Margaret Hudson is best known in and around Fresno for her iconic clay sculptures of California wildlife and smiling children and for the spirit of generosity that has guided her life. Whether hosting field trips from local schools at her home and studio, or using her business to employ people that just needed someone to believe in them, Margaret Hudson used her gifts to give back to the world around her. Her generosity was born of her belief that, like the creatures she sculpted from rich brown clay, we are all of the same earth, merely given different shape.
Born Margaret Metzler, her love of nature grew out of her early contact with the fertile soil of California’s central valley and the rocky slopes and towering forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains. As a child she played alongside quail, squirrels, and toads beneath the fruit trees on her parent’s acre in Fresno’s old Fig Garden district. Her family also loved camping and hiking around Sequoia National Park. Her most vivid memory of camping as a child was of being awakened from sleep one night by the feeling of a bear pawing her head as it reached into the tent where she lay. Of course, she owed these rich experiences to her parents, David and Sadie Metzler, who taught her to love nature, to learn from other cultures, and to express her spiritual devotion by seeking peace and social justice.
Margaret’s first step toward exploring the wider world as a young woman was to attend college in New England. After a period of studying Bible and some art, Margaret served as a missionary in Japan for several years. Her commitment to this work continued into her married life. Immediately after marrying Gilbert Hudson of Oakland, the couple sailed to war-ravaged South Korea in 1955. There, they served as lay missionaries, teaching English (Margaret) and physics (Gilbert) at the national university in Daegu, living modestly in Korean neighborhoods, and raising their four sons.
A Mid-life Adventure
Margaret first began to create art seriously after the family returned to the United States in 1967. Life in Korea had raised perplexing questions. She wrestled with spiritual doubts raised by the pain and poverty she had witnessed overseas and felt unhappy with the traditional marital roles she and Gil had been taught. So, Margaret turned to her art as therapy. While living in upstate New York she formed abstract sculptures from found objects, such as decaying barn wood and discarded automotive trim, collected from the woods behind the family residence. When they moved to Maryland, Hudson began to work red clay from the soil behind their house. Her first clay sculpture was an image of deep pain, formed from her recollection of a Korean friend kneeling before her mother’s grave. But her second work, a torso with arms upraised, expressed her own joy at having found an artistic voice.
To be closer to their roots, Margaret and Gilbert moved to Coalinga, California in 1968. Two years later, Gilbert had a close brush with death when Valley Fever attacked his brain. With four young sons and a sick husband to care for, Margaret brought the family back to Fresno to live with her parents and inhabit the Acre where she was raised. Thanks to the confluence of good care from the staff at Valley Medical Center, wise counsel from her father when making medical decisions, and loving prayers, Gil survived and then slowly recovered, but he was unable to work for several years after his illness. It was during this period that Margaret realized she’d need to find a way to support her family and decided to take the risk of depending on her artistic talent to do it.
Margaret began by making simple planters for herbs and candle holders shaped like flowers. With her sons helping transport and set up the displays, she sold the pieces at local arts fairs and farmers’ markets. However, her success in pursuing this dream wasn’t apparent until she began sculpting the creatures that had brought her such joy as a child and offered her comfort now: the Quails, Rabbits and Squirrels she saw on the Acre and the bears of the Sierras. Her creatures were all made of coarse, unglazed Hans Sumpf clay and fired using a process that Gilbert, drawing on his scientific expertise, helped develop. In 1972, Margaret named her nascent business “Earth Arts Studio,” becoming one of the first female arts entrepreneurs in Fresno.
Sharing Her Joy
In 1977, Hudson had a fateful encounter with Sue Bissel, a local teacher who asked her to help come up with a sculpting project for elementary school students. When Margaret’s suggestion proved a success Sue asked if she could bring her class from Roeding School to Margaret’s backyard studio and Margaret agreed. The students toured the acre and shown it’s 100 year old fig grove, they were given demonstrations in drawing and printmaking and offered an opportunity to play with clay. Word of the field trip spread and soon Margaret was hosting two student trips a day between April and October. Margaret loved teaching the children and even in her mid seventies, when she cut back to only one group a day, well over 2000 children a year came and played on the Acre.
Earth Arts Studio
Earth Arts Studio grew as Hudson’s work became known around the valley during the 1970’s. Demand for her pieces grew to the point where she decided to employ other artisans to reproduce her designs — by hand of course — and in 1980 she was able to move Earth Arts out of her backyard and into the dedicated storefront/studio on East Swift Avenue. Margaret was an artists first and a business person second and she always operated Earth Arts as an expression of her values by employing other women and recent immigrants and by involving her employees in business decisions as much as possible.
In 1987, Hudson met Lydia Buciok, who had studied art while living in Soviet-era Ukraine and had come to America fleeing religious persecution. After seeing Margaret on television, Lydia approached her and asked if she had any work for her. Margaret hired Lydia immediately and encouraged her to develop further as an artist by taking classes at Fresno City College, which Lydia did for the next four years. By virtue of her ability, her training, and her 20 years of working with Margaret, Lydia has become the lead artist and capable manager responsible for operating Earth Arts now that Margaret has retired.
As Earth Arts Studio thrived under the guidance of her employees and partner Margaret found herself free to explore new techniques and designs. She visited Ecuador and sculpted the women she met there. She took up bronze casting and created a hippopotamus-inspired climber for small children that is still displayed at the Chafee Zoo. She tried to form flowers out of clay, but frustrated by the material’s fragility she turned to sculpting individual petals by stacking multiple clay pieces together. These petals grew larger and more abstract, emulating the waves, the wind, and the growth of young plants.
In 1988, Margaret suffered painful losses as her father, son and mother all died over the course of the year. Her art became the main outlet for her grief; she sculpted flower forms and globes and beat them with a modified baseball bat. Inspired by waves breaking against the rocks she began grinding and scrubbing the sculptures, softening them and exposing their sand like inner textures. Her experiments with larger abstract clay sculptures ended in 1990 when a Christmas freeze destroyed some of the beaten forms that were still wet. Margaret was determined not to work with clay again until the weather was stable, but she still needed a creative outlet. After nearly twenty years of working in brown clay, she decided it was time to explore color and began taking painting classes at Fresno City College.
In 1992 Margaret took a trip to Paris and London. While there, she was struck by the similarities between the tulip flower and the great domes of the great cathedrals. Inspired, Margaret launched an exploration of the sacred space within flowers. That year she painted thirty-five 4’x4’ canvases and held her first show. After being diagnosed with breast cancer she began to paint roses, imperfect and worm eaten, on butcher paper, the fragility of the material symbolizing the fragility of life.
Having started as a sculptor, Margaret was always exploring ways to incorporate texture into her paintings. She tore canvases and wove them together, attached cut outs to the canvas and glued natural materials to the canvas before painting over them. Hudson took up printmaking, pressing paper with molds she crafted into floral shapes and painting them with vibrant colors.