Wade MacDonald – Becoming an Artist and Advice for the Future
“While preparing for high school graduation, I had a brief moment to sit at a kickwheel in the art classroom and attempt to throw a pot. This was my introduction to clay. Obviously, my pot was not successful and I thought I would probably never engage in that particular activity ever again. My first art mentor was Cary Vanderveen at Mattawan High School. Cary makes realistic drawings and paintings and his curriculum revolved around learning the necessary techniques to render any subject exactly. Ed Harkness at Western Michigan University ignited my passion for clay. One day, Ed spoke very eloquently about the clay medium while throwing a delicate porcelain jar. In that moment, I felt as though ceramics was the place for me. As a graduate student at Michigan State University, Paul Kotula, Blake Williams, Jae Won Lee, and Theresa Winge were stalwart guides and tremendous mentors.
For the first part of my journey in ceramics, I found myself drawn to the work of Chris Gustin, Chris Staley, Philip Cornelius, John Middlemiss, and Byron Temple. Later, Ken Price, Andy Brayman, Ron Nagle, Del Harrow, Matteo Thun, Arlene Shechet, Paul Sacaridiz, Peter Shire, Isamu Noguchi, were a few of the individuals who inspired.
I believe the need to make is a feeling that all artists are born with. I realized the great satisfaction of creating when I was in Montessori at the age of six. I’ve always owned a drawing pad and a journal and use them. The act of making is ingrained in my daily routine. I often hear colleagues or students say, “the most important thing you can do in your studio practice is to just make!” Having done this for many years, I’ve found that this isn’t entirely true. I have the ability to make art all day without understanding the greater reasons or messages behind the work. Artists must be thinkers not just makers. I look forward to the day that I can attend a residency and read and write and make very little.
Besides contemporary ceramics, my work is informed by architecture, interior design, furniture design, and fine woodworking; I could see myself exploring all of these areas in greater depth in the coming years. In my ceramics practice, I’ve been able to dabble in these areas while keeping focus on the ceramic object.
The best advice I received in my life, as it pertains to art, is not to be timid. In my first undergraduate drawing class, I felt trepidation to make a mark on a piece of paper. What if it was the wrong mark? I’ve worked hard to create an environment where my students are allowed to experience failure without the stigma. The classroom should be the safest place to conduct research, to experiment. If you think you are going to fail, fail big.
For the pre-emerging artists, I encourage you to work everyday. If possible, be in your studio everyday. Read voraciously; don’t be in a hurry to experience success. Focus on making great work; success will follow.”
Andrew Stansbury: An Ode to Missed Connections
“We didn’t have long, and you let someone skip in front of you. When it was our time, you choked back tears. “Oh honey, it’s okay,” I said, “we don’t gotta talk,” and I tried to give you the biggest, warmest hug I could, letting all the things left unsaid transfer.
At the end of the embrace, I think you said something like “I didn’t know we had such similar stories…” before we got cut off for the next conference talk. I tried finding you afterwards with no luck.
Is this you? Write to me, please.
I spent the NCECA Saturday hugging a lot of people. After the emerging artist talk, I had a line of people wanting hugs. I was a hug-machine. This felt a lot better than the past few days in the conference hall standing next to my work, where I watched people point, cover their mouths, and laugh at my body and art on the wall. Now, maybe they didn’t know it was me. I suppose, the problem of always wearing a mask is that I am never recognized next to my work, even though I am on full, bare display in it. Instead of engaging me in conversation, I was witness to the wrenching of their faces and their dismissive shaking of their heads as they walked away, never to look back.
By Friday morning, being witness to this constant stream of rejection took its toll. I had a mental breakdown from it all — from the drive from rural Minnesota to Pittsburgh, from the lingering recovery from the flu and a double-ear infection, from watching people’s dismissive reactions, from utter exhaustion, from just feeling so unwelcomed.
