Welcome to Beneath the Bubblewrap! A behind the scenes, in-depth or sometimes tangential exploration of the artwork and artists in our Galleries.
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Mentors (January 2019)
Clayworks’ exhibitions of 2019 will start off with Keystone Clay, dual shows highlighting higher education ceramic programs: their professors and students. Planning these shows pushed my mind back to undergrad, thinking about the mentors in my life.
Our lives are set in motion by minute and monumental moments; sometimes a nudge, sometimes a full-on boot to the butt, to get us where we are going. The Keystone Clay shows celebrate that, I suppose all our exhibitions do that… Someone taught someone how to do something in clay, it came out nice, so let’s put it on a pedestal and share it. But who was that someone who saw the spark, the intent, the excitement and potential and told you “Yes, this is good. You are good. Keep doing this.”? And you think, by golly I will, I enjoy this! Even with the late nights, kiln disasters, gravitational mishaps or hands so rough you can sand down your green-ware.
Growing up I always liked to make and sculpt, Playdoh or the red wax from the Pepperidge Farms’ Christmas cheese basket (with those strange strawberry candies). This was nurtured and encouraged by my parents, dutifully buying supplies as needed and showcasing the results on the desks at work. Ceramics wasn’t a strong program in my high school, but we did have a remarkable metalsmithing studio: working with a flat sheet, etching, enameling and even lost-wax casting. That is where I spent most free periods, hunkered in that tiny room sandwiched between the two main 2-D classrooms. Metalsmithing is where I thought I would settle into once in college as well.
The metalsmith professor at my College was a tender-hearted ball-buster, an amazing teacher who wanted and expected the best work and gave me a C in my first semester of foundations. With that black mark on my record, I knew I had to be better and work on my studio discipline. The pride I had at skipping foundations in high school because I was so totally awesome in art (it was the 80s) soon smacked me in the face.
So, I opted to take a ceramics class as my first studio elective, build some stamina, mental muscle and creative tenacity before facing her again (cue Rocky theme and montage). But I never really left that classroom. I felt at home, things clicked and made absolute sense within the clay studio. I understood the malleable material, loved how it listened to my hands, hated to leave the studio and thrived on the excitement of a kiln unloading. Enthralled by it's potential to become almost anything. Plus, I could work in a scale larger than my jewelry skills would allow. The potter’s wheel was a more difficult beast for me to tame and we have come to a truce, hand-building is still my joy and zone.
All of this would have been fine and lovely, but what made it indelible was my exceptional professor Mitch Messina. He was the right person at the right time. A narrative sculptor who hand-built large and complex forms, used leftover house paint as a surface treatment and seamlessly wove in mixed media.
He saw I was bitten by the clay bug and fed that critter. He trusted me to fire the kilns, mix the clay and glazes. Looking back, I may have been Tom Sawyered into doing the work that he was relieved not to have to do all himself, but it was necessary training and I still stand on that foundation. His slide shows introduced me to ceramic artists (who I still revere) and inspired me with things outside the sphere of my knowledge. (The Memphis Style of design began in Italy??? What? Frida who? Ohhhhhhhh, yeah, perfect.) He showed me how to build separate components, in sections to make larger, gravity defying works with spines of threaded rods and the magic elixir of PC-7 epoxy to hold it all together…or put it back together when a giant head rolls off the table.
I babysat his kids and saw a home filled with art: ceramics and humble farm implements jockeyed for space on walls and shelves with battalions of books and salt and pepper sets by the gazillions. All curated by two amazing artists who ate off of original Fiesta ware. I was always a little wary of the orange plates.
His wife Barb got me my first teaching job out of school, at the local museum in their Creative Workshop. Her best advice? “Don’t be nervous, you know more than your students.” So true, when they are 8 years old. When I floundered after school, not knowing how to get to the next step, too anxious to apply to grad school, they took me on tours of potential schools.
I have been fortunate to have many mentors after college, but I don’t know where I’d be without the Messinas when I was taking those tentative steps. Probably still working in the basement of my childhood home, which would be awkward, since that was sold years ago.
So now I do work in a basement, but in my home; surrounded by an eclectic collection of ceramics and implements, stuffed with books and a sane amount of S+P sets. In my classrooms, I get to share what they gave me, with my students of various ages.
I am lucky to work with some of the best in our field and to curate shows that support emerging talents. And I am grateful for the time invested in a sophomore who liked to make sculptures with lizards crawling all over them.
Our next two exhibitions focus on the synergy between the artist-educator and the nascent makers of the future. What stories do you have about your artistic journey? Who are the teachers who helped you begin, kept you inspired and challenged or brought you a cup of tea when the kiln did not cooperate?