March 1, 2021 — Today is the birthday of artist Margaret Kelly Cable, who was born in 1884 of Scottish-Irish decent. This is the woman who became the leading force behind UND pottery – and if you know your antiques, you know UND pottery is among the most collectible of all American ceramics.
Margaret Cable couldn’t afford to go to college, so she apprenticed at the Guild of Handicrafts in Minneapolis. After two years of training, they enlisted her as a teacher, and two years after that, UND hired her to teach ceramics. During the summers, she continued learning, visiting potteries across the country and studying under some of the finest teachers of her time.
At that time, UND’s ceramics department was dominated by women. Cable, along with colleague Frieda Hammers, did extensive experimentation on different clay mixtures as well as developing new glazes. They also perfected the art of “throwing,” utilizing a spinning potter’s wheel. Cable became highly respected in her field and was soon demonstrating across the nation.
What set Cable and her students apart were their remarkable, surface-carved designs. Cable was determined to have their work reflect North Dakota, so she contacted the State Historical Society for accurate photos of native flora and fauna, then employed designs of cone flowers, wild roses, pasque flowers, lilies, grain, flickertails, birds and also western and Native American motifs. The colors were rich and muted, the glazing precise rather than blurry.
In 1926, Governor Sorlie challenged Cable to create a single vase depicting corn, wheat, flax, clover, pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows, sheep, bees, potatoes, sugar beets, lignite coal, Dakota Maid flour, a pumpkin, a flickertail, a wild rose, a lump of clay and a cream can. Cable said the idea left her “quite breathless,” but Sorlie received his special vase at Christmas that year. She had managed to create a classic, simple piece that included every one of his requests. The vase created such a clamor for replicas that Cable had to deny all requests, saying it was a presentation vase and not for sale. After Sorlie died, the vase was bestowed to UND, where it still remains.
A year later, Cable exhibited at the Women’s World Fair in Chicago and was named North Dakota’s Outstanding Woman. Six years later, she exhibited at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, where Professor Whitford of the University of Chicago described the work as “The outstanding exhibition of United States pottery at the 1933 Centennial.” Among the 186 pieces included in the show were a set of 11 mosaic panels representing different North Dakota industries and history. One, showing a potter at his wheel, remains at UND, and nine others are at Bonanzaville in West Fargo. One is unaccounted for, depicting cows and farm animals.
In 1937, Cable spent six months working for the Indian Field Service, mostly at Pine Ridge, where she taught Native Americans special techniques for creating their own modern pottery. Not wanting to imitate the southwestern tribes, they developed their own styles and motifs, and they usually marked their pieces with a pine tree set against the outline of a hill or ridge.
Cable was disciplined, loved poetry and was also known for her sense of humor. At one point she developed Prairie Pottery, made entirely of North Dakota materials, as a low-cost way for others to make and fire their own pottery. These pieces were simple and used no glazes. Cable signed her own Prairie Pottery pieces “Maggie Mud.”
Cable taught at UND for 39 years. She died in California on Halloween, 1960, at age 76.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.