and helped transform the craft of pottery into a lively art, died Monday at the age of 96.
Andreson died in her Los Angeles home, said her niece, Deborah Burns. The artist had been in a coma for several days.
Known as the creator of elegant pots decorated with an astonishing array of glazes, Andreson was a fixture of the Southern California art scene for several decades and a prominent figure in international ceramics circles. She is credited with pioneering research and influential experimentation with various clays and glazes, as well as with teaching about 5,000 students.
"Laura was certainly the doyenne of ceramics in California in the 1940s and '50s," said ceramics historian Elaine Levin, who has written extensively on the history and evolution of American ceramics. Andreson was also a memorable personality--"a grand lady" whose enormous energy far surpassed her diminutive physical stature, Levin said.
But when Andreson was praised for her achievements--as she often was in her later years--she tended to portray herself as a happy victim of an artistic malady. "Ceramics is a disease, and I've given it to so many students," she said in a Times interview in 1982. "It teaches you great patience, but it's just a passion you get in your blood. Once you've got it, you don't want to do anything else."
Born in San Bernardino in 1902, Andreson credited her interest in natural forms to her childhood experience with California's wilderness. She graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 1932 and began teaching art courses at the university in 1933. Never imagining that clay would become her signature medium, she soon added a course in ceramics to her teaching load. With little experience and very limited equipment, she taught herself to make pots from cast and hand-built forms.
Andreson continued her formal education at Columbia University, earning a master's degree in painting in 1937. But after her return to UCLA it was ceramics--not painting--that captivated her. Although handmade pottery had died out after the Industrial Revolution, she found it to be fertile territory for exploration and experimentation. Delighted to learn along with her students, she made the most of the low-fire earthenware clays that were available.
Initially using bright glazes, she soon began working with matte glazes that emulated high-fire stoneware and offered more possibilities for artistic expression.
Her work was transformed in 1944, when she learned to use a potter's wheel. She took her first lessons from Gertrud Natzler, who had emigrated from Vienna to Los Angeles with her husband and artistic partner, Otto Natzler. Andreson also picked up useful tips from UCLA students whom she dispatched to Mills College in Oakland to learn pottery throwing techniques from Carlton Ball.
Andreson objected to conventional distinctions between fine and applied arts, so she was thrilled that clay and other traditional crafts media "went wild," as she put it, after World War II, when the GI bill funded the college education of an adventurous new generation of artists.
Describing herself as "a pure potter," she favored the clean, relatively simple elegance of Bauhaus-style modernism and Scandinavian design. She was among the first ceramists to use stoneware clays after they were discovered in California in 1948.
She was also one of the first California studio potters to exploit the potential of porcelain, which until 1950 had been used almost exclusively for commercial products. By the late 1950s she had done so much experimenting with porcelain clays and glazes that she was acknowledged as the premier West Coast authority.
Andreson was also an avid collector of ceramics from around the world. Seeing a vast array of other artists' creations made her aware of the timelessness of pottery, she said, but it also heightened her modesty. "When you see how many pots have been made throughout history, you realize you are not very important," she told an interviewer.
Nonetheless, Andreson found an appreciative audience for her work. The first exhibition of her ceramics took place at the Rene Rosenthal Gallery in New York in 1937, when she had finished her degree at Columbia.
Dozens of other shows followed, including the First California Ceramic Exhibition in San Diego in 1938, a solo exhibition at the Honolulu Academy of Art in 1940, and the Eleventh National Ceramics Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1947.
In honor of Andreson's retirement from teaching in 1970, UCLA presented a historical survey of ceramics celebrating her contributions to the field. In 1982, when she was 80, the university hosted an exhibition of ceramics made and collected by Andreson. The same year, the Mingei International Museum, then located in La Jolla, surveyed 45 years of her work in a 350-piece retrospective.
Examples of Andreson's ceramics are found in many public and private collections. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, which purchased an example in 1946, was among the first major museums to recognize her importance. In Southern California, her work is represented in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Mingei International Museum, now in San Diego. In addition, the Smithsonian Institution's National Archives of American Art has documented her life and art.
Andreson is survived by a nephew, John Andreson; a niece, Deborah Burns, and their families.