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Centering: Community, clay and culture

In Baltimore with Beth Cavener Stichter and 6000 artistic souls

The 39th Annual Conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (known to most of us more simply as NCECA) was held in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 16th through 19th this year. Each year NCECA is held in a different city and the audience continues to grow – it has become affectionately known as the "Clay Olympics" as each city tries to outdo the previous one with the quality of the program on offer, the number of exhibitions, and the magnitude of the turnout. This year, the attendance was up by 2000 from last year’s 4000 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The words "Baltimore" and "Maryland" meant little to me before I crossed the Pacific Ocean to start a new life in the US of A. But soon afterwards I happened to run into Beth Cavener Stichter, a lovely, incredibly intelligent and – might I say – kick-arse ceramic artist, and over a sushi dinner she invited me to join her and her mother, Nan Jacobson, on a trip to said city (Baltimore) in said state (Maryland). It was only after I read the program on the conference website that I realised that Beth was one of only six demonstrators and Nan her assistant. Nan’s work is featured in Ceramics Art & Perception, Issue 41.

Setting the scene

Cornered Hare - Beth Cavener Stichter
Cornered Hare - Beth Cavener Stichter

It took about eight hours to drive across the country from the mid-west (the town of Bowling Green, Ohio), through Pennsylvania and then on to Maryland. For Beth it was a familiar journey. She had already returned from a round trip to Baltimore, during which she delivered work for her solo exhibition The Wildness Within at the G Spot Audio Visual Playground, a gallery in an old re-furbished cotton mill, and a group exhibition titled School’s Out at the Community College of Baltimore County, which featured the work of young American emerging artists. Her work consists of anthropomorphised animals, most of which (hares, goats, boars and various other large beasts) are larger than life-size. Works can be viewed on Beth's website. Consequently, in order to avoid a prohibitive shipping bill, Beth has armed herself with the largest van made in the US (literally) and a double–axle trailer, which she and her husband, Matt Stichter, have driven across the length and breadth of this vast country many times.

On Wednesday morning, Beth, Nan and I made our way to the Baltimore Convention Centre where the conference was to take place. The city of Baltimore is located on the East coast and the Baltimore Convention Centre stands beautifully in view of the harbour area. It’s not Sydney Harbour, but it smells like ocean, it’s famous for crab cakes, and it has decent sushi. The enormity of the conference hit me when I saw this building and how full it was of people. It boggles the mind that so many ceramic artists live in this country.

Three huge halls, which would have been fit for airplane hangars, were dedicated – one for the university, residency and suppliers stalls, one for the demonstrators, and one for the major slide lecture theatre. A number of other rooms on floors in between served as the venues for discussion panels, exhibitions, auctions, sales, student slide shows, international slide shows and portfolio workshops – you name it, it was there. And, realistically, the organisers wouldn’t have done too badly if they provided everyone with scooters – I got some good exercise traversing the distances between these rooms many times each day.

Tour de clay - some highlights

J'ai Une Ame Solitaire - Beth Cavener Stichter
J'ai Une Ame Solitaire
Beth Cavener Stichter

On Wednesday, bus tours were organised to take the conference participants around the circuit of the 160 exhibitions, featuring work by no fewer than 878 artists, hosted by the city of Baltimore and organised in large part by Baltimore Clayworks. This entire effort was dubbed "Tour de Clay". Of course, it was impossible to fit all the shows into one day. Various other random events conspired against the tours, such as the circus coming to town and closing down the main street with elephant feeding sessions (no joke), road works which started on Monday and resulted in detours that made the G Spot incredibly hard to find (bad joke), and a fire in the town centre that left many stranded outside the NCECA 2005 Clay National Juried Exhibition at the University of Maryland in the rather brisk afternoon wondering whether catching a taxi might actually be a better idea. Some brave souls ventured out into the mad Baltimore traffic on their own wheels and managed to see those shows more off the beaten track.

Overall, my very favorite exhibition that day was at School 33 Art Center, titled The Clay Studio: Thirty Years. The Clay Studio is a residency program located in the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and provides grants for international visiting artists to participate in their residency program. This exhibition featured the work of past and present residents. I was very impressed with this intelligent and professionally executed work by artists such as Adelaide Paul (BE)witch (Ceramics Art and Perception, Issue 56), Julie York Amorphous, and Matt Wilt Satellite (Ceramics Art and Perception, Issue 42) among others. Matt also gave an excellent presentation during the emerging artists’ forum and totally blew me away with the myriad of different styles and techniques he has worked in.

My favorite exhibition venue, however, also deserves a mention. This was the most unique, by far. The "Artstream Nomadic Gallery: Exploring the Domestic Landscape" is a 30 foot, 1967 Airstream Sovereign Land Yacht, which is a fancy way of saying "caravan" – but it’s the American type, which sort of looks like a silver sausage on wheels. Inside, it has been decked out with some timber shelving and serves as a slightly cramped, but nonetheless adequate venue for very saleable functional work. At times, we were playing "see how many people can fit inside a tin can" and it began to feel slightly claustrophobic. The Artstream has one major advantage – it can park where it likes and it brings the work to you. How many times have you wished your gallery could do that?

Thoughts, critiques and general impressions from an Australian in the USA

Field No 2 - Tsehai Johnson

Here I would like to make a general observation based on the few NCECA exhibitions that I was lucky enough to see; it seemed to me the NCECA organisers chose to feature work which utilized a myriad of mixed media.