It’s not that I didn’t expect my work to trigger some realm of emotion, I just didn’t expect to be so negative, I didn’t expect to be ignored, I didn’t expect to hurt as much as it did. And I have to apologize to the other Westin breakfast eaters that Friday morning because I had a good, audible cry over my uneaten cold, sad eggs and bacon. I held hands with my first ceramic instructor, Debra Chronister, and then after that purge I went to my room and changed my presentation and talk.
That’s how my talk manifested. I confronted my nervousness and I let intuition and improvisation take over. My mentors taught me to embrace that feeling — nervousness — because it means you’re on the right track. Nervousness is just a false fear of failure that’s stopping you from taking that risk. My mentors, Debra Chronister, Ovidio Giberga, Libby Rowe, and Jim Lawton, have all given me the space to follow my gut and to be present, to allow myself to be open, to be vulnerable to the utmost degree. But perhaps the hardest lesson I have had to learn is to let myself love. As my dear Gery “Rocketskull” Henderson repeatedly told me, “You deserve to love.”
Loving myself has always been a challenge and continues to be to this day. In some ways, my studio practice is my self-care as well as my self-preservation. If I hadn’t found clay, I wouldn’t be alive, a sentiment I hear too often from queer artists. Clay, for me, is an act of performance and is only the starting point. Back in the day, Ken Little gave me the best criticism of my undergraduate work: “What else can you do?” A lot, I think.
In the end, my work is about love, about acceptance, about recovery. I was once told in a graduate school critique, in response to the trauma I have experienced, that I had won the lottery of life, that I have really lived. But there is nothing good of living through trauma; it is not a fucking lottery. If anything, the “tortured” artist trope needs to die by stone-throwing, and we should turn our attention to ending the violences that allow this trauma to continue to occur. Trauma isn’t a selling-point. It is what we seek to end.
I have to thank the people who have stood in my way and told me not to make my work. It’s the fuel to my fire. And I use it to burn down their hopes and dreams of what my work should be and what work in ceramics should be. Take some fuel, my dear reader, and burn everything down and start anew. Tear it all down. Out of politeness or out of fear, we leave many words unsaid, so…please…set ablaze to all the obstacles stopping you and let your story be told. Make your presence heard, and be as visibly free as you want to or can be.
Below, watch the complete video of Andrew’s talk at NCECA 2018.
We don’t have to talk. We have to create.”
Ben Aqua, CREATING > COMPLAINING shirt, 2017
Adam Chau – Essay about influence and idea development
“My clay journey started early – my family opperated a bakery when I was growing up and I learned commercial-level baking at a very young age; it was shortly after that I discovered that ceramics was parallel with baking and was an easy transition into a creative artform. Because of this introduction to seriality from a commercial standpoint I was most comfortable (and interested) in making multiples. My influences reflected as such in song-dynasty production, Ko-Sometsuke wares, tile factories, and global designers. Design plays a huge role in how I opperate and I am always inspired by it because it gathers craft, global dialog, and visual communication all together – I try to be on top of contemporary design trends and movements. On a more fined-tuned level I am looking at artists that use text in their work as I am incorporating language and communication in with my ceramics; artists like Sophie Calle and Tracy Emin are influences to me.
Jim Termeer was my thesis mentor in graduate school and instilled in me a studio practice that is always growing – objects that I make are adjustments from the previous batch. This way of iterative making keeps me moving and is a pursuit of a communicating a clear vision. Blake Williams has also been a mentor of mine; since she’s seen my work grow she has a clear understanding of the messages I try to convey and always brings me back to the foundation of my practice.
Since my background is in design I iterate a concept before I execute something – the large part of my time is actually mapping out an idea and concept without touching clay. It took months to arrive at the final version of my iPhone series because every single detail had a reason for the way it looked and how you interacted with it – it was all preplanned. I am always thinking of how other people will interpret my work; because of this I am constantly looking at other artists and designers to see how their message is coming across. I know a work is done when it conveys a message conceptually and aesthetically. I hope that design is taken into ceramic curriculums – it is only growing stronger in other commercial industries. I’d love to see emerging artists in the future adopt both technology and design issues to be a part of the global conversation.”
