Mary Caroline Richards’ quest for self-understanding has led to her emergence as a highly creative educator, writer, and potter.

Many were introduced to M.C. Richards through her insightful Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. The book is based on a series of her talks on the subject of “centering” which were published by Wesleyan Press in 1964. In it, M.C. —as she is known — shares her discovery of the process of centering clay on the potter’s wheel as a living metaphor for becoming centered within oneself.

A collection of her talks and writings, The Crossing Point, appeared in book form in 1977. In 1980, Toward Wholeness: Rudolph Steiner Education in America was published along with a smaller companion volume, The Public School and the Education of the Whole Person. For M.C. both these books represent a further step in my search for ways to approach education without sacrificing the imagination and a sense of the sacred.”

In October, 1977, M.C. Richards took part in a colloquium on “The Human Spirit” which Michael Purdy and I coordinated at the University of Rhode Island. What follows is an edited version of her comments.

— Art Stein


I grew up in Portland, Oregon, went to public school, and was educated to be an intellectual of the verbal kind. When I was four and a half, I had a library card. Because I could read I was thought to be a person who would follow a certain line of development having to do with verbal skills. They didn’t notice that the books I took out were picture books. I grew up, as many of us do, thinking that there are two kinds of people in the world — intellectuals and artists, or rather intellectuals, artists and women! It is difficult if you are a woman trying to find your way; it’s difficult to choose a path to follow.

Wherever we touch life we form it. It’s an old teaching that man is a microcosm of the universe. If you really feel and internalize that knowledge, it is quite a thing to be a human being, to touch with the hands but also with a thought, a feeling, or a dream.

The gradual search for wholeness, a gradual un-willingness to take somebody else’s definition of who I was, or what I was like, or what I was interested in characterized a lot of my own growing up. I went to graduate school at Berkeley, got a doctorate in English and started teaching. I wasn’t ambitious in the conventional sense, but I was very interested in exploring the questions of education. What was education? There are so many claims made for it; what was it and how did it work? I taught English in a variety of places, first at the University of California, then at a teachers’ college in the state of Washington, and eventually at the University of Chicago where I was attracted by what Robert Hutchins called the intellectual virtues. I’d been interested in his work and was thrilled to have the appointment. But it wasn’t long before I realized if those were the virtues I would be better off without them; there was such a one-sidedness not only for my own life but also for the lives of my students who were very young. Students in their junior year of high school could come into the University and get out as quickly as they could pass the comprehensive examinations. There was a lot of interest in passing examinations and a lot of disinterest in any other kind of learning. This led to a crisis in my life of values and in my profession. I thought that before I left higher education I would investigate the other end of the stick.

I went to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which was small (about 50 people), had no salaries, no grades, no tenure, and no rank. But more important, philosophically it was a place where the arts were at the center of the curriculum no matter what your major, and the life of the community was valued. You had to learn to function within a community which did its own work and made its own decisions. This involved a certain amount of social and emotional growth. It was very interesting and certainly took my life forward enormously.

But Black Mountain College — I don’t want to say died — adjourned. It was not able to flourish and do as it wished. It was continually riven by schisms and differences suggesting that even if you get a lot of people together who have the perfect freedom to do what they want to do, people who are the cream of the crop in higher education — artists, composers, architects, distinguished refugees from overseas — they’re not necessarily any more on top of it than anybody else. This was the next crisis for me. We were all so creative and artistic and avant garde, without any president or administration or trustees to tell us what to do, and we still couldn’t get on with it. We couldn’t get along with our husbands and wives or with each other. We couldn’t do the work that needed to be done. In a way it was foolish of me to be so judgmental. Of course we couldn’t do all the work that was needed to be done; we always aspire to more than we can do. But it was a while before I could see it that way.

I felt the need to bring more balance into my life. Developing my intellectual and artistic sides and even emphasis on the community hadn’t brought the balance. Nobody had even mentioned the possibility of anything else so I had to do more exploration on my own. Whatever I had gained thus far from my education, however valuable, had not prepared me to handle what life was offering. I became very interested in the arts of transformation. Pottery was one of these arts. You take raw clay and bring it up to a certain temperature in the kiln — an ordeal by fire — and it changes its character from a perishable material into something which won’t collapse in water as mud will, and which has a formal stability unlike raw clay. If you watch through the portholes of a kiln, you can see the clay move; you can follow the metamorphosis, the transformation of red earth into a vessel that has a ring and a resonance and can offer and receive. It’s a metaphor. I also became interested in another art of transformation — the alchemist’s art of transforming base metals into gold, the archetype of transformative activity. Starting with dung or sometimes with red earth, the idea was always to transform it into gold. This was also a kind of metaphor for an inner transformation, changing base and instinctual qualities of greed, appetite, and envy into energy that was incorruptible and could therefore be called spiritual gold. Carl Gustav Jung, a psychologist, was working with the material of alchemy then, and I turned to him for my reading. And I translated Antoinin Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double. The central chapter is called “The Alchemical Theatre.” It says that theatre has the possible force of transforming the human spirit, transforming human society.

