Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly
When Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly was a child growing up on her family’s farm in Crenshaw, Mississippi, she would make things out of mud under the porch, then pour water over them and watch them disintegrate. Decades later, she would make things out of clay and display them as art.
Born in 1937, Pitchford-Jolly came to Chicago with her family in the 1950s and began working in social services and health care after receiving degrees from Roosevelt University and Governors State University. Although she had taken some ceramics classes, ceramics were a hobby until she lost her job due to cuts in federal health care funding in 1982. At the age of 45, she decided to devote herself to art.
She was thrown a lifeline when she was offered a part-time position at Chicago State University; someone there had seen her first solo show, and the school needed a ceramics teacher. Pitchford-Jolly had previously worked mostly out of her kitchen and didn’t know much about the technical details of ceramics, so she learned “right along with the students,” she recalled in an interview late in her life.
Sharing her talent and work was always important to Pitchford-Jolly: in addition to teaching at CSU (she eventually became tenured), she formed a studio in Hyde Park that she named Mudpeoples; was involved with both the South Side Community Art Center and Hyde Park Art Center; and made sure to sell some of her pieces for affordable prices even as she gained recognition (the novelist Toni Morrison owns some of Pitchford-Jolly’s work). In addition, she founded the collective Sapphire and Crystals in 1986 so that fellow African American female artists could exhibit together. “What I want to show is a group of women who are serious about their art,” she said of the collective.
Watch: Ceramicist Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly
Pitchford-Jolly prized rough, uneven surfaces in her ceramics and was best known for her “story pots.” “I use clay as a canvas, and I taught myself to draw on clay,” she explained. “I could write my stories on these pots.” She wanted to tell stories from her family’s perspective, of what it was like to be black in Mississippi, because “my sense of beauty comes out of Mississippi.” With her work, she sought to leave a record of those stories and her perspective. “[My] art is another permanent kind of thing to leave that says, ‘This is what I felt about black culture and how it contributed to the world.’ ”