“Wise Swan” teapot by Laura Jean McLaughlin
Not being a Pittsburgh native myself, I was unaware of the event called “Unblurred” that happens on Penn Ave. in the Garfield neighborhood on the first Friday night of every month. It is an evening where every gallery, shop, and studio opens their doors to the community to come and enjoy taking a leisurely stroll in and out of each building, appreciating the art, buying a piece or two, or picking up something you simply can’t find anywhere else. It was this night of camaraderie that I found myself visiting Laura Jean McLaughlin in her own studio at 5111 Pen Ave.
Arriving around 6:30 PM meant that things weren’t in full swing yet, but I was able to chat with Laura Jean and browse her collection of art. Laura has her own signature and style, as every artist typically does, but the thing that stuck out the most to me was how you could go past the same painting or sculpture 10 times and each time see something different. There are so many elements to her masterpieces that all combine to create a work unlike anything the viewer has seen before. I must have circled her studio a dozen times soaking it all in!
Laura Jean McLaughlin
As I’ve learned more and more about Laura, it became clear that her work is known not only within the Pittsburgh community but around the world. Her ceramic work has been featured in numerous periodicals including Germany’s Neue Karamik, Korean Ceramic Art Monthly, American Craft Magazine, and Poetic Expressions of Mortality. She has pieces exhibited in over 100 galleries and museums across the nation such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Ohio Craft Museum, and Delf Norona Museum in West Virginia, and other works can be found in Texas, Maryland and Alabama. Through her own studio in Pittsburgh, her multiple residencies, and several awarded grants, Laura has been making her mark on the art world for over two decades and expresses no intention of slowing down now. Her collaborative mosaic mural, Unity Shards, being featured at the 2018 NCECA conference, is a small part of the depth that is the artist, Laura Jean McLaughlin. Find out more about Laura and her work here.
“Willow” by Laura Jean McLaughlin
Connecting with Laura Jean over the past few weeks in her Garfield studio has further deepened my insight into how committed she is to making community part of creation. Laura encourages an atmosphere of togetherness within her studio, offering food, drinks, and laughs. She even houses several pieces from fellow artists, allowing them to display their work in her space. I began to also learn more about her many collaborative mosaic projects, how they involve schools or community groups to create. Using her talent, she has managed to bring people from all walks of life together to create beautiful, lasting works that inspire and brighten the world, one place at a time.
After exploring Laura’s studio, I stepped back out onto the sidewalk and strolled up and down the avenue. All the storefronts showed a buzz of activity within, from gallery observers to a small percussion band performing, to workshop spaces that were open for public participation. Every person I came across was kind and smiling, and the sense of friendship through art was apparent everywhere I went. Everyone seemed to either know one another or want to welcome newcomers with open arms. It was a beautiful evening in so many ways.
Another first Friday Unblurred event is happening this evening, March 2 on Penn Avenue. Ceramic art will be featured not only at the Clay Penn, but in Sharif Bey’s “dialogues in CLAY+GLASS” at Pittsburgh Glass Center, in the group exhibition Exposure and Stephanie Kantor’s “Not Yet But Soon” opening at Bunker Projects, where “Ceramicidal Tendencies” will also be on view at the time of the conference. Other nearby venues include Tim Roda’s Strictly Functional: Ceramic Vessel as Camera at Silver Eye Center for Photography.
The vibrant art community of Garfield is this kind of place that exudes senses of belonging that reflect the goals of Laura Jean’s Unity Shards project taking place at the 52nd annual NCECA conference, CrossCurrents: Clay and Culture. Laura’s community creation interactions on “Unity Shards” begins in Projects Space with a public reception on Tuesday evening March 13, and continue March-14-16, 2018. Laura’s project offers an opportunity to participate in a week of unity at a time when the world faces such division. Laura Jean’s collaborative mosaic work in Projects Space occupies a central spot at the NCECA conference and is open to the public, even those not registered for the conference. To find out more information or how you, too, can play a role in the mosaic’s creation, please visit our post, “Unity Shards: A Collaborative Mosaic.”
