Muriel Carrick Wilson was born on 18 March 1907 at Whangarei, the second of six children of John Munro Wilson, a surveyor, and his wife, Mildred Carrick Proude. Pursuing his work, John Wilson moved his family about – from Whangarei to Johnsonville to Nelson and then to Palmerston North, where Muriel had her schooling. Her talent for drawing showed itself early. Her mother played the piano and sketched, and she encouraged her two daughters to develop their talents. Mildred Wilson also urged her daughters to think of careers.
Muriel attended Palmerston North Girls’ High School, and the school magazine of 1925 contains two of her lively sketches. On leaving school she worked as a commercial artist in Palmerston North, where she also studied art under Harry Linley Richardson. Because of her father’s frequent absences Muriel carried heavy responsibilities, helping with the younger children, contributing financially and, in her 20s, nursing her mother through illness until her death in 1936.
Professionally she advanced, moving to Christchurch in the mid 1930s to become head of advertising at J. Ballantyne and Company, the premier department store. She continued her formal art training, studying etching with Dorothy Turner and acquiring great skill. Among her associates at this time were Rita Cook (later Angus), who worked with her on fashion drawings, and Louise Henderson.
In 1941 Wilson joined the British YWCA War Service, which set up residential, recreation and welfare clubs for servicewomen. She found herself in Egypt working closely with Jean Begg. In 1944 she was transferred to India and then to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as area organiser. By 1946 she was in Kure, Japan, as head of YWCA Welfare Services with the task of setting up clubs for women of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces. There she supervised the construction and operation of what became the Muriel Wilson hostel.
Apart from a brief return to New Zealand in 1947 with Jean Begg to recruit staff, Muriel Wilson’s war service kept her away from New Zealand for eight years, but those years were significant in her artistic development. In Cairo she was fascinated by the crowds, how they moved and regrouped, and her memory of ‘women sitting around in great heaps’ was to influence her work years later. In her little leisure time she took lessons in sculpture from an Egyptian and there survives from that time a large sculpture of a group of African women. Her lifetime belief that ‘everyone needs art’ was evident in Ceylon, where at the Layton House club she designed a little chapel in the garden in the shape of a cross and decorated the walls with prints of Old Masters. In Japan she took every opportunity to travel into the countryside to observe craftsmen, especially potters, at work.
In 1948 Wilson left Japan, and after spending about a year in Sydney to receive treatment for tuberculosis she returned to New Zealand. On 12 September 1949 she married Clive Robert Moody, a public servant, in Wellington. They established a home at Days Bay, where they lived with their adopted son. It was here that Muriel Moody set up her kilns.
The 1960s were important years in the development of New Zealand ceramics and Muriel’s organisational skills – not always present in artists – were frequently called on. In 1963 she became inaugural president of the New Zealand Society of Potters and held this position for two years, her wisdom and discretion being invaluable in a time of transition. In 1967 she travelled to Fiji with a group of New Zealand potters and there, together with Doreen Blumhardt and Peter Stichbury, gave demonstrations of pottery methods. She was for many years involved in the setting up of exhibitions for the Society of Potters, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts (NZAFA) and the Crafts Council of New Zealand. She hosted internationally known ceramic artists, including Hamada Shōji and Kawai Takeichi, who visited New Zealand in the 1960s. She was a subscribing member of the NZAFA from 1954 to 1971 and an artist member from 1972; in the late 1960s and early 1970s she was an executive member of the Crafts Council.
Muriel Moody’s reputation rests primarily on her ceramic sculptures and some bronzes cast in the 1980s. Her work was original and distinctive, usually based on the human figure. Family groups, lovers and solitary figures in moments of emotion were her favoured subjects, all executed with great freedom and liveliness, her groups expressing strong feeling and passionate interaction. She created birds, animals and mythical creatures, some whimsical, others sinister, all lively.
Moody considered her influences to have been Picasso and the wonderfully shaped heads and fluid movements of Middle Eastern and Asian people. She was comparatively uninfluenced by changing fashions and trends in sculpture; to her the idea and good design were prime objectives and she tried not to be restricted by the anatomy of the figure or by the clay. ‘I try to preserve the life of the clay and avoid that “overworked” look so that when it is fired it holds the imprints of your fingers forever.’ For sculptural pieces the glazes were played down so that reflected light would not destroy the design. She used matt glazes or rubbed-in oxides, in blue-grey or colours derived from the lichens and moss of the bush.
The Moody home, full of handsome pottery by New Zealand potters, the walls hung with paintings by her contemporaries, was an informal meeting place where artists, craftspeople and friends exchanged ideas, combined in firings and profited from her encouragement and generous sharing of skills and time. She was never solemn about her art, and the humorous element present in many of her works reflects her own sense of fun. Bob Moody, who shared all her interests, even producing pottery himself, died in 1973.
In the late 1980s the physical demands of producing heavy pieces led Moody to collaborate with potter friends, decorating their bowls with flowing drawings. Not long before her death she turned her attention to the batik method and produced a collection of colourful batiks on silk, which were exhibited posthumously together with her set of etchings from the 1930s. She died on 24 December 1991 at Lower Hutt Hospital. Her works are held in many private collections in New Zealand, Britain, Switzerland and the United States, and in several local galleries and institutions.