At the same time I became interested in Zen Buddhism and in esoteric Christianity which is also very much concerned with turning inward. The teacher who was very important for me (and has, like Jung, continued to be a guide in my inquiry into the human spirit) was Rudolf Steiner, a European scientist and seer. And I inquired into Hasidic Judaism through Martin Buber and his work, I and Thou and Between Person and Person. The great Hasidic stories about Rabbi Nachman came to be guides for me in this period of coming into touch with myself in a new way and undertaking to transform the nature of my own consciousness. I found that I was crossing the divisions that are usually made between intellectual and religious life, verbal and non-verbal life, urban and rural life, domestic and professional life. As a result I was getting to be a very odd kind of bird. In the craft world I was peculiar because I liked to talk philosophy. In my English classes at City College I was a queer bird because I would bring my pots to classes, or the bread I’d baked, or the kale out of the garden.

I was commissioned by Wesleyan University Press to write a book called Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. It dealt with the question of centering the opposites in oneself, the experience of trying consciously to include all the members of your inner family, as it were, rather than leave any out. The image of centering is inherent in the relationship between the potter and the clay. You take a ball of clay, put it on the potter’s wheel, and bring it into a condition of equilibrium. The quality of equilibrium has to exist throughout the mass of clay; it can’t just be an even silhouette on the outside giving an appearance of symmetry. It has to be distributed right through the body of the clay so that there’s no difference between the inside and the outside. When you open the clay, widen the bottom, and bring up the side of the cylinder or the bowl, you’re touching the inside and the outside at the same time with that wall and there is the same consistency, the same even grain, the same plasticity, the same moisture inside and out. What you discover is that as the pot rotates on the wheel, you can touch it at just one point, at any point, and the whole thing changes form. You touch it a little bit one way and the rim goes out, all the way around. You barely touch it in one spot and you give shape to the whole thing. The whole is felt in every part. Wherever you touch it, the whole thing passes through your fingers. Wherever you touch it, you’re giving shape. If we think about that in relation to our lives, in relation to the human spirit, the planet, and the universe, we realize that we effect change wherever we touch life, physically or by thinking or by something that we feel, something that we do, something that we don’t do. Wherever we touch life we form it. It’s an old teaching that man is a microcosm of the universe. If you really feel and internalize that knowledge, it is quite a thing to be a human being, to touch with the hands but also with a thought, a feeling, or a dream.

I wrote another book called The Crossing Point. Although my work had tended to be in the humanities, I’ve always been interested in science and mathematics. I really hate being pegged as a person who doesn’t care about science and math just because I happen to have a different kind of training.

I met a woman working in projective geometry and plant growth who talked about the kind of thing I wrote about in Centering. Her name was Olive Whicher and I went to England to study with her. It was from her that I got the image of “the crossing point.” I’d like to share it with you because I think it’s an image which isn’t invented; it comes right out of the morphology of living process itself. It may be no news to you, but it was a very great piece of news to me to learn that when seeds sprout, and the root goes down and the seedling leaves go up, the plant grows in opposite directions simultaneously. Part of it goes down into the earth, part of it goes up toward the sun, and there is a layer of cells, sometimes only a cell wide, where this differentiation takes place. It is called the crossing point. It is the place where both directions coexist. The root goes down and the shoot goes up in a geometric figure related to the figure eight. It’s not a line; it’s a place, a ribbon. When you follow the ribbon in this figure eight form, you may begin on the outside of the upper loop, pass through the crossing point, and find yourself on the inside of the lower loop. There is an unbroken continuity of passing from inner to outer without a break, without any problems. It’s a continuous flow.

