Last week, Simon Levin shared news of Grinnell College’s intention to forgo the replacement of a retiring ceramics professor.  It was a dark day, and one all too familiar, as many of us have seen this before.   What hasn’t happened before is the full onslaught of the ceramics community gathering behind Simon’s one voice and creating a chorus so loud we could not be ignored.  Consider this a HUGE THANK YOU to all of you out there in the world of social sharing for getting the word out, and for adding your vibrato.   It is truly a thing of beauty to see what we can do when we band together.  Simon wrote back with some encouraging words:

There is nice movement out there in facebook world.  And I was contacted by another Grinnell alum potter who is interested in a “Throw Down” where potters descend on the Grinnell Studio and make a bunch of work over the weekend.  I may be able to coordinate something with the Ceramics prof there.  The Raku kilns could be fired up.  I am also going to contact the Grinnell Gallery director about a clay show there.  I received word from Jill Schrift, the professor at Grinnell that is retiring, that the head of the art department has filed a request for the money to hire an adjunct to teach one class of ceramics next year.  So essentially there is movement.  Which is fantastic.  My FB post about the blog was shared 32 times.  I cannot see the metrics on the blog post.

I am planning on writing the Mark Latham and Matt Kluber at Grinnell today that they commit to ceramics, and implement a system to ensure Ceramics will be part of the curriculum. I am going to inform them about Lawrence University’s program in Appleton where they had a 3 year position for MFAs to teach ceramics and general art.  Its a symbiotic stepping stone position for ceramic artists who want to teach and its a great opportunity for Lawrence to take advantage of the excess of talent and energy that exists in the post MFA community.

Simon also sent to me a copies of two letters, the first from Trevor Harris, and the second from Denise Joyal:

Dear Mr. Latham and Mr. Kluber,

It is with sadness that I hear of Grinnell’s ceramics program ending. Losing the Grinnell College ceramics program is like losing an elder in your community. Most people don’t understand why losing something like ceramics – so fringe, so antique – is such a big deal.

I was an art major and ceramics was my focus. Am I an artist? Did I follow my dream? No. Was ceramics important to me? Desperately important. I was not a student at Grinnell coached about career paths and future options like so many students are today. I was one of those young people who escaped from somewhere to Grinnell and was struggling to finally understand how normal life worked. Ceramics was a refuge and a challenge and a learning about who I was and what I was and wasn’t able to do. I am not an artist. I certainly don’t have what it takes to be successful as an artist and the truth is, I wouldn’t have made a good economist or lawyer or doctor or college professor.

Instead, I used ceramics and Mr. And Mrs. Zirkle to help me understand that I was still clay, that Grinnell was giving me the freedom to do anything and everything I wanted to do. I could be a sea captain or a carpenter or a teacher or a boat builder or a better older brother or an electrician or a Viking in a Knarr or a husband or bike mechanic or a school bus driver or a homesteader or a sailor or an Outward Bound instructor or I could start a non-profit or be the father to my children that they deserve. And that is what I’ve done, so far… thanks to ceramics.

Hoping that you’ll see the importance of clay,


Dear Mr. Kluber and Mr. Latham,
Mr. Simon Levin, a Grinnell alumnus and Fullbright recipient in ceramic arts, recently mentioned that your institution is considering eliminating the Ceramic Arts program. I felt compelled to write to dissuade you from this decision. I am in my 9th year as a Ceramic Arts instructor at Wilson College, a small, liberal arts institution. I cannot begin to tell you how many student lives have been transformed merely through experiencing the ceramic arts.
This past year, I had the great fortune to propose and teach an honors-level Ceramics I course. I used ceramics to advance an interdisciplinary curriculum. While my students learned ceramic techniques – wheel throwing, pinching, coiling, and slab construction of clay vessels as well as sculpture and tile creation – students also placed their creative activities in historical context. Students were asked to replicate historical works and offered class presentations on ceramic history, production methods, and art history. In addition to research, class presentations, and writing these students learned the basics of clay and glaze chemistry.
The students were asked to return from spring break with native clay from the area they visited. They dried, screened, reconstituted and converted this raw clay into small fired vessels.  The concept of an experimental line blend was introduced. Each student learned to mix two  glazes together in ascending and descending proportions of 10% to discover the effects of the change in chemistry on the glazes. They were exposed to a variety of alternative firing methods and learned how an oxidation versus a reduction atmosphere can affect both clay bodies and glazes.
The students also received a personal guided tour of the Freer/Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian from the ceramics curator, Louise Cort, which contextualized the students’ combined historical research, artistic techniques, and scientific experience.
I understand the desire to emphasize the STEM approach. However, liberal arts schools have to take a longer view when it comes to the arts and humanities. There are ways to teach art in a way that satisfies all educational goals. Creativity translates to science and technology, and it is my experience that it translates to the job market as well. A studio course, administered correctly, is not a “blow-off” course. I assure you, my students work. They work very, very hard. Rather than ruthlessly cutting creative disciplines, we should find ways to incorporate other courses into their requirements.
In addition to the artistic concepts learned and developed within my Honors Ceramics I class, the students learned and applied: history, public speaking, research, chemistry, geology, math (geometry, percentages, weights and measures), physics and thermodynamics. Several students expressed to me that this was the most challenging college course they had taken – and the most rewarding.
I believe it is worth hearing from some of my current and former students:


