Before I start my talk I need to make a few confessions, not the brimstone and fire or begging forgiveness nature but one’s that might help you better understand my perspectives that I will be sharing with you. About five years ago I had an epiphany. My ritual Sunday morning starts with an infusion of coffee before tackling the New York Times in which I started with the Arts & Leisure section, followed by Styles, then Business and so on, leaving the Sports edition untouched. On this particular morning I decided to read the Styles section first, which I have been doing ever since. Now this might not seem terribly earth shattering but it was revelatory in that I felt that culture so informs who we are and as artists, of what we make and how we perceive objects in time and space.




My other confession is that I do not consider myself a scholar, art historian or an academician, although I work at the largest public university on the country with over 70,000 students. I’m a curator who enjoys connecting with artists and other creative types from diverse disciplines who have the capacity to challenge my assumptions about art, culture and shed new light on our complex world. By creating dialogues with diverse points of entry, it confirms that we are more similar than different as human beings.


I’m a project manager, facilitator, networker and mentor. I have to laugh sometimes when people tell me how lucky I am, they want my job as all I do is look at pots all day. Hah! I would venture that half my time is spent at the computer, sending and receiving emails, and fundraising. Another 45% of my time is taken up with meetings, planning future projects, writing and editing books. So that leaves 5% to look at pots! But yes, I am lucky. I have a job I love, interact with a broad interesting constituency, and travel. Believe me this was not a predetermined career path; by pluck and perseverance I have ended up where I am today.

For those of you who know me can attest that I leave my ego out of the equation although I’m self-confident, considered to be laid back, or as Garth Clark fondly calls me the tortoise from Aesop’s Fables, quietly going about my business while the hare is easily distracted. But as in parable the turtle crosses the finish line first. But that’s enough about me for now.

The title of my talk, Decentering Clay: Personal, Communal and Global, is drawn from personal observations over a four-decade involvement with the field and the sea changes witnessed during this period. During these years we have observed high and low tides, soft breezes and howling winds, gentle waves and destructive tsunamis, with the ever-shifting clay world reacting to these trends. We tussled over the art vs. craft debate with no happy conclusion and blood left on the floor, went from selling our pots displayed on milk crates to pedestals, had our own magazines singing our praises and crowed when “one of our own” showed in a real art gallery.



In the early 1970s, as an art student interested in pursuing a career as a ceramic artist, America was witnessing expansive growth in academic craft programs, a small but growing marketplace and burgeoning support groups such as NCECA that bolstered both morale and opportunities. The clay community was centered into itself, creating a hermetic environment that was simultaneously reassuring and yet constricting. We had our heroes: Voulkos, Arneson, Reitz and Frey. When we looked offshore there was Hamada, Leach, Rie and Coper. My worldview was small at the time, but it was exhilarating nonetheless. We were young, energetic and the future held infinite possibilities. As I matured and honed my skills, I became confident that I chose a vocation that gave full expression to how I was and what I wanted to convey to the world.

For the past twenty five years, I have held several positions as a curator and museum director. While my current position is focused on ceramics, my previous positions incorporated the curating of a full spectrum of media. But throughout this journey, it has been through the lens of a former maker turned contemporary curator that has provided me a useful framework when interacting with artists and presenting their work to a larger audience.


People often ask me if I still make work or have any regrets not being in the studio. My answer, unequivocally, is absolutely not. I have always approached the act of curating with the same creativity, enthusiasm and intelligence than I did as a maker. A curators’ job is complex in nature: selecting artists to present, fundraising, organizing group shows with clever themes and titles, writing interpretive panels and being inventive with the installations, showing the work in its best light. It is a succession of see-sawing tasks that require both right and left brain skill sets. It suits my temperament well and boredom rarely sets in.

During the last decade the world of ceramics has expanded at warp speed, increasingly escaping the rigid boundaries of craft and engaged fully with the wider worlds of visual arts and design. The medium of clay has witnessed dramatic swings in studio practice, the marketplace, academia, collecting and presenting since the advent of the postwar craft movement. Globalization, social networking, commodity culture, critical theory and other forces influencing our cultural and social landscapes are continually reshaping what it means to be a ceramic artist in the 21st century.

