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Reflecting For The Future

Article by Julia Galloway.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

I’m very interested in the utilitarian pottery being made today. I find contemporary functional ceramics to be sophisticated, informed, and educated. The potters of today have the great fortune of high-quality formal education, a growing number of residencies and apprenticeships, strong role models, access to intelligent periodicals, and a generally more-sophisticated consumer base. All this said, there is a growing gap between the caliber of work being made and the opportunity for this work to interface with tradition-al established institutions, namely museums and reputable commercial galleries. The sharp contrast between contemporary pottery, and the exhibition venues and critical dialogue associated with them has placed an odd and paradoxical burden on the studio potter.

Traditionally, museums and commercial galleries are located in the larger cosmopolitan cities: New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago. These centers attract and develop prestige, financial support, and validity for art movements and the artists themselves. In contrast, the most supportive and interesting locations for studio potters to exhibit and develop a critical dialogue around their work are in modest local arts centers and universities. Recently, I visited a prominent crafts gallery in a major city. The work on exhibit was that of the “big greats”: well-established and overwhelmingly known ceramic artists. There were neither utilitarian pots nor artists representing current and emerging generations. A few blocks away was a small local center for arts and crafts. This not-for-profit center frequently hosts workshops and exhibitions of up-and-coming potters and maintains a modest gallery of exciting and adventurous work. The established commercial gallery viewed the crafts center as a service to the local community through its educational programs, but did not take the center’s gallery seriously. Not-for-profit galleries and local arts centers do not have the established reputations of the larger venues and often are not given the same validity. I myself had the opposite reaction. I found it difficult to see the commercial gallery as an alert and educated participant in our field, whereas I found the crafts center vibrant and pulsating with curious work and the entrepreneurial spirit common to potters.

The American Crafts Museum was one of the best-known and most reputable institutions for exhibiting and educating about con-temporary crafts. This past year it changed its name to the Museum of Art and Design. This name change was explained as a public relations decision: “craft” is not as interesting to or valued by the public as “art.” I had always thought that one of the missions of the American Crafts Museum was to educate the public about the dignity and caliber of the word “craft,” in addition to educating them about the objects themselves. The American Crafts Museum defined itself as follows: “This is not an art museum in the usual sense of the word. Here visitors find beautiful objects whose forms originate in function. Familiar things… that exemplify the vibrant diversity and richness in contemporary creativity in craft. This is the nation’s premier museum specializing in craft of the twentieth century”‘ However, this museum has failed to be a flagship to our community, and the removal of the word “crafts” from its title shows great disrespect to all of us who value handmade objects that embrace use and domesticity. To take another example, the Everson Museum of Art, well known for its collection of recent American ceramics – “one of the most comprehensive holdings of American ceramic art in the nation” – houses the collection in the basement of the building, poorly displayed, dark, dusty and mislabeled. There are, however, a few established institutions that are doing a reputable job; the Mint Museum in North Carolina, the Gardner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto, and Arizona State University Ceramic Research Center come to mind.

The paradox common to potters today begins during their formal training. In colleges and universities, students often have a difficult time choosing to make functional pottery within the stubborn structure of art school. Critical discussions of a student’s pottery often ask: “Why pottery?” rather than the more difficult and interesting questions of: “What is this pottery about, where does it go? How do we as individuals or as a culture respond to this? Where do we experience this work in our bodies? What are the roots of this work?” When students leave school, they are burdened with defending the very nature of the work itself, rather than participating in dialogue about and around the work. Furthermore, I find critical dialogue that comes from the traditional institutions and commercial ceramic galleries to be generally uninformed. There seems to be a common misunderstanding that for potters to be avant-garde, they must abandon function or at least dismiss the history of ceramics and embrace the “cult of the new” This is an extremely unfortunate and overly modernist point of view. Utilitarian pottery embraces intuitive body response, foimal aspects, emotive understanding, and the demands of use. In addition, pottery today is full of ideas and intellectual rigor. In accepting utility and pottery as starting places for personal, social, and political expression, we can come to understand the ideas behind the work itself and the inter-related choices which embrace a lifestyle over some abstract sense of career.

