Frances Senska a Montana Treasure Dies at Age 95

Posted on March 4, 2010


Frances Maude Senska (1914 – 2009)

Known as the “Grandmother of Pots” Frances Senska  a driving force in the modern craft movement passed away Christmas Day 2009. Senska is credited with the development of contemporary ceramics in Montana and was a major influence in the arts worldwide. Frances taught at Montana State University from 1946 to 1973. Her two most famous students were Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio.

Archie Bray Foundation, Helena Montana

She contributed to the founding of the Archie Bray Studio Foundation in Helena Montana by helping Voulkos and Autio  build the first pottery studio on the site in 1951.

Peter Voulkos

Her two students were the first artists in residence. “We built the kilns, we dug the clay, we fired it and we made mistakes”. Frances Senska. She said of Voulkos and Autio  “They were so enthusiastic and into everything-they brought everybody up with them”. She also credits them with helping her prod the limits of clay.

Rudy Autio

Influenced by the German Bauhaus movement her modernist approach to art and design was  “work with function, need, material and technology”. “That’s the way I taught”. She said.

“Clay is very soft and delicate. Be absolutely gentle but firm, as you would with a child. If you hold steady, the clay will come to you”. Frances Senska.

That is the woman I knew and she was much loved and will be missed. Her legacy will live on as long as we have memories.

Vessel by Frances Senska

Read more… watch an interview with Frances Senska…


Frances Maude Senska (1914 – 2009)

Frances Maude Senska, potter and retired art professor, 95, died peacefully at home on December 25, 2009.

Born March 9, 1914, in Batanga, in what was then the German colony of Kamerun, Africa, Frances was the only child of Georgia B. Herald Senska and Dr. Frank Radcliff Senska. Dr. and Mrs. Senska were Presbyterian missionaries in Africa where he founded the Sakbayémé Hospital in the Bassa region and she taught at the mission school. They educated Frances at home in the highlands of what became French Cameroun.

The family moved to Iowa City in 1929, where Senska attended University High School. She earned her BA in graphic arts (1935) and her MA in applied design (1939) at the University of Iowa.

Frances then accepted a teaching job at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. She taught there from 1939 until 1942, when, under wartime pressures, Grinnell eliminated the art teaching job.

Continuing her art studies, Frances took classes at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles during the summer of 1941 and at the School (later Institute) of Design in Chicago during the summer of 1942. One of her instructors in Chicago was László Moholy-Nagy, who had taught at the Bauhaus School in Berlin and who founded the School of Design as the “New Bauhaus.”

From the fall of 1942 into early 1946, Frances served in the Navy. She attended service schools in Oklahoma and Massachusetts, and she learned to fly. As a commissioned officer (Women’s Reserve, Ensign and later Lieutenant) Senska served in Georgia, Massachusetts, and California.

While posted in San Francisco, Frances became interested in ceramics through a class taught by the potter Edith Heath at the California Labor School. After the war Frances used the GI bill to return to school, initially at the University of Iowa. During the summer of 1946, she studied ceramics with the Finnish designer Maija Grotell at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

In the fall of 1946 Frances moved to Bozeman to teach art at Montana State College. She established the ceramic arts program. Some of her former students include Rudy Autio, Ray Campeau, George Dunbar, Lyndon Pomeroy, and Peter Voulkos, as well as many generations to follow. Frances taught at Montana State University until 1973, and thereafter she worked out of her pottery studio at home.

Frances’s early years in Africa influenced her art throughout her life. Other influences include her father’s skill as a woodworking craftsman, her interest in architecture, a modern art exhibition seen in Paris at an early age, the Bauhaus school of design, art studies in general, and classes taught by potters in particular, including a summer workshop taught by Marguerite Wildenhain at Pond Farm in Guerneville, California, in 1950.

Frances and her friend Jessie Wilber (painter, printmaker, and also teacher at MSU) collaborated in life as well as in art. With the architect Hugo Eck, they designed their home on Sourdough Road, which was built in 1953. Frances added a pottery studio next door to the house in 1969. Senska and Wilber both actively supported students and the arts throughout their lives. The Frances Senska Pottery and Jessie Wilber Gallery at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture (formerly at the Beall Park Art Center) and the Senska Wilber Graduate Studios at Montana State University commemorate their individual and shared contributions to the arts.

Frances helped establish the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena. She was a director and fellow of the Montana Institute of Arts and an honorary life member of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.

Frances never retired from the arts, still throwing pots into her 90’s. The last major exhibition of her work was the retrospective Frances Senska: A Life in Art, at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena in 2004 and traveling the state for the next two years.

Awards include the Montana Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, the Archie Bray Foundation’s Meloy-Stevenson award of Distinction, the American Craft Council’s Fellow Award, and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree from Montana State University.

Frances was preceded in death by her parents and her dear friend Jessie Wilber. All of us who knew her, studied under her, were inspired by her and were befriended by her will always cherish those memories.A celebration of her life will be announced soon.

In lieu of flowers donations may be made in Frances’s name to: MSU School of Art, Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, Gallatin Valley Land Trust, or Heart of the Valley Humane Society.