Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

Seeking the Edge (Unedited version)

This article is featured in the 2007 Winter Issue of Studio Potter Magazine. Mary Barringer was very generous to include it and together we edited it down to a manageable size. Since I can be a bit more self-indulgent here, I'm including it in the original state.

What might a relevant conversation about contemporary ceramics look like? What terms do we need to define? What questions would we or should we pose? Who would be included in the conversation? Why would we even bother to try and discuss such an amorphous idea?

I think we bother to define our evolution so we have some measure of control over where we are going as a community. I believe we are on the verge of an exciting paradigm shift in the craft world, and failure to support it may result in a thinning of the ranks. Maybe we need the ranks thinned. It is my hope a relevant conversation would include established and emerging artists from a variety of fields, gallery owners and museum curators, as well as educators and the digitally savvy. I wonder if we would find material, at long last giving up the shotgun seat. Would certain fears be realized? Would a faction of craftspeople eschew all tradition to earn credibility in the world of fine art? Would we be able to clearly outline what is to gain or lose from an intimate understanding of one material? Would such a conversation or such definitions create a schism and hearken the death knoll of the informed vessel? Do we have to kill our masters in order to evolve?

Such conversations do occur. They occur on line, at workshops, conferences, and watering holes across the globe. Just such a conversation began between my friend and colleague Leandra Urrutia and myself almost two years ago. We were both frustrated with the amount of closed doors encountered when our work did not fit neatly into an art OR craft category. We knew we did not want to rehash the tired tale of art v. craft, but much like the current insipid tune of the day stuck in your head, we found it challenging to shake the refrain. Finally we realized the reprise should be posed as a question of whether or not the world was ready for the new species born of a craft tradition and educated in a world of formal academic art. We are of a generation, which takes it as matter of fact that we should know as much about Giotto as we do the West Coast Pottery Movement. We understand why wedging is important just as we understand why the rule of thirds is significant in a composition. Our teachers said, “Why not,” to a marriage, or at least a brief affair, of Jackson Pollack and Peter Volkous. As their students, we say, “Why would you even have to ask?”

Leandra and I tried, with lukewarm success to generate a conversation about the topic at NCECA in a breakout discussion. A few interested people showed up along with all of my students, and while I appreciated their support it was kind of like your mom telling you you're pretty. Our small group did discuss, in a rather halting and stilted conversation, makers who had mysteriously crossed over to the museum of art from the craft museum. Were they revered because they were perceived as an exception to the rule? Did the world of fine art grant them merit in spite of their ties to craft or because of their excellence in the field? Why, with such precedence, was it still hard for our own community to embrace non-traditional methods outside of the annual regional student exhibition? It almost seemed as though there was a double standard for students vs. professional maker. “It's fine to experiment with purposeful play in school, but it won't be tolerated in the field.” Surely, this could not be the case. Our discussion did lead us to one place, quit talking and start doing.

My school provided a unique opportunity, a newly constructed gallery space, an amazingly supportive administration and a department small enough to allow me full latitude. So Leandra and I organized an exhibition of our own. Sixteen artists were invited to exhibit their work this past spring. The artists we invited were asked, because we perceived them to be a group of artists working with clay, but not bound by the history or traditions of clay. The collection was billed as “Blue”, as in risqué or somewhat obscene—meaning traditionalists of the medium might find the exhibition irreverent at best and sacrilegious at worst. The artist included were: Adelaide Paul, Albert Pfarr, Jason Briggs, Matt Mitros, Jonathan Barnes, Ian Meares, Leandra Urrutia, Tom Dykas, Jen Sudekum, Jennifer Holt, Melissa Mencini, Trey Hill, Blake Williams, Max Thomas, Brian Harper and myself. The exhibit fully embraced art and craft, although I suppose function was left out in the cold. These sixteen artists were utterly engaged in a discussion of material and craft tradition, it just looked like a very new conversation to most eyes. I have seen similar exhibitions at NCECA, but rather than a for-us-by-us spirit, “Blue” occurred outside the protected enclave of the craft community, and reached a broad audience. Matt Mitros, Jennifer Holt and Leandra came to speak and the audience, which included students, their families and my colleagues, grew in their understanding of the potential clay holds as a material. Mitros encapsulated the feeling stating the level of enthusiasm about the exhibition reinforced the feeling that “Blue” was an important and worthy exhibition. The artists are scattered across the United States and they will tell their small microcosms about the show, they will hopefully discuss the ramifications behind such a grouping and little by little we will make a place for ourselves.