Potters are by nature entrepreneurs. They tend to personally develop every step of their process: mixing materials; making, researching and developing creative processes; firing work; formulating glazes; applying surface decoration; building kilns that suit and sup-port their ideas. Potters also document and send their work out into the field. They cultivate their audience and work to establish a supportive community for their livelihood. They write articles for our periodicals, evaluating work and critically assessing the field. Potters today must wear many hats. We have filled gaps in the field that the intellectuals of the art establishment have ignored.

It is the entrepreneurial spirit of potters that has led them to develop all aspects of their discipline. In a recent article by Garth Clark, potters were compared to musicians. I thought about this for a long time, and decided to speak with some musicians directly about the similarities and differences of our fields. Here in Rochester, New York, we have the great fortune of being home to the Eastman School of Music. Over a beer in a local pub near the practice hall I struck up a conversation with a musician: my pants splattered with slurry from the day’s studio practice, his well-worn violin case very gently leaning against the bar. There seem to be many similarities between our livelihoods: daily practice, personal expression, appreciation of beauty, entrepreneurship, touch intelligence, and the physicality of knowledge. We both have a tremendous relationship with and respect for the traditions of our fields and the objects that support creative process. We find remarkable com-mon ground in the complicated relationship that both music and pottery have with public life (perform-in and exhibiting) and private life (play-in recorded music in one’s home, using a mug in one’s kitchen). Our self-indulgent banter was a delightful reflection of our fields and of our personal drive to be creators, but throughout the evening I become more and more aware of a radical difference. Potters make the instruments by which they express themselves: meditative teapots, a hearty stack of plates, the versatile language of a cup. Their pots are the violin, their vehicle to convey ideas.

It is a complicated and wonderful time to be a potter coming into the field. Students emerging from the degree program of a college or university leave with more knowledge and experience than ever before. They enter a field that demands a level of professionalism and quality of work that is extremely high and not so forgiving. There is more pressure on students leaving school to be able to do everything: make great work with a unique voice at a young age, possess extensive technical information, understand art history and theory, and be able to present themselves professionally at every turn. Exhibitions, residencies and workshops are more competitive. Students are leaving school with more financial debt and will most likely move around for three to five years before settling down to a studio or outside employment.

Recently I was on a panel discussion called “Ceramics: Then and Now” I had just finished reviewing applications to graduate school. The average applicant’s resume was three pages of direct ceramics experiences and exhibitions; the slides were expertly shot and professionally presented. When I was applying to school in 1992, the resume was a bit of an afterthought and the primary focus of the application was the slides. This issue came up during “Ceramics: Then and Now” Several members of the panel had not even submitted slides when they applied to graduate school way back when; it wasn’t requested. Over the past fifty years we have grown up as a field. Our field is no longer in the early develop-mental stages, or rambunctious adolescence, or the technical show-off period of young adulthood. We are a maturing field. The community of people working with clay is rapidly expanding and splintering into groups based on technique, ideology, monetary value, sexual preference or location, to name a few. I encourage established ceramic artists/crafts-people to extend a hand to emerging artisans, take them as assistants, recommend them for exhibitions. I also call on established galleries to consider exhibiting outside of the lucrative domain of cosmopolitan cities; an expansion of exhibition spaces will further educate the public and support the broad range of work and prices that comprise the field. Museums, galleries and universities offer a level of professionalism, validity and educational potential that the field of contemporary ceramics is lacking. I encourage them to investigate utilitarian work being made across the United States, support emerging artists, and re-evaluate dated and conservative modernist notions about contemporary ceramics.

Julia Galloway is a studio potter and college professor. She teaches ceramics at the School for American Crafts at Rochester Institute of Technology and maintains a studio in Rochester.