(April 10, 1902 - July 17, 1992)
Designer and decorator of Iowa State College Art Pottery, ISC instructor, Ames, Iowa; educator, studio potter, painter.
Born in Alabama, Mary Lanier Yancey attended Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, graduating in 1922 with a bachelor’s degree in design. While a student, Yancey was awarded prizes three years in a row; the Adele Beldon prize in 1920, the Estelle Halley prize in 1921 and the May Morrell prize in 1922. Following graduation, Yancey taught ceramics and jewelry classes at a Cincinnati, Ohio high school or two years. In 1924 she was hired by Iowa State College (ISC, now Iowa State University) as an instructor for the modeled pottery classes in the Ceramic Engineering department. While at ISC Yancey’s class size grew from approximately fifty students to nearly two hundred, attracting a large number of women from the Division of Home Economics. The Newcomb graduate was also hired to become the designer and decorator of art pottery being produced in the department.
The head of Ceramic Engineering, Paul Cox, had been hired from Newcomb College where he had worked for a decade as a technician improving class compositions and glazes for Newcomb Art Pottery, the renowned commercial arm of the college. Cox’s best known and popular work at Newcomb was a semi-transparent matte glaze he developed, that when applied to the under painting, gave the appearance of a misty landscape.
When Cox arrived at ISC in 1920, he soon learned he needed to find a means to purchase equipment and materials, as well as build student enrollment. Also, state leaders were counting on him to advance Iowa’s largely untapped shale deposits as a natural means of increasing the number of clay manufacturing concerns in the state. Much like Louisiana, Iowa was largely an agricultural state that needed to expand its industrial base. In order to accomplish these goals, the production and sale of art pottery was a natural venture for the Ceramic Engineering program and one with which Cox was familiar. With the arrival of Mary Yancey, the necessary collaboration of artisan and artist was in place to begin the commercial production of art pottery.
Mary Yancey once wrote that Cox did not consider himself to be artistic but was admiring and supportive of those who were. With the help of student assistants, he developed clay compositions and glazes, threw pots free-hand on the potter’s wheel, and fired the work in the kiln. Yancey continued the Newcomb tradition of decorating largely with native (in this case, Iowa) plants. Precisely carved or incised designs were abstract or realistic but always chosen to enhance the shape of each piece. In a major departure from what was then popular in American art pottery, Yancey and Cox decided to use tin enamel glazes to finish the pots. Tin enamel glazes produce a light-reflecting, shiny, clean look.
Concerning her choice of colors Paul Cox once wrote: “Mary L. Yancey, my designer has chosen to work in lively colors and expects the purchaser to use the wares as color emphasis rather than for harmony. We want to do something distinctive and Miss Yancey has decided to try out this thought. It is easy to use a piece that blends without effort by the owner, but calls for intellectual effort if the surroundings must be cared for and Miss Yancey is asking for this effort.”
Mary Yancey stamped, painted or incised the bottom of the pottery with a circled “Y” for Yancey. The college mark was a circled “IS-Ames.” Paul Cox was represented by a free-hand painted “Cox.”
Paul Cox promoted the department and it’s pottery whenever he could. Each year at the state fair he would set up a potter’s wheel and make pottery while talking about the program to the crowd. During the campus spring Veisha celebration Yancey, Cox and students constructed floats for the annual parade. In 1926, Ceramic Engineering entered an ambitious 10 foot high clay Wedgwood-like vase. To emulate Wedgwood’s cameo motif, five ISC co-eds dressed in flowing gowns, leaned against the mid body of the vase. The department was awarded a prize for second place that year.
By 1928 the production of ISC art pottery began to dwindle. It’s estimated that Yancey and Cox may have produced seven to eight hundred pieces. But the demand for art pottery in America had run its course. More of Yancey’s time was spent making terra cotta heads for campus projects and teaching design to advanced ceramic students.
University Museums object files, Iowa State University.
University Museums online collections, search for Maker: Mary Yancey. https://umsm003.its.iastate.edu/
Poesch, Jessie. Newcomb Pottery: An Enterprise for Southern Women 1895-1940. Schiffer Publishing, 1984
Mary Yancey Hodgdon, 1925-2013, papers, RS 11/12/2 Box: 1, Folder: 22, University Archives, Iowa State University Library.