The artists in blue are part of the evolution of our craft, and where does this work fit? Can we continue to create our own arenas like Manet or the Ashcan School? Both are examples of art rebelling against traditional subject matter and methods. During the reign of Napoleon III Manet tried in vein to win acceptance from the Salon. He created works that brought classical ideals into the modern age and confronted his viewer. He was reviled for it. Manet resolved to present his work in a one-man exhibition coinciding with the Salon exhibition. What did he gain? Notoriety and respect. He risked everything to hear an unbiased judgment from the public and from his contemporaries. Suddenly, he was the hero of a new wave of artists and opened the door for a slew of movements that fed, one into the other, for decades. The Aschan School never even asked permission or sought approval, they simply steamed ahead creating work by, for and about the common individual rather than the privileged class. They too were not rewarded immediately by history. They were told their work belonged, where? That's right, in an ashcan. I don't know that the artists in “Blue” risked everything to hear an unbiased judgment from the public and from our contemporaries, but I do know such efforts are how the standard begins to change.

The “salon” of the clay world recently acknowledged Leandra when she received an Emerging Artist award at NCECA. She, and others like her, will have the credibility to inspire the next generation. Leandra asks, “What if I changed the skin of my ceramic object? What if I glue marabou, an axe handle and rhinestones to the clay?” It will not even occur to her students to do otherwise, they will traffic, guilt-free, in the realm of glazes and bedazzlers equally. They will know enough to not be intimidated by their peers who speak eloquently about firing schedules. However, liberty and accolades dance along the edge of a dangerously sharp trimming tool and I'm the last person who wants to see too many flocked ceramic objects in a room full of makers who forgot how to salt-fire. Critics of the new liberty are right to guard the sacred halls where all craft tradition and labor are stored. There is absolute value in digging the clay, building the kiln, making the pot, finding the fuel, grinding the cobalt—I get tired just making the list, but the methods SHOULD continue to be guarded and passed on to the next generation, but NOT at the expense of evolution. Critics of accolades like Emerging Artist are right about the danger of awards. Awards can lead to too many people trying to hit the target and not enough people trying to shoot the arrow. Awards have the ability to uphold the status quo, but they also have the ability to inspire and lend credibility to trendsetters.

At the beginning of my conversation with Leandra we simply wondered where our work would fit. Could we create our own arena like Manet? Could we organize a group like the Ashcan School and risk the ridicule? Was it all ego talking? A sampling of my own individual experiences include flattering rejections such as:
Your presentation was superb and the work very interesting. Unfortunately, we couldn't narrow a selection to one or two pieces without the context/framework of the entire [body of work]. Thanks for the opportunity to review your work.”
OR from a craft school

“Our clients come to learn specific techniques, we really wouldn't know how to market you. Maybe you could try (insert any other place here).

Such conversations and comments have inspired me to explore the idea of making individual objects rather than performative installations. They inspired me to try a figure out a way to market myself in the form of a workshop, and even I haven't arrived at a good answer yet. They inspired me to refine my craft. They made me question the quality of my efforts. They also made me feel somehow penalized because individuals in charge of juries lacked the imagination to see how my work would fit in an exhibition. I am also encouraged to look around and see what else is happening, so now I'm going to do my LeTigre impression and count off artists who are working in an uncompromising fashion, pushing the definitions of art, craft and/or clay. These are artists who defy definitions and boundaries. These artists inspire hope for the future. Gruenwald creates busts from broken shards in a sculptural mosaic form. Jun Kaneko loses no ground moving from clay to glass and back again. David Gilhooly mad a lasting contribution the ceramics field and followed his pied piper right into the mountain, not looking back. Irv Tepper didn't even show his actual work, only the photographs, and he did it 30 years ago! Tre Arenz would work simultaneously on a drawing and a sculpture inspired by material, but never bound by it, literally drawing with mud. Thomas Nordstrom incorporates burping, gurgling mechanization and polymers in his work. Marek Cecula has a conversation about history, space and form and isn't penalized for using mass produced objects. Ruth Duckworth and Betty Woodman are equally celebrated in the craft world and the world of museum establishment as ARTISTS—full stop. Blake Williams pushes material and process to the front of the format unapologetically, while Matt Mitros is linked to clay almost in process alone crating plastics shaped by clay and handled like clay. Still there doesn't seem to be enough room in juried ceramic exhibitions for emerging work pushing the boundaries of craft traditions. The strongest collections of such examples seem to be found in a smattering of exclusive invitationals. Success is sometimes found when the new breed of craft artist pursues sculptural competitions, but I don't think we want to lose our innovators to another field.

