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!

Harry Levenstein

IG: @harrison_lev