2016 Randall Session: Wit and Menace

2016 Randall Session: Wit and Menace

Back in 1989, right here in Kansas City, NCECA introduced what would become a hallmark of the conference’s opening festivities: The Randall Session. And right now, I have the good fortune of introducing you to the mastermind behind this year’s session, Mark Southerland, and the group of esteemed artists joining him on stage to perform Wit & Menace: An Operetta.

First, here’s a quick history lesson: Named in honor of one of NCECA’s founders, Ted Randall, the vision for the session was articulated in that year’s program:

The uniqueness of Ted’s contribution to ceramic art was, in large measure, the result of an extra sharp intelligence focused, not on narrow issues of ceramics alone, but on broader questions of aesthetics and philosophy, particularly the inquiries of mankind into the nature of knowledge and meaning. Therefore, it seems appropriate to recognize and honor the major contribution that Ted Randall made to American ceramic art and especially to NCECA at the annual Randall Session which focuses on ideas that expand on Ted’s own broad interests.

Jay Lacouture, 2015 Providence on-site liaison, recounted the inaugural session in a previous post on this trusty blog:

Victor Babu gave a moving tribute to his mentor and we heard a recording of Ted’s voice discussing some of the beautiful ceramic objects in the Nelson-Atkins Museum. We sat in Unitarian Church and listened to two Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano. It was a very introspective and spiritual moment separated from the usual hustle of an NCECA Conference.

In the intervening years, musicians, poets, mimes, storytellers, critics, activists, and other genre-bending artists have graced the stage and given NCECA members myriad expressions of the creative spirit.


Southerland/Lighton Collaboration

Returning to Kansas City for its 50th, NCECA carries forward the tradition of the Randall Session—but it is perhaps the very first time that ceramics are so seamlessly united with other art forms in a singular performance. When tasked with identifying talent for this session, Paul Donnelly and I exchanged a knowing glance as thoughts of Mark Southerland and Linda Lighton’s sculptural ceramic/horn instruments flashed across our minds.


tiny stadium with sean starowitz

Southerland is an experimental jazz musician and multi-disciplinary artist with a distinct gift for bringing people together for ambitious environmental installations and happenings, from tiny stadium concerts to large-scale outdoor fashion shows. Linda, as many of you, dear readers, know, is one of NCECA’s own: ceramic artist, arts advocate, and recipient of this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award.


no more nomadsAnother distinguishing feature of this year’s Randall Session is that the performance was created expressly for NCECA and for all of YOU. It’s not culled from a repertoire, rather, it draws on the spirit of creative collaboration that characterizes relationships between mentors and mentees, colleagues and friends, and the joys and struggles in art and life.


The key players include Mark Southerland (creator/producer, horns), Victoria Sofia Botero (soprano), Annie Ellicott (jazz vocalist), Russell Thorpe (bass clarinet, sax, other woodwinds), Nick Howell (trumpet, assorted brass), John Kizilarmut (drums), Jeff Harshbarger (bass), J. Ashley Miller (music and technical director) and not least, Linda Lighton, whose porcelain forms are integrated into and emerge from Southerland’s instruments.

Mark Southerland & Annie Ellicott Photo: E. G. Schempf

Mark Southerland & Annie Ellicott
Photo: E. G. Schempf

Loosely inspired by the fantastical paintings of Remedios Varo and Heironymus Bosch, Southerland conceived of Wit & Menace as a tableaux vivant brought to life through a duet and duel between two sets of musicians and vocalists entwined in Southerland’s wearable, playable horn sculptures. So, how will it unfold? Mark was kind enough to entertain a few questions over email. Here are some of his hints at what’s to come:

Wit and Menace will have times of distinction – Victoria Botero (opera singer) will put the fear in us all, in that way only an opera singer can. Conversely Annie Ellicott (jazz singer and improviser) will have moments of great whimsy. But a majority of the time it will be passed around, distorted, even refused. The clown becomes the killer, the bunny becomes the wolf.

Southerland has used the saxophone as a medium for exploring sound and performance for 25 years, reinterpreting jazz traditions and reinventing the horn as a hybrid instrument, garment, and work of art. His first such horn sculpture was used in a burlesque show:

I played it on my wife Peregrine Honig. Many in the audience were amazed at this strange innovation and also nearly embarrassed by its intimacy. I quickly moved it out of this mid-brow world and began integrating it into my fine art. I love that it was born in burlesque, much like jazz was born in brothels. It’s great to have that lusty grit to go back to. They are compelling as art objects because they directly reflect the human form and are mingling with beautiful voices. They are now a nearly perfect nexus of my art life, drawing equally from creative music, sculpture, and performance art.