Jessica Brandl, one NCECA’s 2017 Emerging Artists has had a busy time since delivering an outstanding presentation on the final day of the conference in Portland, Oregon. Over the summer, she relocated from Philadelphia, where she had been teaching at the Tyler School or Art at Temple University, to Canada, where she is presently teaching at the Alberta College of Art and Design. In October, her work, Humunculus, was honored as the 1st place vessel award in the Zanesville Prize Exhibition. About the impact of NCECA’s Emerging Artist recognition on her life and work, Jessica shared the following:
Jessica Brandl at work
Since emerging at this year’s NCECA Conference, I feel a great relief, a quiet internalization of having addressed my peer group and presented my story. As a direct result of this public presentation I have been invited to demonstrate and speak at numerous schools and community art centers, and the added visibility has encouraged greater support and connoisseurship of both my work and research. The formal recognition by the NCECA board and committee provides value to my academic and studio endeavors, and the opportunity to present supported my assertion that I am a devoted member of the NCECA community willing to work and contribute to the creative grow of ceramic art and research to come. However, the most important impact of this award came to me as an unexpected private transformation. In preparation for the presentation and show, I found myself looking deep within, searching for the most accurate way to describe what I do. I found the clarity and focus I needed through my feelings for ceramics and personal history rather than objects and practice alone. By retracing my own journey in clay, I was confronted with my strengths and weaknesses and realized that I had to speak candidly about this history in order to be most accurate about where my work comes from. Accepting vulnerability and having the fortitude to express this has been the most profound impact of having been an NCECA emerging artist. Thank you for allowing this public platform, and thank you for listening.
Jessica Brandl, Vessel B
Limited to 12-minutes at the conference, Brandl was kind enough to respond to some questions I recently posed to her via email correspondence. Her generosity of time and thoughtful response offer an opportunity to dig deeper into some of the decisions and motivations Brandl is exploring through her creative practice.
JG: Why do you find the vessel such a compelling framework for sharing your stories?
JB: I admire the vessel as a visual framework in all of its historical iterations, but the most potent attraction to this context has to do with my personal history and how it satisfies my sense of balance. The vessel is a fascinating object, the void interior defines the exterior, it can physically contain something but it can also hold images and subsequently display ideas and narrative as symbolic language. A vessel is a container, but its interpretation permits a multifaceted understanding of utility as literal, metaphor or both.
Jessica Brandl, Vessel C
My attraction is grounded in the overt utility that a vessel suggests; it permits a connection to my Midwestern upbringing that established the premise that an object should be useful. It was the identification with labor and its value, which gave craft and craftsmanship high praise in my childhood home. What I now identify as high art, was viewed with suspicion in its seemly functionlessness and reference to decadence and collected wealth. The logic of childhood was flawed; however, my desire to mediate past and present perceptions through an object locates me at the contextual humility of vessels and pots.
Jessica Brandl, Ruin A
The narrative vessels I construct are beyond practical utility in most ways but my adherence to the void interior and vestigial function permits me to use the language. The linguistic ties are as important as the literal context and form. While many viewers understand what a vessel is, the appearance of novel content situated within the context of a familiar utilitarian form can be a disruptive experience. By calling what I make a vessel, I have framed the comparative conversation. Vessels and pottery preserve a formal levity, which permits me to address culturally averse subject matter.
Jessica Brandl, plate with birds
JG: Could you share a little about how you see your work connected to that of other artists working with narrative content within and beyond those working in clay? Who and what are you looking at and gaining inspiration through?
