I’m on my way to the conference, and I’m fondly remembering the ridiculous meals I’ve had at NCECA. The things I eat during the week of the conference are generally a compromise, a mediocre peace treaty between how much noise my stomach makes, and how much more my feet are willing to walk. One year, the year I got smart, I bought provisions at a convenience store and carried Kind bars with me to eat when I was too tired to forage for lunch. That was also the year where dinner was a package of deli ham, eaten straight from the plastic pouch it came in, purchased from the same convenience store. I was starving, exhausted, and forgot to get bread.
As I write this, I am on a 9 hour train to Pittsburgh, and will be sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, hopefully with blankets. I haven’t arrived yet, but it will be in an 8-12 person AirBnB. Why don’t I know the exact number of people? Because the booking was made through a friend of a friend (of a friend), and I will only know one person in this house (…I think it’s a house). I will spend my first night sharing a hotel room (total number of roommates TBD) before I join the cast of Real World NCECA: Pittsburgh edition. I teeter-tottered to the train station early this morning, frumpy in my biggest winter coat and laden with luggage and wrapped sandwiches; when I dropped the cap to my thermos, a very pregnant woman looked on in sympathy as I tried to bend down without keeling over. The train has just left Philadelphia, where the power goes out for 15 minutes and we sit in stuffy darkness while the engine recharges. This is normal, says the girl on her way to Altoona.
Alarm bells going off? No? Let’s take a step back and look at the situation again: I am a girl, traveling by myself, about to sleep in a house full of total strangers. I consider myself a cautious person – I was raised to be aware of my surroundings and keep an eye out for ne’er-do-wells, especially in big cities. And yet, I am totally comfortable with this arrangement because I will be in a house with clay people, and we are all here for NCECA. This annual pilgrimage we all make is the stuff of Chaucer, and now I know what it must have been like to be a pilgrim in the middle ages (… well, sort of – by this age I’d probably have lost most of my teeth). When I read the Canterbury Tales in school, I never understood why total random strangers would start telling stories on their journey – this to me is the equivalent of telling everyone at the grocery store what you’re making for dinner and why you need to touch every single tomato. But now I get it – there is nothing like the company of fellow devotees. We have a shared purpose and a shared love, even if we all express our passion differently, and that creates a sense of safety, a feeling of being understood innately, if only in this one dimension.
Ordinarily, I like a bit of comfort when I travel – on road trips, I prefer to wait for a nicer rest stop rather than using the only bathroom at the gas station, and I often fly with a neck pillow and slippers. But for NCECA, I don’t mind small discomforts. Experience tells me that I will soon be so tired I will happily fall asleep anywhere, only to wake up again and charge back in to soak up all the happy intellectual clay particulates that float around during this time of year. I will wait in line for 2 hours for a lukewarm cup of tea that tastes like burnt coffee, sit on the ground to take notes if I can’t find a seat, and memorize the map of the convention center only to still have absolutely no idea where the Cup Sale is. I will barely be frustrated, because I’ve done this before, and I will do it again.
And, it turns out, I’m not alone. I casually asked a few current and former board members about their memories of scrambling for food during the conference. I figured I couldn’t be alone in having meals of desperation while running myself ragged, and I was right. Keith Williams, former president, remembers eating “a lump of stinky cheese… a big hunk of Romano I’d gotten at a local grocery store in…Houston? the Phoenician? It must have been 3/4 of a pound. I bought it as a snack thinking it would last me awhile, but I walked around and ended up eating the whole thing for lunch that day.” He said this to me while gesturing with his hands that the cheese was roughly the size of a softball.
And Shalya Marsh, former Student Director-At-Large, explained that “one conference there was no food around [the convention center], and I had not eaten in forever, and I was so hungry that I snuck into the 50 friends meeting and ate all the apples from their leftover boxed lunches.” She was quick to clarify that “the meeting had ended, and a bunch of people had not eaten their apples.”
