BAIA BITS: Marva Jolly


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

My mother’s death… at nine years old, I knew that the decisions that I made about what I was going to be was going to come from me because I didn’t have a mother to talk it over with. It is me I want to be proud of and satisfied.”   – Marva Lee Pitchford-Jolly



In the 1940s, while growing up on her family farm in Crenshaw, Mississippi, Marva Jolly was already practicing the craft she’d later be known for without knowing it. The young girl would mold things from the mud under her porch before dousing her creations with water when she wanted them to disappear. Decades later, this precursory artistic practice, along with the early death of her mother and the loss of a job, would ultimately inspire Jolly to forge a successful career making things from clay.

Upon relocating to Chicago with her family in the 1950s and attending Roosevelt University and Governors State University, Jolly became a social worker, occasionally studying or working with ceramics as a hobby. However, in 1982, upon Reaganomics and its deep cuts to federal health care funding, the 45-year-old Jolly lost her position after two decades of working in the field.

True to her words, the ones inspired by her mother’s early death, Marva Jolly devoted herself fully to art. After her first solo show, an impressed administrator arranged for a part-time position teaching ceramics at Chicago State University. Though not familiar with many of the technical aspects of the field of ceramics, Marva Jolly later reported learning the academic side of the craft “right along with the students” and ultimately becoming a tenured professor. 



While using her artistic skills to promote Blackness and her Mississippi upbringing in the classroom, Marva Jolly also shared her knowledge and craft with the Chicago community. She was an active member with the South Side Community Art Center and the Hyde Park Art Center. She opened a popular studio for art and ceramics in Hyde Park. For decades, she continued to offer her increasingly valuable artwork for prices that members of her community could afford. And in 1986, Marva Jolly founded Sapphire and Crystals, an enduring collective enabling African American female artists to exhibit together.

Best known for her “story pots” where she adorned her ceramics with tales of her family and growing up Black in Mississippi, the late Marva Jolly left behind a vibrant artistic legacy forever preserved in clay. She once promoted that her art was something “permanent” she could leave behind, offering “This is what I felt about Black culture and how it contributed to the world.”

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