This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
Ferenc Lajos (Francis) Kotai (1908-1970), potter and teacher, was born on 26 July 1908 in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, son of István Michl, businessman, and his wife Katalin, née Kota. Deferring to the wishes of the Hungarian government, in 1936 the Michls changed their Austrian surname to the more Slavic-sounding Kotai. Trained in fine arts, ceramics and sculpture at the School of Applied Arts, Ferenc became known for the work he exhibited in the Hungarian National Gallery. On 6 January 1934 in Budapest he married Julia Csökönyi; they were to have six children. In 1946 the family fled from the 'Iron Curtain' which was beginning to descend on their country. After three years as displaced persons in West Germany, they emigrated to Australia, arriving in 1950.
Kotai was assigned a job in a whaling station at Carnarvon, Western Australia, while his family remained at the Graylands Migrant Centre. When his two-year term had been completed, he set up a pottery at Bassendean, Perth, and took private students. An inspiring teacher who worked up to eighty hours a week, he was one of the State's most important ceramists in the early postwar period. From 1954 he taught pottery and clay-sculpture at Fremantle Technical School; housed in its Finnerty Street annexe, his workshop was located in a near-derelict asylum (now the Fremantle Arts Centre). Experimenting, sharing and making-do were the norm. Kotai's wartime scavenging experience proved invaluable, particularly in finding material from which to build kilns. Most of his early students were mature-aged women, part of a worldwide resurgence of interest in the crafts. Kotai encouraged them to be independent—to mix their own glazes and learn from their mistakes. 'He was quite ruthless with nondescript work. It was simply dropped into the clay bin to be recycled'.
Many of his students achieved a professional level, among them Jean Ewers, Doris Harms, Tedye McDiven, Meg Brent-White (Sheen) and Michiko Love. When Kotai's teaching position seemed to be under threat, he urged them to set up the Perth Potters' Club to continue working together. Formed about 1957, it continues today. Although Kotai was something of a martinet, his pupils were devoted to him. Ewers described him as 'a gifted man, with a great breadth of knowledge, technical ability, artistry, generosity and wit. All this with a good leaven of Hungarian temperament'. His only solo exhibition in Perth was held in 1964 at the Skinner Galleries.
Kotai despaired of completing a thesis in order to retain his senior lectureship. In 1969 he was forced to retire because of his lack of formal qualifications. Survived by his wife, three sons and three daughters, he died of myocardial infarction on 5 February 1970 at Shenton Park and was buried with Lutheran forms in Karrakatta cemetery. His daughter Evelyn drew two portraits of Kotai which are held by the family. His son Bela, whom Francis had trained as a potter, studied at the Western Australian Institute of Technology and exhibited internationally; in 1995 he became foundation head of the Western Australian School of Art and Design.
Dorothy Erickson, 'Kotai, Ferenc Lajos (Francis) (1908–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kotai-ferenc-lajos-francis-10762/text19081, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 July 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
photograph privately sourced