Many former NCECA board members don’t remember eating at all, or not eating until late at night, although there seems to be a collective memory of lots and lots of granola bars. These are the things we do for love. So, since we’re all on this journey together, fellow pilgrims, tell me your story. What are your memories of wacky meals eaten during NCECA?
So here I am, sitting in a plane full of total strangers who are also going to NCECA. And maybe you’ve heard that I have some social anxiety issues. But I kind of forgot all of that until I got onto the plane and was confronted by the fact that I was heading to Kansas City, and, judging by the conversation snippets, so was everyone else on this flight. It was exhilarating, but also terrifying, because I soon realized just how many ways there are to make a bad first impression.
At what point is it ok and not creepy to take a selfie with Peter Held? Because he’s definitely on this flight with me. Maybe I should just take a subtle photo of him while dragging my carry-on luggage through the aisle. And at what point is it ok to jump in on someone else’s conversation and answer their “where was NCECA last year” question like it’s a pub trivia bonus round? Maybe us clay-people should have a secret handshake, or maybe just a really slow, knowing nod that we give to each other.
Hey there, ceramic enthusiast who’s also on this flight. I recognized your funky glasses, sensible shoes, and unmanicured hands; we have that in common. I see you’re in boarding group 2. Go ahead, I’m in group 3 – I’ll make eye contact with you later, when my coat gets caught on your armrest as I bellyflop into my middle seat. See you at the cup sale?
All of this could be communicated with a really articulate glance, maybe with a few eyebrow waggles thrown in – like a bee dancing out the location of a secret, pretty sweet flowerbed. Given my level of excitement about the conference, I might end up just doing the full dance, wiggling like a small child who needs to use the bathroom. Again, not quite the first impression I want to make.
When I listen in on this group of friends on the same flight talking about which booths they plan to hit up, I want to say “let’s go together” because I am flying alone and they are friendly faces in the crowd. I suppose I’m just being impatient – I want to be friends with each and every person who is also going to NCECA, and it feels like the first day at school, trying to figure out how to connect while still playing it cool. If I were a small puppy I would jump right into your lap, but I am not. Instead, what I am is deliriously jet lagged ( as I write this, it’s been 28 hours since I slept), and I haven’t brushed my hair or teeth in a very long time. You see the problem.
But there’s another problem: the fact that I recognize you means that in the ceramic world, we travel in different circles. I am in steerage, and in my heart, you are sitting in the first class cabin. Though you are seated further back in the plane than me, in my heart you are deservedly enjoying your complimentary beverage, served in an actual glass, while the rest of us mow down small children with our oversized carry-ons. The little bowl of mixed nuts in front of you were probably hulled by the squirrels on Chandra DeBuse’s cups.
Besides, I wouldn’t know what to say, and I don’t want to come off as a suck up. Actually, that’s a lie. I do want to be a suck up, I want you to like me and laugh at my jokes. So when I say I don’t want to be a suck-up, I suppose I mean that I want to be a really good suck up, and then you’ll want to be friends with me and we’ll all live happily ever after.
Or, maybe we’re all just real people, all jet-lagged, all eager to make friends, but not until we’ve had a long nap. To preserve our dignity and spare ourselves awkward conversation, we should just circle each other, wiggling our behinds in the secret language of dancing ceramic bees as we make our way to the airport shuttle. And when we’re surrounded by our coats and our luggage, we can give each other those knowing glances.
How do you say “Kansas City” in eyebrow semaphore?
PS – I ran after Peter Held in the conference center and made him take a selfie with me.
Tongue-in-cheek sculptures, contemplative video installations, gently pinched pouring vessels, and meticulously assembled baskets – frankly, the offerings from the student population at this year’s NSJE are as surprising as they are wide-ranging in scope. 330 students submitted 1000 images for consideration, and the jurors, Liz Quackenbush and Lee Somers, contemplated every single image over three rounds of elimination. They made a decision early on to jury blindly, insisting on excellence over balanced representation and yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, each student category has a strong showing.