Craftspeople are not, nor have ever been, a homogeneous group although we tend to think of ourselves as one. We certainly find comfort and solace with each other’s company. We define ourselves as potters, artists, artisans, clay artists, ceramists, artist-craftsman, educators, makers, object makers, vessel makers, and designers. Glenn Adamson at the V & A observed “Craft is often seen as oscillating between design and art, but equally important is the way it moves between the poles of community and individualism. The former belongs to a reformist and idealist tradition, which not only includes the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, but the Arts and Crafts Movement and folk revivals of the early 20th Century. Against this set of ideas has been the individualistic studio model of production, in which one person’s creative achievements are paramount, and the avant-garde intent is often valorized.”



Danish curator Love Jonsson believes “The image of crafts as a community, an economy, a force that does not exist outside the systems of society, but still acts independently and has the potential to influence or challenge them, is not only attractive-it also corresponds to the meanings that many of today’s makers put into their work. Crafts’ potential as a critical tool, operating on and within various social and commercial systems, is becoming increasing emphasized.”


Contemporary clay practitioners today, especially of Gen X, Y and Z, are no longer limited to past tradition. They have become trans-disciplinary, incorporating new technologies, processes and materials that explore the edges of art, design, fashion and architecture. While there continues to be a strong interest in handmade and functional objects, installation-based work, performance, interventions and social practice have become a significant part of our dialogue, creating a dynamic environment for artists, curators and presenters, encouraging new curatorial practices and opportunities for artists. Later this week the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is hosting a discussion titled Art, Craft & Design: Cross-overs and Boundaries in the 21st Century. Six speakers will discuss the evolving nature of craft and how the shift of allegiances and cross-overs has lead it to defy categorization. Some speakers will plea for the preservation of traditional skills while others will argue about the reinvention of these skills. Reflective of the greater society, we are in the midst of an identity crises of great proportions.

These shifting artistic practices are concrete manifestations of very real social, political, technological, economic, ecological and cultural conditions in the contemporary world. Emerging clay practitioners are compelled to incorporate real world thinking into their artistic practices, be it for private concerns, political activism, or collaboration with other artists. They are erecting their own structures of communication and distribution, creating horizontal rather than vertical hierarchies. They seek connectedness through social media, blogging, website construction, podcasts and working with collectives, DIY communities and design partnerships. The Internet has evened the playing field between cultures while expanded opportunities for international residencies have created new alliances in our shrinking world.


Formerly, those regions with the financial wherewithal to promote themselves have drawn more cultural coverage, often at the expense of indigenous communities that were raided of their cultural currency. DIY practice occurs when vertical structures imposed from above, leave the practitioner little leeway for advancement. When the burden of production and distribution becomes too difficult to transverse, new navigational paths are developed to overcome these barriers. Websites, like Etsy, provide artists at varying levels in their career and artistic development to interface directly with the public with minimal barriers of commercial interference. Online galleries are proliferating, and artist websites are de rigueur for any market-savvy artist.

Synnove Vik, a Research Fellow in Visual Cultures at the U. of Bergen, Norway, in her essay Global and Local coins a new word glocal stating “The challenge for each and every one of us is to take a glocal perspective-one that sees global features of the local, and the local in the global-a field in which we can understand how our everyday behavioral patterns affect others in completely different cultures, and vice-versa: how actions taking place in countries far away affect our own lives. In this area, artistic practice has a potentially important role in highlighting the structures that determine the consequences of their actions.” Crafts have a specific function here.

Compounding the diversity of approaches in ceramic practice is the rupturing of the Eurocentric vision of modernism that has opened the doors to new scholarly study revealing the complexities and accomplishments of hitherto disregarded cultures. Superiority was given authority that defined universal features in the arts that are, in fact, quite culturally specific. The decentralization of modernist theory has expanded our knowledge of artistic theories and practices in “outposts” of modernism, that have been brought closer to core discussion in evolutionary art practice. This is particularly relevant to Native American art of this region when pueblo beliefs are either ignored or misinterpreted.



The Internet has opened the doors upon previously unknown worlds, which have paved the way toward a broader more inclusive perspective among artists and cultural presenters. New trends, new attempts by avant-garde advocates to expand the meaning and practice of art, are brought to our attention sooner rather than later through the viability of faster and more accessible means of long-distance communication.