A few years ago, Southerland’s horn sculptures evolved away from the body and on to the pedestal to include a series of works with Linda Lighton’s porcelain forms emerging from the bells. With Wit and Menace, though, Lighton’s forms blossom forth and bubble up into the realm of live performance. Southerland shared a few insights about their collaboration and the polarity between their materials:

Southerland/Lighton Collaboration

Southerland/Lighton Collaboration

Linda and I speak a similar visual language very naturally, and we recognized it almost immediately. We often talk about our work very differently, but we work about our work very similarly. My horns are assemblages made from graveyard band instruments. This sets a nice contrast to Linda’s more pure expression, building forms from water and “beautiful mud”. From feculence to fecundity our work cycles through life having conversations all the while.



As a Kansas City native, Southerland is steeped in Kansas City’s jazz vernacular, but he is continually pushing its boundaries and immersing himself in other traditions, thus slipping between the familiar, the foreign, and a fusion between the two. Here are a few parting thoughts on one of the key ingredients in his creative process, and shots of the new horn sculptures-in-progress:

Learning jazz improvisation is like learning Latin – a language that lets you learn other languages. It’s a way of communicating that only partially relies on the actual type of music you are improvising with. Most of the great communication that happens does not rely on the song form or sub genre being engaged at that moment. Musical improvisation is a meta language, therefor it can easily be applied across all disciplines. If you have a sense of someone’s artistry and skills you can start to improvise with them inside the parameters of the piece. You figure out the right people to invite to this very complex conversation, and then trust in your exchanges.

southerland sandblast

southerland lighton III

Join us for the premiere of Wit & Menace and other opening festivities to kick off this historic gathering on Wednesday, March 16 beginning at 7 PM in the Grand Ballroom. We’ll see you there!

Field Guide to Kansas City: Part II – National Toy and Miniature Museum

Field Guide to Kansas City: Part II – National Toy and Miniature Museum

toytisserie star

Where there is wonder, there is a way…

The National Toy and Miniature Museum (T/m) on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City has just reopened to great acclaim following an 18-month, $8 million renovation. With more than 72,000 objects in its holdings, the T/m Museum is a microcosm of our world in the truest sense. It’s a place to marvel at fine-scale miniatures ranging from 1:12 to a staggering 1:48 scale, tap into our inner-child through the toys of our youth, and be reminded of the role of playthings as instructional devices to prompt curiosity and prepare young people for the future. The Museum opened 33 years ago thanks to the vision of two Kansas City collectors and philanthropists. In the newly reinstalled galleries, visitors can experience the collections in new ways: x-ray historic toys like Betsy-Wetsy to learn how they are made, discover the process of making miniature maiolica pottery (spoiler alert—it’s exactly the same, but on a small scale) and more. Explore online at toyandminiaturemuseum.org or visit 10-4 any day except Tuesday. Located at 5235 Oak St, just one mile from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the T/m Museum has ample free parking right in front.

A few fan favorites (at least for this fan) are the miniature architecture classroom, the optical toys, and of course, countless clay objects.


It is no small wonder that ceramic objects and objects that include ceramics are found at every turn. Here are just a few examples:

The gallery of micro-curiosities showcases the Museum’s smallest objects: a painting of a panda on a grain of rice, for example, and this ceramic chair fit for a flea. Here’s a photo of the chair as seen from outside the microscope, and by holding my iphone camera up to the eye-piece.

Toy tea sets became fashionable in the mid-to-late 1800s, which coincided with technological and scientific advances in porcelain production. The T/m blog notes that the lack of documentation for these play objects make it hard to determine their origins. This yellow-glazed earthenware set, however, is marked “Montereau” and “LL” confirming its association with a Montereau pottery shop in the Oise region of France.tm7

Among the most mesmerizing dolls in the collection are the “automotons”, dolls brought to life through a key-wound clockwork mechanism. At once haunting and hilarious, these dolls feature delicate porcelain or bisque heads which contrasted with their rather slow, not-so-smooth movements. Patented in 1878 by E. Martin, the T/m blog notes, the swimming doll pictured here and named “Undine” according to the patent, performed the breaststroke, likely for the amusement of adults at social gatherings. Her body was made of wood and cork to counterbalance the heavy porcelain head and allow her to float.




Miniature interpretations of extraordinary ceramic works throughout art history are impressive feats, from these Talavera-inspired tibores made by Frank Hanley and Jeffrey Guéno of Le Chateau Interiors, to these Native American pots by Teresa Wildflower, to Lee-Ann Chellis Wessel’s Renaissance maiolica masterpieces (to say nothing of her miniature egg tempera Renaissance paintings). Chellis Wessel faithfully employs the maiolica process down to every detail.