As examples I cite the artists from The Clay Studio: Thirty Years - Adelaide Paul, who ‘dresses’ her animal sculptures in hand stitched leather skins; Julie York, who incases porcelain objects in plexiglass and puts them behind lenses and Matt Wilt, who uses steel, glass and motors.

Another example, from The Wilderness Within, is the work of Beth Cavener Stichter who uses paint instead of glaze, although I draw attention to the fact that the particular type of paint she uses is basically a glaze without flux. She also incorporates site-specific found objects in such works as J'ai Une Ame Solitaire, affectionately known as "The Beast", a piece which features a brick cart from the Archie Bray Foundation’s brick yards. Two further examples, from the NCECA Clay National Exhibition, are Tsehai Johnson’s Field No 2, utilising feathers together with slip cast porcelain, and Untitled by Tyler Lotz, who uses acrylic paint and rubber to give texture to the surfaces of his supple objects.

Something else that struck me was the predominance of narrative and figurative work. It appears that American ceramic artists divide themselves into two camps - the potters and the sculptors. As well as Beth Cavener Stichter and Nan Jacobson there was an abundance of other narrative/figurative artists exhibiting at NCECA, including Sergei Isupov's Terra Sutra II: Erotic Ceramics 2005, Chris Antemann (Ceramic Art and Perception Issue 56) in School’s Out and Katy Rush in NCECA Clay National. Also the less figurative but none the less narrative work of such artists as Jason Walker (Ceramic Art and Perception Issue 55) reinforced this impression. It seemed, on this occasion at least, like pots and vessel-based work were in the minority.

The other pleasant thing to note is that many American artists tend to have freed themselves of the plinth. Among my favorite examples is former Archie Bray Foundation resident Alison Reintjes in the School’s Out exhibition, whose wall pieces, with decoration inspired by fabric designs, double as functional vessels when taken off the wall. In the same exhibition could be found Beth Cavener Stichter’s emotionally charged piece, a child-sized struggling hare, pinned to the wall by a rusty gear, titled One Last Word. Another example was Bobby Silverman’s Untitled (Ceramic Art and Perception Issue 41 and 49) exhibited at the NCECA Clay National. This new work was inspired by giant tile paintings he saw in China. Lifting any work up to eye level changes our perception of it. No longer an object we look down at, or into, it begins to relate to the body in a similar way as a painting or print might, and takes on a new power as it protrudes into our space and impinges on our visual field.

Artists- left to right -  Sergei Isupov, Jason Walker

Artists- left to right - Sergei Isupov, Jason Walker

Maybe there is simply more variety on offer - I think this is due to there being so many University level ceramics programs in such a densely populated country. As to their number, I do not even hazard a guess, but the population of the USA was roughly 281.5 million in the year 2000, making it over 15 times the size of Australia in roughly the same landmass. And with variety comes a pushing of boundaries.

Many artists who pursue MFA degrees at these institutions are encouraged to abandon ceramics and work with totally different materials for a while, just to expand their horizons. Others take ceramics as part of sculpture degrees, or are required to explore different media in conjunction with their ceramic education. The stigma of ceramics as craft rather than art is suffered here as in Australia. To such an extent that some artists might even consider exhibiting at medium-based events like NCECA to be detrimental to their careers. These are the artists who distance themselves from ceramics and embrace the fine art of sculpture. Maybe this is a hidden reason as to why American non-functional ceramicists like to drop all reference to craft material, namely the mud, and be identified as sculptors. Or perhaps this is indeed exactly what we all need, to finally shake that very stigma away from the medium.

Untitled - Tyler Lotz
Untitled - Tyler Lotz

Not all boundaries pushed seem to go in the direction dictated by reasonable taste. I do not want to claim here that my taste is good – just acknowledge that it is undoubtedly shaped by the environment in which I was educated. For instance, I found a lot of the work on offer was very loud and over the top. Lots and lots of layers of colour...and pattern...and texture...until the result just hurts the eyes and insults the sensibilities. More, in my opinion (and this is my article after all), is not necessarily better. Also, some work in notably high profile exhibitions was visibly technically flawed and sported some rather shameless faults to the extent that I was surprised the curators of these excellent exhibitions allowed it.

Something I admire about the American ceramics culture, which is lacking in Australia, is the availability of numerous excellent residency programs. Programs such as the Archie Bray Foundation, The Clay Studio and the Kohler Arts Centre provide a vital jumping off point for emerging artists. Many artists who finish their MFA degrees go on to these programs and receive the use of facilities, promotion, guidance and, above all, time to centre themselves and develop their ideas outside of the institutional environment. Many find that it is during this time that their work matures and that the galleries start to take notice. Although the residencies are strictly non-profit, realistically the artists emerge to find a much broader network of galleries than in Australia and a wealthier audience.

It is notable that the artists who participate in these residencies seem to be the cream of the crop, so to speak. The presentation, as well as technical and conceptual level of the work by past and present residents, stands out head and shoulders above the other exhibits I saw during the conference.

Stay tuned, to follow in Part II, the conference itself – talks, slides and demonstrations held over the next two and a half days, in particular the amazing demo by Beth Cavener Stichter.

Emilka Radlinska
May 2005