Posted by Simon Levin

A couple of days ago I found out that my college, Grinnell College has no plans to continue its ceramics program after this fall. The part time faculty member who taught there for 28 years is retiring.  Believing in the liberating, empowering, foundational importance of clay in education I sent a short note to the chair of the Art and Art History department, Matt Kluber, and to the Dean of the College, Mike Latham.

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Mr. Kluber and Mr. Latham,

It has come to my attention that Grinnell has no plans to continue its ceramics program after this fall.  I have to say this feels like a gross oversight.

I found ceramics in my second semester of my senior year at Grinnell.  It changed my life.  Ideas clicked and connections were made in a way no other class ever had;  in art or in my degree program of psychology.

My ceramic career has lead me to two masters degrees in art. It has taken me to work on social justice issues in East Timor, a Fulbright in Taiwan, and kiln building for the China Academy of the Arts.   The liberal arts experience of ceramics in rural Iowa has had ripples of impact on so many lives; not just my own.  I am writing you to make you aware of this.

The high quality education of Grinnell dovetails perfectly with ceramics.  I am a better, smarter, more articulate potter because of my time at Grinnell.  I have published many articles for both US and international journals. I present workshops at schools and universities.  I have had 14 apprentices who are out in the world contributing to the field.   I am often a panelist at national and international conferences.  All because of the rigor of my liberal arts education that supports the discipline to which Grinnell awakened me.

Ceramics is foundational.  It is primal and therefore often overlooked.  It is not simply modern or ancient.  It is both, and more. Often seen as anachronistic, it is not.  Potters for peace is an organization that uses clay technology in third world countries to make water filters, they build kilns to start cottage industry, ceramic objects can even create vessels that provide refrigeration in hot arid climates.  In addition to these practical applications clay as in all art media has the power to give voice to those who have none.

It is for this reason every year when Grinnell calls for the annual fund I always earmark my donation to the ceramics department.

In addition Iowa has a long tradition with clay.  Many great and influential potters have come from Iowa.  There are resources all around.  The president of potters for peace teaches at Cornell, one of the best galleries for functional clay is in Iowa city Akar Design, a fantastic studio potter, writer and teacher Clary Illian lives in Ely .  The Ceramics Center in Cedar Rapids holds a national conference that is growing quickly.    Not to mention your own Jill Schrift who has been teaching and inspiring Grinnell students to use their hands as much as their minds.

Please feel free to contact me.    I am invested in keeping ceramics alive at Grinnell.

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The Dean of the College wrote me back thanking me for my note.  He was glad to hear that my experience at Grinnell had a powerful impact on me.  He also said he was appreciative to learn about ceramics and it’s role in the art world.  Taking his appreciation at learning about ceramics as an opening I went on to write back:

Dear Michael and Matthew,

Michael,

Thanks for your response.

In the effort to contextualize the American Ceramics Movement which is thriving I thought I would pass on an article and a resource.

The first is a current exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery, by a colleague of mine Sequoia Miller.

 http://news.yale.edu/2015/08/28/exhibition-explores-often-overlooked-role-ceramics-20th-century-art#.VeIbaf4NsQ0.facebook

The second is a resource called C-file.

It highlights contemporary and global issues in Ceramics.  https://cfileonline.org/

Also,FYI, Taiwan, Toronto, have massive dedicated Ceramic Art Museums, and a huge new one was just built in Liling China.

In the US we have,

To name a few.

For a more complete list of galleries and museums the website Ceramics Arts daily, which publishes periodicals like Pottery Making Illustrated and Ceramics Monthly as well as books and DVDs  hosts a vibrant list at :http://ceramicartsdaily.org/ceramics-monthly/museums-and-galleries/

Thanks for your time.

Hopefully my lone letters hit the right note, but thats just one voice.  I posted the call to arms out on Facebook and there has been a solid response of alumni writing letters to Dean Latham and Matt Kluber.  What is exciting is that not only alumni have taken a moment to write Grinnell, other potters unaffiliated with Grinnell have sent notes.

There is an element of the squeaky wheel here which goes against the humble self sufficient potter mentality that runs through our community.  Don’t let Ceramics die quietly!  Grinnell has a 1.83 billion dollar endowment.  They have the facilities and the curriculum in place.   Take a moment and write a letter singing the praises of clay; highlight that which I have missed, and share your own experience.

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Sound your ceramic Yawp over the rooftops of the world.

Categories: Featured, Member Stories

6 Responses so far.

  1. The ceramics department at Sarah Lawrence College where I spent my freshman year studying with Mikhail Zakin closed eons ago, apparently parents didn’t want to pay their high cost of tuition to have their kid major in ceramics. The ceramics department of Montclair State University, where I got my masters is now staffed by adjuncts since the chair retired, dying a slow death in their art and design building which is falling completely apart (but the campus has the most amazing new dorms!)

    I was approached to teach at the College of St Elizabeth’s ceramics studio. Their department chair retired. I would have been an adjunct working long hours for peanuts, not worth the commute time and gas to get there and back.

    This all makes me very very sad. 🙁

  2. Jay Lacouture says:

    I have taught in a liberal arts school, Salve Regina University, for 36 years. We once had a Dean that sought to marginalize the visual arts within the core curriculum. Fortunately he is no longer in the position. When I had the opportunity to address the entire university faculty about the value of ceramics in our curriculum, I brought some outstanding works by non-art majors with me to pass around. I told the group that ceramics was the most complete liberal arts experience that our university had to offer. It includes; geology, chemistry, cross-cultural appreciation, critical thinking, designing, making, team work, anthropology, community service, etc. I could say this with conviction as I believe it to be so.

    This past March when NCECA came to Rhode Island, my university supported my efforts to celebrte ceramics on our campus and throughout our state. I know I am fortunate to have this kind of support but any liberal arts university/college that purports to offer a true liberal arts education would be fradulent in not offering its students a true liberal arts experience. This is what we all do in our ceramic studios.

    Those administrators that seek to deny their students this experience are derelic in the responsibilities of their positions and they should be eliminated, not ceramics.

  3. George Stephenson says:

    How sad… though not a potter, I have many fond memories of the ceramics studio at Grinnell in the early 80s.
    I don’t see any dates on this piece- is it recent? Should we still write?

  4. […] "Not with a bang but a whimper, this is how the world ends.". T.S. Eliot. […]

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