With this parting shot of play furniture fashioned out of wishbones, I send you best wishes for your travels to and around Kansas City


All photos from toyandminiaturemuseum.org, pitch.com, and kansascity.com.

Unauthorized, Incomplete, and Totally Biased Field Guide to Kansas City: An Introduction

Unauthorized, Incomplete, and Totally Biased Field Guide to Kansas City: An Introduction

BBQ, jazz, and baseball have long held sway over public perception of what our fair Midwestern hamlet has to offer. This guide will introduce you to the long-reigning triumvirate, and over the coming months  detail other points worth exploring that have nothing to do with the indulgences of meat, music, or sport, and everything to do with what makes Kansas City our best kept secret, from its history to today’s hot spots. Along the way, you’ll discover how clay is woven into the fabric of Kansas City.

Liberty Memorial - image: wikimedia commons

Liberty Memorial – image from wikimedia commons

To begin an exploration of Greater KC, consider scouting your surroundings from the grounds of Liberty Memorial. It’s 1.25 miles or a 25-minute walk from the Convention Center. I took the photo above from there last week. Beneath the Memorial is the National WWI Museum. Looking north, you are treated to a panoramic view, encompassing Kansas City, Kansas to the west, and the headquarters of Hallmark to the east. Directly ahead is downtown and the Crossroads, an eclectic enclave of galleries, studios, boutiques, creative business and more that grew organically out of an artist’s vision for redevelopment. Lit in red and blue is Union Station, which celebrated its centennial last year.


Kauffman Center, image from a photo contest on mingle.kansascity.com

The four spires just to the left mark the site of your home base during the NCECA conference, Bartle Hall Convention Center. The spires, or “Sky Stations” are the creation of NY artist R.M. Fischer. They, too, celebrated a milestone anniversary last year. This short interview reflects on their 20-year history. One of our newest architectural wonders, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Moshe Safdie, is adjacent to Bartle Hall. Off to the right, the Western Auto Building’s enormous glowing sign is another beloved beacon in the city.

BBQ: A Tour for the Tastebuds

bbq2Fiorella’s Jack Stack in the Frieght House  – This third-generation, family-owned eatery is the fine dining version of BBQ, and it’s a half-mile or 12-minute walk from the Convention Center.

Q39  – This is the new kid on the block, and my personal favorite. Gentle reader, this part-time vegetarian is weak before their brisket. The grilled salmon and veggie burger are my favorite in town.

Arthur Bryants – This is the oldest kid on the block, with a pedigree that stretches to 1908 and the founder of KC BBQ Henry Perry. Head here if you want tradition and unpretentiousness or have a thing for old photos of famous visitors to the joint hanging on the wall. Arthur Bryant’s invented burnt ends. And you can’t leave KC without trying them.

Gates – Consider it the BBQ version of comfort food. The moment you walk in you’re greeted with a cheerful “Hi, may I help you?”. Every. Single. Time.

Joe’s Kansas City – Charmed by the restaurant-in-a-gas-station vibe? Get a thrill from being part of mob of hungry BBQ-enthusiasts who I think travel the country in search of the BBQ joint with the longest line? Yep, this is your spot. The line does move quickly and your Z-man and fries are worth the wait.

JAZZ: A Feast for your Ears

Unknown-1The Blue Room – In the heart of the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District, the Blue Room celebrates the past and showcases contemporary local, national and international talent. Enjoy big bands, Latin jazz, and if you bring your own instrument on a Monday, you can jump into a jam session. The Blue Room is adjacent to the American Jazz Museum, where this distinctly American art form is preserved and advanced, and tells the story of Kansas City jazz and those who made it famous: Charlie Bird Parker, Count Basie, Ornette Coleman, Jay McShann, Coleman Hawkins to name a few.

Green Lady Lounge – This is a half-mile or 10-minute stroll from the Convention Center. Exclusively jazz 7 nights a week, no cover.

The Ship – This classic cocktail lounge offers a range of musical stylings including jazz. The Ship is “moored” in The Bottoms, a low-lying historic area just west of downtown, where the railroad facilitated the exchange of cattle, seeds, and other materials. Over the years, the stockyards have given way to galleries and artist studios, antique shops, and world-famous haunted houses.


spark_baseball_visit-smallPitching great Satchel Paige was born this week in 1906. He went on to play for the Kansas City Monarchs Negro League team, and was the first electee of the Negro Leagues to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. He made KC his home after retirement. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine District tells the story of the Negro Leagues and its players, including Paige.

Forever Royal – That’s the new slogan for the Kansas City Royals after winning the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series last year. Next Tuesday a record number of Royals will start in the All-Star game for their league. They’ll be in spring training during NCECA, but you’ll see fans all over KC sporting their Royals pride.