It seemed to me that when we come into touch with ourselves as human spirit we must come to grips with the polarities of life which often seem so contradictory. Usually we think we have to decide between going down or going up; we don’t usually think of doing both at the same time. We think, “Am I going to be grounded here in the earth or am I going to be a visionary?” We have to remember that we do both. We’re that kind of remarkable creature. We have our feet on the ground and at the same time we have this vessel, this inner ear, into which light and intuition pours from quite a different realm. It’s a continuous form. It’s not fractured. There’s a lot of loose talk in the world about how we’re inherently fractured and fragmented but it’s not true. I think it’s important to find images which really describe the kind of creatures we are and don’t give us erroneous information. We actually move in opposite directions simultaneously — in and out, up and down, dark and light, giving and receiving. The crossing point is that threshold place where both movements coexist. To feel the possibility of living in oneself as if one were a crossing point is perhaps a part of a new quality of consciousness.

There’s an aspect of this kind of inquiry into human spirit and a new consciousness that I think we need to look at. It is this: the way we’re conscious, what we see, how we experience depends partly on our own character. The relativity theory formulated by Einstein requires this perception on the part of us all, namely, that you can’t leave the observer out of what is observed. The seer is part of what is seen. What we know, what we’re conscious of will depend partly on what our own inner condition is. Self-development and consciousness go hand in hand. For every step we take in consciousness or knowledge we need to take three steps in the development of character if we are to discriminate between truth and falsity.

It’s hard for us to hear anything that has this kind of moral tone. I’ve asked myself a lot why this is, why we all turn off our hearing aids when people start talking about improving our character — our honesty and reverence, our compassion, wonder, conscience. Why? Why do we have so much trouble with this new consciousness? Probably because most moral language is from the past and it has the smell of parents and teachers, sages, and authorities. Right now it seems as if the consciousness of individuals is having to find its own ground, to find its own authority anew. We have to reconnect with the source. We have to reconnect through our own experience and imagination to something that we may be willing to call wonder or compassion or love. Maybe we will find other words. We can’t take it on from the outside. It has to come from the inside. It has to be ours. It has to be new.

They say the gods are dead. The gods that were outside saying do this, do that my children are dead! But whenever a god dies, a god rises again in another realm. Gods are not chickenfeed. Gods are gods and when the external god dies, look for the god to arise from the inside. A lot of the new consciousness is a feeling of reconnecting with the sacred, each person in his or her own way. There is a kind of quality that we come into touch with through our own inner spirit. It can’t be given to us anymore. We have to come to it through our own spiritual activity. Every step comes along in its own time to carry us to the next step; everything happens in order that the next thing may happen. When we encounter crises, we seek the new thing.

There are people who give a great deal of thought to things — philosophers and epistemologists. A lot of work has been done by remarkable people in the area of human spirit and consciousness through the ages. One particularly gifted man in Germany, Immanuel Kant, has had a tremendous effect on what we think about ourselves and what we can know and what we can be conscious of. What Kant said, in short, was that the human mind has limits which he called “categorical imperatives.” The mind, he said, has to think in terms of space, time, and causality and it can only know in certain modalities. Everything else it has to take on faith. It was all right with him, you know, to take it on faith.

The work of Kant represents only one of the streams of epistemology in Western culture. Another was represented by Goethe, the German poet, scientist, and statesman whose work was a way of knowing which involved the imagination. Goethe did a lot of work in botany and mineralogy as well. He had the ability to see through the form of a given plant to its archetypal form very much as poets or storytellers see through the forms of daily living to something beyond the particular example. He brings in another type of seeing and knowing which the artist in us knows quite a lot about and feels at home with. This stream of work was carried on by Rudolph Steiner who took up Goethe’s work in science and perception. Steiner is one of the people in our age who attempted to bring the arts of consciousness to another level without sacrificing what had been gained through the disciplines of modern science. He freed the modern mind from Kant’s categories.

There aren’t separate books of truth to read — one of physics, one of poetry, one of jogging, one of bread baking, one of social theory. It seems to me there is truth that irradiates all the parts and to the extent that we come to feel ourselves as a part of that truth we will have the courage to participate in its ongoing evolution. It’s getting to be more and more all right to be who we are. At one time I was a misfit because I was both a potter and somebody who writes and speaks. Who knew what to hire me to do? Now they call it interdisciplinary. We should learn to credit our own experience and learn from that. Maybe that can help us establish a new perception. Our consciousness changes and perceptions change. Each one of us is like an original field for new human experience or richness. The experiencing of the sun is different for each person and yet the sun is not different. What is so fantastic is that we have at the same time total diversity and total relatedness. We can be both totally separated and yet intimately connected. Whoever thought up those paradoxes, along with the colors of poppies and other things, should be given a lot of credit.