The decentralization of clay is defusing the notion of the classically trained craft centered artist. Conceptual Art in the 1960s and 70s, encouraged artists to work in a variety of mediums, applying individual artistic style to whatever artistic opportunity presented itself. This seems to antagonize many formally trained ceramicists, who view these artists as interlopers and part-time visitors, crossing over to clay from the broader contemporary arts and uneducated in craft traditions. They lack, are unaware, or have little interest in craft history. But these cross-over artists, whether they are painters, video artists or installation artists, bring a fresh aesthetic to the clay world. Ai Wei Wei rocked the world with his iconic gesture of dropping the urn.



Francesca DiMattio, a successful young painter in New York. Her large-scale canvases take architecture as their subject as a means to restructure the concept of space. DiMattio’s buildings and interiors descend into a myriad of perspectival confusion as grid-like patterns of brick and tile, decorative arches, and off kilter staircases become departure points for painterly contrasts and expressive mark-making, creating a dizzying sense of physical environment. Having ties to the ceramics field-her mother is an avocational potter and her father-in-law is Kurt Weiser, her recent foray into clay is a mash-up of history, decoration and form, embodying her interest in the everyday object as a means to explore shifting ideas of beauty, femininity, and art. “Like the paintings, they speak in their own language of materiality to reference history in a non-linear way. As one style is not prioritized over another, the associations are left to mingle and shift on their own. I’m interested in putting the different elements together to shift preconceived notions—and create an unstable view where everything continually undermines or affects the other thing.”  

This is a healthy, stimulating and natural progression as artists seek to appropriate materials to better express their conceptual ideas. This trend has been in force for decades, with such art star luminaries as Picasso, Miro, Fontana, Noguchi, Arman and Jorn, to name a few, turning their attention to clay at different stages in their careers. Recent exhibitions by artists normally associated with mediums outside the field have been met at times with downright hostility – and “mudslinging.” Is this a healthy attitude for us to adopt, given that our traditional markets are vanishing, the craft collector base is ageing, downsizing and not acquiring at the level there were just a decade ago? How are we to survive if we continue to cling to outdated models?


As artists, curators and academics work to acquaint themselves with new approaches to critical theory, conceptualism, and post modernism, innovative formats in education and marketing are being developed. Past curatorial practices have been slow to accept contemporary museum and gallery theory, resulting in a lack of progress in presentation. This has changed for a number of reasons. A new generation of curators and theorists has been trained in allied fields such as material, cultural and visual studies, providing the skills necessary to analyze and interpret images, objects and structures filling our world. Informed by history and theory, they are acquiring the necessary skills to develop critical awareness of how visual cultures, without rigid boundaries, are intertwined with systems of meaning and power.

Despite increasing success in the academic landscape, craft has lacked cultivation of new and larger audiences. Craft has languished in the margins within the larger fine arts community, confining itself to institutions concerned with maintaining the status quo. By addressing contemporary issues impacting new artistic practice, contemporary art and craft curators can encourage artists toward new directions, broaden the range of exhibition possibilities for their colleagues and engage the community in new and exciting ways.


One recent example that received critical attention was Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 2009 then traveling to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which presented works in clay by 22 artists spanning four generations. Ranging from modestly scaled pots and figurines to large sculptures, these objects traverse a spectrum of conventional ideas among fine art, craft, and outside practitioners. The curatorial premise suggested that clay appeals to complex impulses, the delight of shaping form, coupled with the anxiety of completion. All of the works on view appeared to be in some state of flux or growth. The immediacy with which clay allows one to build form and create ornament underlies its appeal—especially in relation to modes of fabrication that seem to take art increasingly out of artists’ hands.

The artists included artists who emerged during the 1990s including Ann Agee, Kathy Butterly, Jane Irish, Arlene Shechet, and Beverly Semmes Nicole Cherubini, Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Sterling Ruby among others, those who established clay as a critical material during the 1960s and ‘70s Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Adrian Saxe, Beatrice Wood, and Betty Woodman, and historic and outsider figures George Ohr and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.