From Artists:
“My first course with ceramics was with Denise Joyal at Wilson College. I had anticipated the experience being a slippery pottery wheel session in which I would leave with a nice, lopsided vase and Patrick Swayze as my new boyfriend. This was not the case. The amount of techniques, glazes, firing options, measurement possibilities, creative experiments, and vessel possibilities could not fit into this paragraph. However, when I ended that summer course- I had a deep appreciation for ceramics, not simply as an art form- but as a way we created everyday objects all around us. I appreciated the time and energy invested in the dishes I ate dinner off of, the detailed patterns on bowls and cups, handles that didn’t break off of coffee mugs, and the height of any vase. I continued that friendship with the instructor and now, seven years later, I’m in graduate school and exploring the interwoven dynamics of ceramics, painting, sculpture and relief. I cannot say that I would have explored this career if I did not have the opportunity to participate in a ceramics course that allowed my creativity to flow and my mind to experience a different academic style of learning (hands on). In my humble opinion, ceramics is indispensable.”

-Beck, Class of 2014, current MFA Candidate

“Ceramics is something that I have loved doing so much that is was part of my Senior capstone project for my undergrad. It has given me the freedom to express myself more than any other art medium. I have been out of school for two years now . I’m hoping to be able to get back into it and take more ceramic classes because I miss it. There is nothing like the feel of the clay and to be able to mold it into whatever you can imagine.”

-Maleah Friedline Class of 2013

Business major:

“The biggest point I can make about how the course in ceramics positively affected my life is that it showed me that I could excel in something that was outside my normal comfort zone.. “

David, Class of 2017

“I have witnessed students gain greater confidence in their own abilities as a result of working with clay. Seeing that they can learn to create functional and beautiful objects in a relatively short time boosts their self-confidence, which spills into other academic courses. Moreover, it is a pleasure to watch the camaraderie that develops among students working in the ceramics studio, and how they learn to support one another through the learning process. This is an important lesson in the value of cooperation over competition in the classroom.​”

-Dr. Julie Raulli, Professor of Sociology

Science Major:
“The ceramics course I took at Wilson was an incredibly positive and rewarding experience. I’ve never considered myself to be particularly creative, but my professor helped me to realize that everyone is capable of making art and showed me the value of integrating ceramics into a liberal arts curriculum. I believe that it is essential for students to have some sort of constructive outlet, something enjoyable yet educational, and my ceramics course filled that void for me.”

-Rebecca, Class of 2015

I believe the experience of these students speaks to your mission for Grinnell students. As you suggest on your website, when asked “Why a Liberal Arts College?”, your site states  “Grinnellians learn how to learn. Within their major, students develop depth, and from their other course choices they develop breadth. No matter what students study, they develop the hallmark skills of a liberal arts education — critical thinking and well-reasoned writing and speaking — that help them succeed in any field they care to pursue and enjoy productive, meaningful lives. “I implore you to reconsider your commitment to the ceramic arts. The student experience aligns directly with your goals for the well-rounded liberal arts student. If my plea cannot convince you, perhaps Roberto Lugo’s speech from this year’s meeting of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) can because sometimes, it’s about so much more than just clay.

Thank you for your time and thoughtful consideration.

Respectfully Yours,

Denise Joyal, MFA
Adjunct Professor, Ceramic Arts
Wilson College, Chambersburg, PA​


 It was extremely exciting to see this forward from Simon:
Dear Denise,
Thanks very much for your note.  Your points regarding the value of ceramics to  a liberal arts education are very well taken.  I am also pleased to let you know that the Studio Art faculty have decided to continue with ceramics as part of their curriculum in the future.All the best,
Mike–Michael E. Latham
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College
Professor of History
Grinnell College

Let me just repeat that…..

I am also pleased to let you know that the Studio Art faculty have decided to continue with ceramics as part of their curriculum in the future.

I am not often at a loss for words, but at the moment, I can find none to adequately represent my emotions…..