The origin of the “artist” as an idea can be found in the Renaissance when artists (painters and sculptors) identified themselves with doctors, because they had equal training. Artists knew as much about anatomy, philosophy, literature and history as other professional members of their society. The artists were elevated in social status because they called themselves important and demanded the same status for art as science. Consider the exclusive and protected worlds of art today. At the risk of oversimplifying: painters are cosmopolitan, potters work hard and are humble, sculptors' work will last forever, glass artists throw a great party while they work. So many tidy little well defined boxes. Much like the educated elite of the Renaissance, today’s' groups are reluctant to share or reinvent their very well defined roles. Reality is what we name it and we may name a teapot art. We may even name the space between art and craft a valid area rather than a gaping negative void.

Object/image makers who seek the edge have an imperative to disturb their audience into a state of lucidity; out of their comfortable complacency. And hey, no one likes to be awakened with a jolt, but once the last clinging droplets of sleep have run off and pooled we all might just feel a bit refreshed. We just might find a community replenished with makers competently engrossed in material, yet freed from the potentially binding corset of tradition. Makers engaged in a sincere exploration of content and concept. Makers brave enough to set the clay down when necessary without abandoning their lineage. And if we fall between the cracks of suitable exhibition space, as it exists now, we will have to seek a new type of curator. We will have to explore new realms of exhibition.

In seeking such venues I believe the craft tradition has something to teach the fine art world. Art is going to move out of the gallery and into real life with real people and craft is the exemplar. The handmade utilitarian object has always been an integral part of everyday life, and managed to achieve this role not from the pedestal of a gallery, but from the cupboard, the table, the closet, the silverware drawer and from the front porch where it sat comfortably in the form of a hand hewn rocking chair. The paradigm shift we are experiencing right now allows us to witness capital A-R-T follow suit as it seeks an audience outside of the privileged elitist world of the gallery or museum.

Ahra lee took an image of herself everyday for three years, created a film of the images and posted it on line as an intentional catalogue of her own evolution. Self-serving? Yes. Clever or original? No. But she was the first one out of the gate with the idea, and not all virgin efforts are going to be the most eloquent statements. However, the effort does point in a new direction and so the long jam has begun. Justin Novak has created a riff on Andy Warhol's Factory with his students. Under Novak they created a product line utilizing methods of mass production and clean design. He too is helping build the next generation who will not be dazzled by Isaac Mizrahi at Target. For Novak's students it will be a matter of course –mass production is not taboo, good design is mandatory, and the audience need not have a deep understanding of art history to GET IT! The artist Banksy filled record stores throughout the United Kingdom with altered versions of a Paris Hilton CD. He changed the imagery of the cover art, helping Paris say what she really means with humorous collage. He remixed the tunes and then put the original sleeve back on the case. Unsuspecting consumers, and fans of Paris, purchased the original Banksy version and did not discover the guerrilla collaboration until they arrived at home. Lee, Novak, Banksy and even Mizrahi rediscovered the larger audience. I don't think this is the death knoll of galleries and museums. Just like photography was not the death knoll of painting. There are many reasons for making, but let us not forget the passive aggressive nature of the artist. We do want our objects and images seen and/or used. We want our quiet voices heard and it gets a little hard for the sound waves to penetrate the insulated safety glass of a museum.

Forward thinkers of the Renaissance allowed only noblemen to be educated in the arts and the doors were shut tight to the commoner, because this was the precedent set by antiquity. Doesn't the primordial material we deal with as ceramists offer a bridge to such thinking? When the work is functional, still informed by content and form, it is easily accessible to every individual who has ever sipped from a cup. When the work is sculptural and made with clay or informed by the clay process, does it not offer an entry point for the individual without a formal art background simply because it is a recognizable, material? Do clay and other craft traditions lose a measure of accessibility once exhibited upon a pedestal? Suddenly the objects leap into a privileged realm of ART where privileged language is used to speak about it, where we have to have training to even begin to comprehend what we are looking at. It is perhaps impossible to have a foot in both worlds and be fully satisfied. Mitros offered up the notion that a material upheaval will inspire cross-disciplinary efforts and challenge potters to make better pots. Material and subject would become fused together in a vessel or in an object, there would be no gross feats of clay, there would only be purposeful use of material and form.

The exciting thing is the world is indeed flattening/browning/shrinking and as it does so we can expect an n increased capacity for unification. Boundaries are being broken and taboos are falling away. The utilitarian object and the fine art ideal are actually going to get married in a reflection of the larger world as a whole. It is frightening, what are the ramifications? It is exciting. What are the possibilities? How long will it take to build a new box? This is just part of the conversation about contemporary ceramics. It is the reflection of one person's experience. Some terms are defined better than others and, as always, there are more questions than answers. It is difficult to chart the course of an organic process, but, as I stated at the beginning of my query, it is necessary to try in order to purposefully evolve.