In 2007, the Gladstone Gallery in New York featured the show Makers and Modelers. With 31 artists represented in the exhibition, a wide range of styles, textures, scales, and approaches to ceramic were on view. Makers and Modelers emphasized process and questioned the relationship between object and material. While some of the artists departed from previous bodies of ceramic work, others conveyed a sense of continuity with other media they work in. The works in the exhibition riffed on, or departed from, conventional formal and technical precedents of ceramics.

Last summer, two shows in New York City featured ceramics from both within and outside the field. Salon 94 presented Paul Clay and Casey Kaplan Gallery featured a group exhibition Everything Must Go! The press declared: Move over, concrete jungle! New York is suddenly a city of ceramics. By some odd coincidence, restless aggregations of fired clay are popping up in galleries all over town. Don’t expect the stuff of any potter’s wheel in any of them. These are unique, hand worked forms that constitute some of the most radical experiments in art today. Both show installations were a cacophony of objects at time so tightly packed it was challenging to separate the wheat from the chaff.


Need Transition :
The remainder of my talk will be autobiographical in nature, tracing not only my personal journey in clay, but reflecting upon trends in American ceramics and those abroad. My entrée into the field began with university training is studio art with an emphasis on ceramics. After graduation, I was a practicing artist for ten years; the first two as a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. As an art student fresh from college, my move to Montana from New York came at a time that I was still searching for my artistic vision. This made my residency fertile ground for exploration, experimentation, and interaction with my fellow residents. Most of my colleagues were urban refugees immersed in a counter culture lifestyles, disillusioned with the politics of the Vietnam War. We worked hard, experimenting with wood, salt and raku firings, six days a week, putting in 12-16 hours a day. Each step informed our work. We sold our pots at craft fairs in the Northwest and scraped together a meager living.

Working in this historic brickyard in the mountain landscape of Montana was an inspiration. It is a place where people come of age, finding a niche in the centuries-old continuum of the ceramic arts. From its inception, the Bray has always been artist-centered, having a working artist as its director rather than a professional arts administrator. The Bray had an auspicious beginning with Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio as its first resident artists. Both were native Montanans born of immigrant parents, who went on to become leading ceramists in America. A trail of exceptionally talented resident directors followed in their wake: Ken Ferguson, David Shaner, Kurt Weiser, Josh DeWeese and currently Steven Lee. Throughout its 60 year history, hundreds of aspiring artists have advanced their careers in this nurturing environment. In reviewing the list of past residents, it wasn’t until the early 1980s under Kurt Weiser’s directorship, that international artists were invited to work. Akio Takamori, the Japanese-born artist who studied in the U.S., became an early conduit for other Japanese artists to work at the Bray. In the ensuing years, their numbers has grown exponentially, with the roster of alumni residing worldwide.

After leaving the Bray, I set up a studio where I worked part-time. Realizing that I had other interests I wanted to pursue, coupled with the thought of being studio-bound the majority of my waking hours, no longer suited my temperament. Tiring of the harsh Montana winters, I started to travel extensively in the American Southwest, Mexico and Guatemala. These study trips centered on visits to museums, indigenous potters, Mayan and Native American archeological sites. I began to absorb cultures that I felt an affinity towards. I embraced the integration of land, daily life and a worldview of culturally diverse artists and found them sympathetic with my evolving philosophy. My work at this time reflected these experiences; at first derivative until I was able to assimilate my own interpretations of the culture and landscape.




An opportunity to volunteer at a local historical museum sparked my interest in the museum field. It was the first time I worked behind the scenes; an environment that was completely alien to me. But being in the bowels of a darkened basement, assigned to inventory and catalogues artworks, struck a chord with me. I soon realized that objects-both singular and in grouping-held the potential to convey our collective histories and stories in meaningful ways. After this initial experience, I decided to I enroll in graduate school, earning a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies, part of an interdisciplinary program. My thesis was project oriented and I curated Ashen Beauty: Wood Fired Ceramics, investigating the work of ten American ceramists using wood as a fuel source. In 1990 when this show was organized, wood firing in America was gaining momentum and I felt it was important to look deeper into this. It seemed to me this growing phenomena there were only a small number of artists who thoughtfully integrated aesthetics with process, and strove to develop a visual vocabulary that was not derivative from historical precedents. The participating artists, including Karen Karnes, David Shaner, Frank Boyden among others. Upon graduation I worked for three years in Salem, Oregon curating a non-profit gallery space. At this time I started interacting with Native American artists residing in the Northwest. I became good friends with Lillian Pitt, an enrolled member with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, whose work reflects the ancient as well as ongoing presence of Indian people along the Columbia River. In 1994, we co-curated an exhibition Sisters of the Earth, featuring six native women based in the Southwest whose work centered on the figure. It was an opportunity not only to better understand the artistic impulses of these artists but realize the complexities of their lives. They seek to find a balance, an authenticity, between two worlds. Whether they live on tribal lands practicing tradition beliefs or dwell in urban centers, these artists face the challenges of been romanticized, stereotyped and misrepresented of their cultural currency.

