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Cable, Margaret Kelly
b. March 1, 1884; d. October 31, 1960
Discipline: Ceramics/Pottery

Once known as the “Lady of the Wheel” to her students and colleagues at the University of North Dakota (UND), potter Margaret Kelly Cable joined the faculty of the Grand Forks university in 1910 as chair of the newly formed Ceramics Department in the School of Mines. She advanced to the position of assistant professor in 1921 and to associate professor in 1934.

The Ceramics Department was established in 1910 at the urging of Earle J. Babcock, a chemist and founding dean of the School of Mines. Mandated as part of the university during the state’s constitutional convention in 1890, the school was established in 1898 and Babcock, a native of St. Charles, Minnesota, was appointed dean. He had been with UND since 1890, first as an instructor in chemistry and mineralogy and later as a professor of chemistry, mining, and metallurgy. While surveying minerals native to his adopted state, Babcock found that North Dakota had a seemingly limitless supply of clay that, upon further laboratory study, was an unusually pure variety of high-grade plastic potters clay. It was this discovery that eventually led the state legislature to appropriate funds for the school’s establishment.

Envisioning the clay as a means of economic development, Babcock commissioned several pottery firms around the country to produce vases, umbrella stands, pots, and dishware made from the clay. Some of these pieces, marked with a “Made with North Dakota Clay” stamp, were displayed in the state’s booth at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Babcock went on to develop and teach ceramics courses at UND within the framework of the Chemistry Department.

Engineering students in those classes were encouraged to experiment and subsequently developed shingles, sewer tiles, insulators, brick, and sewer pipe that were made from North Dakota clay and eventually exhibited at the 1909 National Corn Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1910, as a result of all this attention, Babcock was able to persuade UND’s president Frank McVey to establish the Ceramics Department. Cable was hired as an instructor and department chair.

She came to UND via Crookston, Minnesota, where she was born in 1884, and Minneapolis. Having declared her blended Scotch-Irish (mother) and New England (father) heritage as “a happy combination in my line of work,” Cable once stated “The Scotch bids me conservative, helps me stick to a problem and see it through with patience and perseverance . . . while the Irish helps me laugh at the failures both in pots and plans, and starts me on again for it is hard to squelch an Irishman . . . Perhaps my Yankee blood may tend to temper these two tendencies and stimulate enthusiasm in my work which is rather of a pioneering character.” This dichotomy guided Cable’s career as a potter, which was as traditional and conservative as it was groundbreaking and pioneering. Classically trained after graduating high school, she apprenticed at the Pottery Shop of the Handicraft Guild of Minneapolis and later studied under Charles F. Binns and Frederick H. Rhead, who were among the best-known American potters at the time. It was perhaps this formal training combined with her pioneering spirit (no doubt fostered by her father, a medical missionary in what was, at the time, a largely unsettled region of western Minnesota) that led her to UND’s new Ceramic Department and the innovative environment cradled by Babcock.

As Cable thrived as a scholar and potter, the department thrived with her. She become a fellow of the American Ceramic Society, published papers in nationally-distributed professional journals, and presented lectures and demonstrations all over the state and country (including a ten-day workshop during the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1933 and as a Traveling Educational Expert in Ceramics for the United States Indian Field Office). In 1951, she was recognized with one of the most prestigious awards in ceramics: the Charles Fergus Binns Medal for “Excellence in Art” from the New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University, and the American Ceramic Society. (As of the year 2000, only 35 people have been recognized with this award.)

Under her direction, pottery made from North Dakota clay and produced by students and staff in the department (nicknamed “Cable Pottery”) was displayed in some of the most significant exhibitions of the 20th century, such as the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and the 1927 Women's World Fair in Chicago (where Cable was named “North Dakota’s Outstanding Woman” by Governor Arthur Sorlie.) As the department grew, it added to its staff some of the most recognized names in North Dakota pottery: Hildegarde Fried, Flora Cable Huckfield (Cable’s sister), Julia Edna Mattson, Freida L. Hammers, and Margaret Pachl. Over the years, pieces of Cable Pottery were given as gifts to Governor Sorlie, Queen Marie of Rumania (present day Romania), Crown Princess Marth of Norway, and President John F. Kennedy, among others.

In 1949, Cable and her sister Flora retired and moved to California, where Cable died in 1960 at the age of 76.

- Ben Nemenoff

Bibliography:

Barr, Bob. “UND: University of North Dakota.” North Dakota Pottery Collectors Society, May 5, 2004. <http://www.ndpcs.org>.

Barr, Paul E. North Dakota Artists. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Library, 1954.

“Faculty of the University of North Dakota 1905-1906.” Surname Site, May 5, 2004. <http://surnamesite.com>.

“Margaret Kelly Cable Papers, 1921-1945.” Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Collection OGL#32. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Chester Fritz Library.

Miller, Don. University of North Dakota Pottery: The Cable Years. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Visual Arts Dept., 1999.

Palmer, Bertha Rachael. Beauty Spots in North Dakota. Boston: Bruce Humphries, Inc., 1939.

Taylor, Edwin Mrs. Catalogue of Art Workers Within North Dakota. Bismarck: American Association of University Women (local branch), 1945.

 
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