JB: I see my work as another iteration of a long and continuous human tradition of narration and communication. The telling of an epic or in my case an un-epic, with a cast of characters conveying something other and universal seems to be a part of human nature. Artists that work with clay and clay-like materials speak the most directly to me. I examine how they have managed to communicate and what those technical strategies are; lastly, I like to ask why they are clay and not something else.
Jessica Brandl, Ruin B
I have always been fascinated by the raw clay bison formed on the floor of a cave in France some 14,000 years ago, those figures exist right alongside representative drawings of animals, abstracted dots, and incised geometric patterns. An important part of my personal narrative investigates why I insist on clay. Looking at other humans that use clay I am able to gain a better perspective through comparison.
Jessica Brandl, Vessel A
Therefore, I am inspired by human experience, specifically as it is represented in mythology, literature, science, history, ecology, phycology and culture. I compress the visual richness of the centuries into my own ceramic vessels, forming a distillation of historic and personal symbolic language. Any visual or narrative similarities that my work possesses are the result of communal proximity informing my conscious and unconscious decisions. I do not worry as much as I once did about copying or nuance, I have a better understanding of myself as a unique person from a specific time and culture. Themes, material, and methodology are the stuff of generating narrative and symbolic language. Each individual is different, but as members of the same species quite similar; circumstances and luck take care of the rest.
Jessica Brandl, Fintch
The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Art is immensely grateful to the Windgate Charitable Foundation for their support of NCECA’s Emerging Artists program from 2013-2017. Additional blog entries will appear on other 2017 recipients of the award before our 2018 cohort will be announced in the month leading up to the conference in Pittsburgh.
Below, watch the video of Brandl’s 2017 conference presentation at the Emerging Artists Session on Saturday morning in Portland:
Written by Harry Levenstein – IG:@harrison_lev
The smell of sustainability was in the air this year at NCECA Portland! With topical discussions on ceramics and climate change, reducing our carbon footprint as makers, renewable energy options in our studios, and even firing kilns with repurposed vegetable oil! At the Green Task Force booth, Robert Harrison signed copies of his “book that every studio should have,” Sustainable Ceramics. University of Oregon had their ram press operating at full throttle, giving hands-on demos of their project of repurposing clay and glaze slop to make functional paver bricks. I even attended a few shows around the city with their themes set on environmental awareness. It seems that many makers are keeping sustain on the brain and that is exactly what we like to see.
A highlight of the conference for me, was making the acquaintance of a sustainably driven artist who runs a near-wilderness artist residency on the UP (Upper Peninsula) of Michigan.
Yes, you heard me correctly… An artist residency. Near the wilderness. Focusing on sustainability. Epic.
Amy Joy Hosterman, a ceramic sculptor from Minnesota, approached me in the NCECA Resource Hall with an “I get stuff done” kind of look in her eye. She proceeded to enlighten me about the Visitor Center Artist Camp in Ewen, MI, the near-wilderness residency which she and her colleagues have been building over the last decade. Amy is a Co-Founder, currently serves as Co-Director, and teaches local-clay workshops at the compound.
Stoked about their project and philosophies, we interviewed Amy to find out some more.
It’s about working together, being resourceful, and developing an art making practice that’s as do-it-yourself and low-impact as possible.
Q: How do you define sustainability?
Amy: A practice that is sustainable is one that is flexible, and adaptable to evolving environments and situations. Sustainability is not an absolute term, when looked at practically. Something is only sustainable as long as the energy exists to power it, so the infinite expansion of an industry based on nonrenewable-resources is never sustainable. Sustainability is about adapting our practices to our changing environments, repurposing waste-materials, and using what is available locally.
Q: Would you tell us a little bit about your current project?
Amy: This has been a longterm project of myself, Margaret Coleman, and Joshua Hosterman, in addition to many other artists, craftspeople, and local residents. It’s been an evolution throughout the last ten years, so I’d like to tell you the story of how it has grown into itself.