I haven’t seen the work yet in person, but I am very excited to see how the Leedy Voulkos Center has arranged everything when I meet with Liz Quackenbush and Lee Somers on-site to view the work one last time before determining awards. Fortunately, I did have some spies in the area who managed to get some pictures of the opening reception at the Leedy Voulkos Art Center for First Fridays. The installation of the artwork is exceptional! Congratulations to everyone, and I look forward to meeting you at the official NCECA reception on
Thursday, Mar 17, 6-8pm!
About the Jurors:
Liz Quackenbush is Professor of Art at Pennsylvania State University. BFA, University of Colorado,
Boulder; MFA, The School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute for Technology. Liz has been
seduced by the exotic nature of Morocco where she has returned four times. Having participated in the
Minnesota Pottery Tour for the past 13 consecutive years, she has learned about the value of pottery and
community. Liz’s commitment to making functional pottery has led to innovative course development
focusing on the ability for functional pottery and delicious food to build culture. Selected engagements:
University of Nebraska, University of Colorado, Cleveland Art Institute, Virginia Commonwealth
University, Chicago Art Institute, Cranbrook.
Lee Somers hails from the Southwest; his formative years spent exploring the mountains and deserts. A traveler,
Lee draws inspiration from experiences living, working, and wandering in a variety of locations. Fascinated with
ceramics since childhood, he earned both his undergraduate and graduate degree in the field at Alfred University
School of Art and Design. Lee has been teaching college level art since 2006, including three years in Beijing
at the China Central Academy of Fine Art. He currently teaches 3D Design at the University of Montevallo
in Montevallo, Alabama. His work in ceramics and mixed-media investigates the landscape as an intersection
of natural and cultural history. Lee’s studio practice incorporates a variety of materials and processes, with
experimentation and chance playing an active role. Most recently, his work was featured in a solo exhibition at
the Jane Hartsook Gallery, Greenwich House Pottery, NY, and in the annual Art in Craft Media exhibition at the
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY.
Note from Cindy – Yes, I’m the spy…with a couple of my mini spies who are seen in the pictures. It’s a BEAUTIFUL show!
If you twisted my arm and made me choose, I would probably say that my high school English teacher is the person who taught me critical thinking skills. Our standard homework assignment was to come up with discussion questions for what we’d read the night before, and she would collect them all to read aloud at the beginning of each class. She defined “good” questions as those which could not be easily answered by flipping through the text, but instead made you really want to explore the text, comb through for different ways to answer the question. I’ve been looking over the presentations we have lined up for the Student Perspectives room, and I find myself thinking a lot about what it means to be a learner, someone interested in acquiring not only new skills, but new ideas, and new approaches.
Student Perspectives is a fairly new tradition, and a unique one at that – a space devoted to student presenters, providing them the opportunity to speak publically on a main stage at the NCECA conference. Since there is no topical focus, everyone has a different approach to this call. Any given year, you can expect an extremely diverse set of presentations to happen in this room, which provides delightful and fascinating snapshot of changing student interests. What I find is that as I read through the titles and descriptions for the Student Perspectives lineup, I am also hearing good questions being asked.
Often, these presentations are grounded in the student experience, and showcase the kinds of research opportunities that students are afforded, alongside the kinds of mental wanderings that take place as you’re on the verge of stepping (back) out into the Real World. But really, these presentations are asking bigger questions about the nature of education itself, questions which shift in and out of focus throughout our lives, and meander like the road less traveled.
