The Alfred Clay Collective Exquisite Wares

Below is a selection of writing from my MFA thesis paper, which illuminates a few of the ideas and issues surrounding this project:

“ Returning from the Mobile Anagama tour, I organized a project which would utilize the site specific potential of the kiln and put focus onto the object as a facilitator and not just as a souvenir.

            Assigned by the faculty to curate Alfred University's involvement in the “A Home for Joe: National Cup/Mug Invitational Exhibition” which was to take place in the Fawick Gallery at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio; In response I proposed the The Exquisite Cup Project to The Alfred Clay Collective (ACC) (the undergraduate student ceramics organization on campus to whom I was the Graduate Advisor).

            The premise of the show was that ten schools had been invited to each submit ten cups which would represent their schools at the exhibition. My proposal to the ACC was that we host a series of events that would result in the generation of Alfred's ten cups. Made in a collaborative cup-making exercise taking from the popular “exquisite corpse” drawing method, we would produce a body of wares, which we would then glaze and fire on the Alfred Village Green (the public park) in The Mobile Anagama. On the day following the firing, the wares would be unloaded from the kiln at the Alfred Village Green that would then also be occupied by the Sunday Alfred Farmers Market. After we had selected the ten cups that would represent the school at the exhibition, we would sell the remaining pottery on site at the market.         

            The project would reinforce the club as a social network and provide opportunities for member engagement that would constitute volunteer hours that could then be put toward determining their eligibility as members to receive funding from the club to attend the annual NCECA ceramics conference. It would create a chance for members to explore the unique kiln and firing process in an unorthodox location and to consider the process and objects created as they would be perceived and evaluated by the general public. It would provide an opportunity for all of the club's members to partake in a national invitational exhibition while also raising money for the club through the sales at the farmers market and at the exhibition.

            Looking at the project only with regard to whether or not these events actually happened, it was a huge success. The club accepted my proposal, we made the wares as a collaborative exercise, we glazed them as an additional event, we prepped the wood needed for the firing, we assembled the kiln on The Village Green, we fired the wares publicly, we unloaded the kiln the following morning, we selected the ten cups which were to be exhibited, we raised over $600 selling the wares at the market, we packed up the kiln and departed in a timely manner, we exhibited the selected cups at the exhibition, and we raised an additional $100 from the sale of two cups at the exhibition.

            However, the project was not well received by a number of the Alfred Clay Collective members who were made sour by the whole experience. They took issue with informality of my proposal, which I never gave to them as a hard copy, and they perceived the adjustments of plans and growing list of jobs that needed to be done as being deceptive and manipulative in nature. My lack of knowledge regarding group management and collaborative techniques left me unable to effectively deliver the necessary information that could have inspired their embracement and co-authorship of the project. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convey my genuine intentions of conducting a project that could be mutually beneficial to their club and my art practice. This dramatic miscommunication lead to the total villainization of myself and my work, my raging outburst of emotion in a semi-public space on one occasion and the sustained perception by a select few that I am a morally flawed individual.

            The physical objectives of the project were clearly accomplished, but with regard to its reception by the individuals who I intended to engage most directly with it, it was in many ways a complete failure. The group whom I intended to become more in touch with was pushed away. The events and objects that could have brought the project's goals to fruition were made empty by spiteful participation. Ultimately, it came down to an issue of practice. I was unprepared.

            This example warns of the dangers of being ill-equipped and also raises the question of how the work should be critiqued and evaluated. We can look at how the project may or may not have accomplished its goals by assessing each of its elements with regard to how well they accomplished their intentions. Did the project produce the 10 cups to represent Alfred at the “A Home for Joe” National Cup/Mug Exhibition? Yes. Did the participating Alfred Clay Collective members gain a greater understanding of the social potentials of contemporary art making? Maybe. Did the project occur as the utopian collaboration it was intended to become? No. However, we know that to consider the value of an artwork, it is essential that we take its context into consideration. So, why and where did it occur? It was done as an experimental response to an assignment at a school.

            In this way, it seems essential that we acknowledge my work as a MFA candidate as being the work of a student. Not to downplay it's value, but to assist us in identifying how it should access its success. The success of these projects should be predicated on what I have been able to identify through them that will assist in the further development of my art practice in the future. It should be determined by what I have learned.

What I Have Learned

             Aesthetics is a perception generated as the result of our awareness of a specific context, and thus aesthetic impressions are dependent on the location, the encounter, the viewer, everything else that has led up to that point, etc... With this in mind, I do my best to research location, to structure the encounter, to acknowledge the viewer, to know the history of the forms I employ, and to place them in context with one another.

            The aesthetic I aspire to create and utilize is one which may inspire curiosity and trust in my intentions as an artist. It is one I stretch over accumulations of appropriated techniques, thorough analysis of settings, collaborations with individuals, institutions, and my own presence as a performer of and within the art. Projects call for specific methods depending on intent and context and many include opportunities involving unfamiliar elements which are too good to pass up.

            As I am developing a practice around these opportunities, I am recognizing my permission to make in whatever way and with whatever techniques will best facilitate my goals. Utilizing my pre-existent skill sets and embracing new forms which I can then reference in future projects. Ceramics, collaboration, furnace building, sign painting, furniture construction, poster design, social media, academic research, photography, video and my own presence, have become my primary tools for conducting my practice. But, this expanding set of tools has also meant re-confronting the phrase, “The jack of all trades is the master of none.”

            As I have recognized my permission as an artist, I have also realized the value of my knowledge and training in ceramics to a much greater extent. A nuanced command of the material allows me to construct dynamic settings that I can use to facilitate participation, and suspend disbelief in the intent of my projects. Skill can inspire interest and trust in an idea. A form or color may catch the eye and give an entrance point. Surface and texture can speak through touch for those more tactile learners. The relatively low cost of the material allows me to consider the functional souvenir as a way to fund projects and to extend my work into the intimacy of homes and daily rituals. The process of wood firing ceramics is particularly labor intensive, conducive to group participation and spectacular to witness. The ceramics community is a tight knit community of makers united by the difficulties of its technical production, connected by a creative practice of making which is conducive to the production of expressive and functional objects that are typically accessible to a more public and democratic art market. With these attributes, I am exploring the functionality and accessibility of pottery as a means to construct cultural common grounds on which to employ experimental systems for social engagement in an effort to elicit critical exchanges.

            However, as I may recognize the opportunities afforded by the command of a specific material like ceramics or of any skill for that matter, decisions about which to use for each project have ultimately become site specific. The location and collaborators for a project assist in determining the intent of a project and thus also the skills that will be used to carry it out. This localization of my working has made it quite straightforward to discuss individual projects, “I did this so that this would happen,” and much more difficult to talk about my practice in an overarching way, “I do these things so that these things will happen.” I do certainly have things that I do, but what it is I aim to accomplish in doing them, beyond sustaining my own practice, is entirely dependent on the variables: who, what, where, when and why.

            This constant then, the need to sustain my practice, is invariably built into the work. It is the inevitable root of dramas and the necessary consideration that allows me to move forward on my mission to make a rewarding future... “