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Rene Murray: Breaking the Mold

How Rene Murray's love for ceramics made her U-M's first woman MFA

As the first woman, and likely the first ceramicist, to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree at the University of Michigan, the art department wasn’t always sure what to do with Rene Murray (BA 62, MFA 64) when she was on campus in the 1960s. But once she knew what she wanted, no one was going to stop her from getting it.

Rene Murray, wearing a green sweater, sits surrounded by her work.
Rene Murray

I was on the path, and that was it,” Murray says. I was very upset when I heard they might not accept me, because this was going to be my life.”

With help from her mentor, Murray (then Salzman) eventually sidestepped the gatekeepers who believed an MFA spot was wasted on her; after all, they figured she’d get married, have children, and leave the profession” soon after graduating. Sixty years later she’s still proving them wrong, working as a successful artist, shaping detailed tiles and dream-like seaside villas from clay in her Brooklyn, New York, studio. Looking back, she fondly recalls her time in Ann Arbor, teaching at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, New York; and returning to Brooklyn to open her own studio.

An accidental trailblazer, Murray acknowledges she was living in a different era, one where things were just starting to change for women and other marginalized groups. But at the time, she says activism wasn’t as much on her mind as claiming her own seat at the table.

Once they accepted me, I just went ahead with my work,” she says.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Murray was a neighborhood kid who planned to attend college near home until her mother urged her to broaden her horizons and consider Michigan for its strong liberal arts tradition and terrific little art school.” 

Michigan was appealing, because it was a huge school, and yet the art department was like its own little community,” she says. I had the best of both worlds.”

While her parents intended for her to become an art teacher, Murray always had other ideas. One day during her junior year as an undergrad, she stopped by the ceramics studio in the basement of the art building — then located near the law school — and changed the course of her life. Seeing the work that filled the room by a fellow undergraduate — one with whom Murray would become lifelong friends — it was love at first sight. And it only grew deeper.

As I took courses and actually got my own hands in the clay, I realized that this is what I had been looking for my whole life,” she says. It was the medium; it just suited my personality so much, and I loved it, and I’ve loved it ever since.”

Professor John Stephenson, whose wife was also a ceramics artist, encouraged her newfound passion. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, it was Stephenson who helped lobby for Murray when she applied to the MFA program.

He was more than a teacher; he was like a mentor and he saw my potential,” Murray says. He saw my love for the clay, and he stood up for me.”

In addition to having her dedication to the program questioned as a woman, ceramics were looked down on as a medium at the time, and it was stressed that she’d need to complete the full spectrum of requisite art classes to complete her master’s degree.

I was like, Throw me in the briar patch; I love all that!’ ” Murray says. I didn’t care. Of course I’ll take all those courses.”

By her second year of the program, Murray received a graduate fellowship to teach undergraduate ceramics courses outside of the art school. Her students were mostly men in the architecture and engineering schools. Following the dress code of the time, Murray recalls being required to wear a dress, no matter how messy the work got, while her male students would sometimes work shirtless.

For her own work, Stephenson gave Murray a key to the building and told her the space was hers to use whenever there wasn’t a class in session. Oftentimes she’d work late at night and early into the next morning when it was just her and the janitors, who she’d sometimes join for lunch at 3 a.m. Studio access was vital to her success, since ceramics require heavy equipment that isn’t portable, a fact often lost on her peers working in other media.

I think the ceramics department was really new, and I don’t think the rest of the art department quite knew what to do with us and they also didn’t know what it required,” she says.

Over time, Stephenson built the program into one of the best known in the country, as celebrated ceramists came to learn from him, teach with him, or just visit.

When she wasn’t working or teaching, Murray spent her downtime soaking up U‑M’s cultural offerings, ushering concerts by headlining classical musicians, taking a writing class from eventual Poet Laureate Donald Hall, and making friends with political activist Tom Hayden, later of Chicago Seven fame.

She fondly recalls her six years in Ann Arbor, where she spent time living in a dorm, a co-op house, and eventually her own small apartment near Michigan Stadium where the ceilings were sloped and you couldn’t stand up except in the middle of the room” for $55 a month.

At Lester Cooperative House (Sylvan Rivera Cooperative House today), Murray lived with nine other women who all took turns with housework, as well as ordering food, planning menus, and cooking for boarders — male upperclassmen who had moved out of the dorms and weren’t into cooking.” Murray enjoyed getting to know the students from different backgrounds and fields of study.

After graduating with her MFA, Murray returned to New York and began working as a studio ceramicist out of the Clay Art Center in Port Chester. Surrounded by like minded working artists, Murray spent eight years building a clientele and developing her own style alongside more consumer-friendly pieces to help pay the bills.

The people who followed me and loved my work actually loved my functional work first,” she says. You know, they can relate to a cup and a plate. And then after they saw my work over the years, they got to really love the other side of it, so it was an education for them, too.”

When she started to outgrow the space, Murray started looking to set out on her own in the early 70s. As an early inheritance, Murray’s father helped her purchase a one-story industrial building in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where she has worked for the last 50 years. In that time, she’s produced thousands of pieces of pottery and sculpture and developed a loyal following of patrons who have been buying from her for decades, many directly from her studio, which she opens for an exhibit and sale twice a year. In addition to private collections around the world, Murray’s work has also been purchased by the Detroit Institute of Art and Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, and exhibited in numerous shows, including the SOFA Chicago exhibition.

Twenty years ago or so, Murray and her husband took a trip to Italy that eventually put her on a new path. Surrounded by its inspired architecture and without a camera to document any of it, Murray did her best to memorize the stirring sights.

Maybe I’m naïve because I don’t travel that much, so when I did, it made such a deep impression on me,” she says. The only way I could let it out was through the clay, and I just love doing it. It’s just been fantastic.”

In 2009 she started a series of architecturally-themed, dream-like pieces based on the buildings of Brooklyn and Italy, which she continues to work on today.

When I make one of these buildings, it’s the same thing that I felt for anything that I made in clay,” she says. I wanted people to feel my own exuberance and my love for the medium and for what clay could do. With the buildings, in particular, I wanted them to get a sense of the majesty of a building, but on a small scale, so they could appreciate it up close.”

For the last couple of years, Murray hasn’t been able to welcome people to have that experience in her studio. She and her husband have been very cautious about COVID-19, and she’s also been helping him with some health issues. But today she’s optimistic about opening the doors to visitors again to celebrate the studio’s 50th anniversary. She’s been sprucing the place up with crocheted tapestry landscapes to frame her porcelain houses and spending more time back in the studio, even if it’s a little different.

I don’t go as frequently, but I’m still there,” she says. I still have my hands in the clay, and I’m still working.”

Story by Eric Gallippo.