In thoughtful contemplation of what it means to be an arts professional, Eleanor Heimbaugh’s ” BEYOND THE PEDESTAL- CONTEMPORARY SOLUTIONS FOR DISPLAY” asks us, as both students and artists, to look beyond the paint-chipped cube that we borrow at the last minute and to instead consider more elegant approaches to how work should be viewed. Emily Tani-Winegarden and Liam Hannan’s co-lecture, “A CUP LIBRARY: ENGAGEMENT THROUGH TACTILE OBSERVATION,” (image seen above) details their effort to provide their community with the experience of using a hand-made objects through a physical lending library. Jake Boggs, who shares his research into building a functional studio from scratch in “WHAT NOW? A POST UNIVERSITY POTTERY PATHWAY PLAN,” asks how to move forward with a life in clay outside of an MFA program; anyone who has ever graduated has found themselves in this exact same position. Other students are reflecting on the types of educations they’ve received, both in and out of school. Some presentations are entirely rooted in person experience, such as Rachel Bigley’s “THE ARTIST AND THE APPRENTICE” in which she discusses her time apprenticing for working artists in their studios, and asks us to think about the kind of learning that comes from a lived experience. The panel entitled “FROM MENTEE TO MENTOR” offers a similar discussion about transitioning from one type of learning to another, as they reflect on what it means to teach as a graduate student instructor and how they have navigated those waters. For a broader perspective on educational modalities and their impact on how we learn, ” BACK TO THE FUTURE: MAKING POTTERY IN GRADUATE SCHOOL,” offers a view on the contradictions that can take place in a fast-paced, results-driven academic environment when working with the slow humbleness of functional pottery.
What have I learned, and how did I learn it? How does that fit into what I already know? What do we send forth into the world, and how do we in turn educate and engage the broader audience? What does it mean to be a learner? What are the ideal environments for learning to take place? What is the best way to learn? What do we send forth into the world, and how do we in turn educate and engage the broader audience?
This year, all of these presentations will be happening on Thursday, in room 3501 C/D (Level 3), and will be well worth your while – they are all of them rooted in good questions.
The first time I spoke to Gerit Grimm, I was a trembling mess.
I was at the Jane Hartsook Gallery in NYC, and I went to the opening reception because, well, the artist would be there. And in theory, I would speak to her. I would speak to her, and we would somehow end up in a deep conversation, and through my garbled, tongue-tied stammers she would understand how much I loved clay, how passionate and responsible and worthy I was. She would look into my soul and understand which grad school would be a good fit, and we would talk and laugh like weʻd known each other forever over beers after the opening.
This did not happen. I wandered the gallery in a daze, and drank more wine than I should have because I knew she was Somewhere in the room but I didnʻt know what she looked like. When I finally figured out who she was, I immediately found myself in the opposite corner of the room, fascinated by my plate of cheese. This went on all night. My friend Julie nudged me as we were about to leave, and I still couldnʻt do it. She dragged me over and – … this part is blurry. Maybe Julie introduced us. Maybe I sputtered and told her my social security number. Somehow it was communicated to her that I had a fear of artists, and she gave me a smile and a big hug, and moved on to another conversation. I was shocked just enough to hug her back, and that was pretty much the end of the night.
I have always been terrified of speaking to anyone I deeply admire, and still am. I once burst into tears and ran out of a theater after a play at the prospect of meeting the director (Ann Bogart), and I have definitely stalked artists across the halls of the convention center at the NCECA conference, following them in and out of rooms to the water fountain, daring myself to say hello (Robin Hopper). As Iʻve gotten older, this inexplicable anxiety has eased somewhat, but it still comes and goes.
And if Iʻm being honest, NCECA had a lot to do with calming my fears about speaking to my heroes.
I quickly realized that the week of NCECA is, for many conference goers, the happiest time of the year. Everyone is just a bit cheerier and friendlier, more generous with their time, and more willing to bring new people into the conversation. People who only met at the last conference will embrace and gossip like they grew up together. When NCECA brings together just about everyone within the field, it becomes really clear just how big and how small the ceramics world is. And with all the lectures to attend, and galleries to visit, and booths to peruse, thereʻs a joyous,merry feeling in the air no matter what the weather is like.
Speaking to someone you idolize doesnʻt seem all that awkward anymore when youʻre bound to rub shoulders at the Keynote. And that total stranger standing behind you in line for coffee (s/he looks familiar from somewhere, but where?) is probably someone youʻre connected to through friends of friends. So if youʻre at all inclined, introduce yourself. You might have a conversation, you might not. But at the next NCECA, youʻll be friends.
PS – Sorry if I’ve ever stalked you. #sorrynotsorry