When opportunity knocked to become director & curator at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Montana, I decided to return to the Big Sky Country. The Museum opened in 1987 as the place to experience contemporary art in central Montana; when I arrived in 1993 I was the 4th director as the board and community struggled to define its mission. There were few staff members and the meager $75,000 annual budget was bleeding red. It was scary. A $2,000,000 capital and endowment campaign completed in 2002 added 6,500 square feet to create a dynamic 17,000 square foot facility. The exhibition and education programs are the primary focus of the Museum’s operations, with a commitment to show a wide range of mediums, content, and aesthetic sensibilities. Guillermo Gomez Pena project An experiment in ‘reverse anthropology’, Mexican Cowboys and Indian Lowriders was a commisioned performance and installation creating an inverted world where Chicanos and Native Americans occupy a fictional cultural center and the ‘Anglos’ are nomadic minorities with tribal peoples with exotic costumes. Pena was joined by four Montana native artists, who spent a month collecting objects for their pseudo museum. The resulting diorama was an experimental Indian trading post and curio shop, incorporating fictitious museum labels, racist pop archeology (Indianabilia, Mexicabilia, and Western’ souvenirs. The artist/actors performed as ‘stuffed humans’ or ‘cultural specimens’.


I feel extremely fortunate to hold my current position at the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center, a museum that was one of a few fine art museums, starting in the late 1960s, to consciously undertake the building of a contemporary studio ceramics collection under the visionary leadership of Director Emeritus Rudy Turk. From its inception, the majority of the collection was housed in open storage, providing access to a majority of the museum’s permanent collection. Turk was very democratic in his approach in building the collection and curating exhibitions. He valued the ceramic object’s role as both artifact and, contrary to prevailing biases, art. His maverick approach to curating was rooted in a steadfast refusal to segregate art, craft or folk art. Such traditional museum and art world hierarchies, he felt, created artificial boundaries between objects and ideas.  



The Center, moving to a new location in 2002, is a national and international destination point for the hands-on study and enjoyment of ceramics, housing and displaying an extensive ceramic collection numbering close to 4,000 objects. The collection seeks to embrace representative works by artists, or subject matter that reflects the social, cultural and historical activities of the world. It is primarily post 1950 works dominated by American and British ceramics, demonstrates the full range of technique, aesthetic approaches and possibilities within the medium. Hired 10 ½ years ago, my primary duties include managing and growing the collection, curating 3-5 exhibitions per year and overseeing our archives which includes Susan Peterson’s research papers, Studio Potter magazine’s 25 year archives and an extensive library of books, periodicals, exhibition catalogues and film and video.


Transition with my curatorial ideas
Exhibition highlights:
In the fall of 2009, the ASU Art Museum and the CRC presented a season of exhibitions and projects in a variety of media and formats that came together to define sustainability. My project was the exhibition Native Confluence: Sustaining Cultures. For centuries, native peoples have practiced sustainable living, having a cultural and spiritual connection to the environment and a deep respect for the balance of natural and rhythmic cycles of plant, animal and human life which has always been nurtured and guarded. In Native Confluence: Sustaining Cultures, three Native American artist teams from Arizona and New Mexico each spent one week in residence at the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center. Prior to commencing, all of the participating artists and curator conceptualized the project which was inspired through the lens of a collective. The first residency started the project knowing that ensuing artists would add or subtract to the piece over a period of time. In the end, there was a true collaborative installation that was inspired by material, cultural and personal creativity.

For me it was a curatorial experiment using a different platform of organizing an exhibition, in part the involvement with native artists whose approach to art and creativity differ from conceptually-based work and being open to what the final project would look like. There was an open ended dialogue for both myself and the artists. I liked listening and participating on the decision making process and the fact that no one had true ownership of the work.