It began with the opportunity to reclaim an old Forestry Service A-frame cabin that was going to be demolished. A handful of artists gathered in the Upper Peninsula, disassembled it, and moved the pieces to our site in Ewen. The next year we had around a dozen artists there to rebuild the A-frame, creating our first structure for what we decided should be a place for artists to camp, work together, and make art in the wilderness.
Repurposed A-frame and barn studio space.
As our artist camp developed, we partnered with a local barn-builder, Mel Seeger, an amazingly talented craftsperson and retired logger. Mel built an amazing barn for us at the Visitor Center, with wood he milled himself. This is our indoor studio workspace, and it was the key piece we needed to begin to host artists for residencies and workshops.
Q: How about your residency and workshops?
Amy: We host artists each summer for a Sustainable Practices Symposium. This includes workshops in digging, sculpting, and firing the local clay, casting recycled aluminum with molds made of locally-sourced sand and environmentally-friendly binders, as well as woodworking and building using reclaimed and locally-sourced materials. It’s about working together, being resourceful, and developing an art making practice that’s as do-it-yourself and low-impact as possible.
Our clay workshops started out in 2014 by building worktables, framing pieces of window screen for sieving slip, and wrapping boards with canvas for work surfaces. We crush and slake the clay, mix the slip in buckets with a paint-mixer from the hardware store, and use homemade plaster bats for stiffening it. We have treadle wheels for wheel-throwing, and hand-building tools collected from the kitchen sections at thrift stores.
Q: In terms of art making, what facilities and equipment do you have to offer?
Amy: We have our studio workspace in the barn, all the clay you can dig/process, buckets, screens, mixers, etc, for clay slip processing, two treadle potter’s wheels, plaster clay-drying bats, a large work table and canvas-covered boards for hand-building, barrels and pits for primitive-style firings, portable propane-fueled kiln for low-fire glaze and raku firing and all the necessary safety gear, various basic throwing and sculpting tools, and some low-fire glazes. During our Session One Building Workshop, we will be constructing a new drying shelter for storing and processing all our clay, drying our work, and for firing the portable raku kiln in inclement weather. We have also acquired the University of Minnesota “baby kiln,” a 13cu ft outdoor hard brick raku kiln, and are currently fundraising for propane burners and kiln furniture.
Q: What is important about what you are doing?
Amy: Hands-on experience is very valuable for anyone interested in learning more about any process. The science of the ceramics process can be far removed from the artist’s work, if one chooses to only use commercially formulated clay and glazes. I believe that it is very important to keep this knowledge of the process alive. So many things now are done for us. They’re mechanized and produced in such a way that is so far from handcraft, that the process is abstracted for most people. It is also a very different thing to read about or study something, than it is to do it yourself, with your own hands. There is no substitute for the experience of problem-solving your own specific situation. Personally observing the transformation of natural materials as they react to physical and chemical manipulations greatly enhances one’s understanding of the ceramics medium, as well as of our environment’s natural systems. First-hand education brings empowerment, and inspires further investigation.
Q: When should we apply for the residencies/workshops?
Amy: We have extended our deadline for applications for this summer’s VCAC residencies, so applications are now being accepted through June 25th.
Hot Raku kiln at night.
VCAC has been created by artists, for artists with a strong dedication and investment in environmentally-concious processes and community-building. “Many other local residents have helped us a great deal as well. Whether it was lending their tractor or forklift, donating materials or funds, participating in our public events, or sharing their expertise, the local community around Ewen, Michigan has played a big role in our ability to make the Visitor Center Artist Camp a reality.”
Personally, two of my favorite things in life are being in the wilderness, and making things with clay. It seems as though VCAC provides the opportunity for a holistic synthesis of both all the while being surrounded by like-minded and inspired company.
Head over to www.visitorcenterartistcamp.org to learn more about pricing, logistics, and financial aid opportunities for applicants. The deadline is June 25th , so go there today!
And finally, I’d like to thank Amy for the time she took to thoughtfully answer our questions, and for the admirable work she and her colleagues are doing with this project. Cheers, Amy!