Theaster Gates entered into my consciousness on November 20, 2013 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. His presentation, “Time is Longer Than the Rope” was a startlingly brief 20-minute performance. Gates delivered a powerful multi-layered message complete with inferences to I-ching, ‘the hoodoo of the postmodern’ and offered up alternative ways to engage African art with the western (read white) canon of art. The audience was primarily composed of well-heeled white gallery-going establishment, with a minority representation of minorities (myself included). When I heard Gates was keynoting NCECA this year it was the tipping point in my decision to attend in the midst of the final revisions for my MFA thesis. Something in me understood that this man is a man who has the ability to set souls on fire.


If there were 4000 members present at the opening keynote Wednesday evening, there were, in my opinion, possibly fewer than forty non-white members in the room. Gates’ address “Yamaguchi, Soul Manufacturing Corporation and A Potter Named Dave: The Need for Blackness Within Contemporary Ceramics” challenged the members present to internalize the pressing importance of bringing the non-white potters community into its fold, and to figure out a way to make that happen.


I set out to write about the round-table discussion that took place the next morning: “Handle as Bridge: Creativity, Learning and Purpose.” Billed as “a dynamic conversation among visionaries” the session delivered. Along with Theaster Gates, the visionaries included Brooke Davis Anderson, Director of Prospect, New Orleans; Erica Rosenfeld Halverson, alternative education guru from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Bill Strickland, founder of National Center for Arts and Technology. I took four pages of notes. I was riveted. I think I underwent a rarified moment of transformation. Part of me hashing out my thoughts in this post-mortem fashion is a way for me to personally begin to find my path forward as I emerge as a middle-aged graduate with my MFA degree in curatorial practice in hand. I am going to attempt to document the key messages that were raised and reflect upon how these ideas might inform the ways in which we choose to lead our lives as creators/makers in the world today.


Key messages:

“Ceramics has a way of riveting everyone’s attention to the world that is, and the world that can be.” Bill Strickland


Strickland helped us see that “the gift of clay is that it helps you imagine that you have a magic muscle that can take on the world.” That “magic” has transformative powers that ostensibly have the potential to cure what ails the United States of America. Strickland set up an arts school in the middle of the most crime-ridden part of Pittsburgh 27 years ago because he believes that “the arts represent a different way of seeing human possibility.”


“Representation as an idea is a powerful connector across disciplines.”  Erica Rosenfeld Halverson


Within the context of education, image-making is as old as time, and making images with our hands is the same as making images digitally, but less sexy and yet arguably more powerful. Rosenfeld-Halverson spoke passionately about shifting societies’ ideas of what education is, and about “taking back  the idea of failure” as outside of the continuum of learning. In light of Strickland’s note that there is a 50% drop out rate among African American and Hispanic American kids in schools today, she also advocated for education as a distributive process, meaning that not all learning comes from accredited educators: we all have something to give as teachers, mentors and educators.


“There is a willingness inside the human experience to allow our experience of things to act as the counter-narrative to move things forward.” Theaster Gates


Gates’ eloquence on the importance of narrative as a coping mechanism to deal with racial, historical, and war-torn trauma as well as the atrocities of slavery was moving. He referenced both personal and community-based stories. Clay can tell a story in 20 minutes in a way that most professions cannot. There is an immediacy, power and possibility within clay that can help us understand our lives through story-telling.


“Aspiration needs inspiration. Technology and pedagogy are important, but without wonder and awe, we are just going to leave people hanging.” Theaster Gates


In response to Anderson’s point that museums suffer from the inability to capture our imaginations, Gates spoke about how planetariums used to be places of immersive experiential wonder, but that now numbers, statistics and quantification are muddying and dulling its audiences creative impulses.


“White people don’t talk about race…we can’t be in the playbox of race relations until we are stepping up as white people in a conversation about race relations.” Brooke Davis Anderson


Anderson’s honesty was rung true in response to Gates’ blunt assertion that “we are still living in a racist country.” Gates addressed the fact that affirmative action measures might “threaten the white establishment” but argued that in order for institutions and society to have the capacity to change, “institutional ambition should have people from all racial groups who will inform the process and ways it moves forward.”


Coming full circle on how these ideas came crashing into my life; I realize that as an artist, I am someone who is filled with a sense of purpose. Arguably, I believe artists are motivated by their desire to change the world in which they live for the better. Gates asked us to consider “are you the person who makes the thing, or are you the person who makes the thing that makes the thing?” In other words, if you are the kind of person who is restless day in, day out in your studio, and you have resources within your reach to make things happen that can change society – DO IT! Anderson presented Indian sculptor Nek Chand, who transformed the rubble of his city into a sculpture garden that is the country’s most visited site after the Taj Mahal. Chand worked to the limit of his imagination. Gates asked all of us to consider working to the limits of our imaginations. If working day in and day out in your studio is what allows you to work to the limits of your imagination, then that’s fantastic. But if it’s converting an abandoned warehouse into a brick-making company and employing, training and changing the lives of dozens of African American people in inner city Chicago – that’s equally as great.  I think I might be the kind of person who makes the thing that makes the thing. I’m just taking some time to sort “things” out.


Heidi McKenzie, ceramic artist, art critic/journalist, Toronto, Canada