Native Confluence spoke to a native worldview in terms of inter-generational methods of practicing sustainability. It’s this approach to organic materials – tools from ancestral traditions – that allow new doors to open. This idea is holistic in its approach; the idea of sustainability is consciousness about the whole – whole community, world and self.

The project included Postcommidity Collective; Raven Chacon (Navajo), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee), Steven Yazzie (Laguna/Navajo) and Nathan Young, (Delaware/Kiowa/Pawnee) Do You Remember When? Mixed-media installation cut concrete, exposed earth, light, sound.

For the site-specific installation, Postcommodity cut a 4’x4’ hole in the gallery floor, exposing the earth beneath the institution and mounting the block of removed concrete, standing upright, on a pedestal and wired for sound. The installation included a manipulated audio recording of a Pee Posh social dance song performed by the collective, concurrent with a closed-circuit audio broadcast activating the physical gallery space.

The exposed earth became a spiritual, cultural and physical portal – a point of transformation between worlds – from which emerges an Indigenous worldview engaging a discourse on sustainability regionally, nationally and internationally. The audio recording provides the psychosocial soundtrack of the transformed space. Part of the Collective’s goal was to engage the gallery space, the university and the region in a manner seeking to shift the discourse of sustainability from a focus dominated by science to a balanced approach inclusive of Indigenous knowledge systems.

Nora Naranjo Morse (Santa Clara), Eliza Morse (Santa Clara) and John Cross Pods, 2009, Mixed-media installation, recycled materials, clay, straw The conceptual underpinning of this project spoke to the idea of the natural/sustainable/organic world moving through environments, both inside the gallery and the exterior. Seed pods are active in their production of life wherever they land and are symbolic of what we as humans hold sacred. Some of the forms migrated outside through the glass windows while others hung from the gallery’s rafters. The pods were constructed of recycled wire and found objects, and then plastered with a mixture of clay and straw found on the Santa Clara Pueblo.



Placement of the organic forms was given thoughtful consideration and several were placed in and around Postcommodity Collective’s existing project. Community and university student engagement was an important aspect of this project as forms were plastered and manipulated on-site.

The Steen family was the last to intervene with the project. The Steen’s through their work at their non-profit Canelo Project, are known primarily for their work in straw bale construction and other natural building techniques, creating simple, comfortable shelter using local and natural materials with handcrafted care. They explore ways of living that connect them to others and the natural world while seeking to balance the wisdom and skills of the past with those things which have value today.

Their residency entailed the construction of a custom-made bench built of straw bales and clay which was integrated into wall treatments of natural clays and colored pigments. A sculptural shelter was built from straw wattles-typically used for erosion control-that provided a dramatic curvilinear entrance into the gallery space. This acted as a “host” for Naranjo’s pods.

Left unspoken, they assumed that their task was to weave a thread of connection between the prior works and to make the overall space more enlivened, which was accomplished. Twenty years ago when they formed The Canelo Project, they coined the phrase “connecting people, culture and nature” to describe their mission. For the Steen’s, their contribution seemed to make that phrase truly come alive.

Retrospective and Mid-career Series: Takamori, Weiser, Karnes, Shaner, Higby.
Susan Beiner, a faculty member of the ceramics department at ASU, spent two years creating Synthetic Reality a mixed-media installation, in 2008. The project explored the artist’s concern with genetically altered foods, cloned animals and the hybridization of our material world. Beiner focuses on contemporary issues of bioengineering and how technology has combined with the naturally-occurring and organic. In the scientific world’s quest to make something better, its unexpected ramifications and its effects on society can prove to be dire.

The theme of globalism has frequently been referred to in my talk and I took it to heart in the last ten years for three reasons: I felt that I was becoming too familiar with American ceramics; I wanted to broaden my knowledge base and lastly on a more practical matter, I’m getting older and it takes more effort to lug suitcases to and from airports, hotels, busses and trains.



Since 1998, I have made six trips to Cuba for cultural and educational exchange. During that time, I have established many wonderful friendships and professional associations with a number of artists, critics and curators that are involved in the arts. Although the work of some Cuban ceramists have been exhibited in Latin America and Europe, their work has had limited exposure in the United States due to longstanding political policies between our countries and the difficulties in shipping work out of the country. Cuban studio ceramics cover a broad and lively aesthetic range: from decorated vases to sculpture and installations, conveying personal ideas of the artists working through a unique prism of their artistic and cultural heritage. Social, political and economic issues further inform contemporary Cuban culture, providing originality to those expressions. Cubans face many challenges in their daily lives, and the artists living there are no exception. A scarcity of materials, power blackouts interrupting kiln firings, and a sense of isolation have both hindered and helped construct their artistic identity. Living with paradox is a common thread. Multiple meanings and references are layered in in a mix of irony, politics, and humor. Drawing strength from their heritage, their art helps transcend the complex political and economic difficulties of life.







University programs such as the Institute of Superior Arts (ISA), located in Havana, have played a significant role in the development of contemporary ceramics. Academic encouragement, along with government support through the artist union (UNEAC), has made for a dynamic environment in which Cuban ceramists create. The work ranges from explicit references to Cuba— though always with wider implications— to work that is either more personal or universal. Three ideas resound again and again: the special condition of being an island; inventando or making do in a place where shortages are virtually normalized; and the rhetoric of history. Multiple meanings are the rule rather than the exception in Cuba, a place in which everything is a metaphor. The opening of the Nacional de Cerámica Contemporánea, in 1990, is in the heart of Habana Vieja or Old Havana. Originally located in the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of the oldest forts in the Americas (built from 1558-1582), the museum recently relocated to its new venue at Casa Aguilera. As its founding director, Alejandro Alonso has helped foster a growing awareness of the ceramic arts both on the island and abroad. As its pioneering director, Alejandro curates open storage for its permanent collection (approximately 750 objects); rotating exhibition space and organizes the Amelia Peláez Biennial. The collection includes works by leading figures of Cuban art with established reputations in painting, sculpture and printmaking including Amelia Pelaez, Alfredo Sosabravo, René Portocarrero, Wifredo Lam and Domingo Ravenet as well as contemporary artists Osmany Betancourt, Teresa Sánchez Bravo, Amelia Carballo and Angel Norniella.



In the spring of 2010 I went to Asia for the first time and spent a month visiting China, Korea and Japan where I met a number of artists and curators, visited art schools and ceramic residency programs and viewed exhibitions in a variety of media. It was important for me to visit these countries, given its rich ceramic history and the impact it has had on American ceramics. Show images of work, studios, and exhibitions.





Last December I spent three weeks in Denmark and Sweden primarily in the vicinity of Copenhagen and Stockholm. I was struck by the many differences in how the clay community operated there. First was the amount of support the government provides: free education, subsidized studio space, travel grants and public art commissions. Secondly how craft and design theory is being advanced through the schools and think tanks and other pan-European consortiums. One in particular is THINK TANK, a small group of theorists, curators and makers who meet yearly in Austria. From their manifesto they state “The intention is not to set up definitions, but to pose questions concerning changes in the role of the maker in the relationship between craft and technology and in the aesthetic and social significance of the applied arts in Europe today.”

With many of the artists I spoke with, they recognized the rich history in the applied and decorative arts and its association with industry and the mass market. All mentioned the lack of private patronage with only a handful of collectors who were purposefully amassing ceramic collections. Many of the artists share studio space with other artists or work in collectives, with members being former classmates or alumni. Part of this is driven by economic necessity, space constraints in urban areas, philosophical alignments or cultural communitarianism.

A collective I met with in Stockholm was We Work in a Fragile Material. WWIAFM is a craft-based design group with anywhere from five to nine members, all alumni of Konstfack, Stockholm’s College of Arts, Craft and Design. Founded in 2001, their goal is the desire to broaden the perception of contemporary crafts and expand the way handicraft is treated and exhibited. An example of one of their projects is In the Eagles Nest, 2006. For three days in the depths of winters, they lugged 400 kilos of clay and food to an isolated cabin in the woods. With only the light and heat of a small fire, they worked inspired from the subconscious and evoked by drum circles, self-made rituals, prophecies and conversing with imagined demons. Following this mystical experience, the objects were later brought to Norway and fired in an anagama kiln located at a remote site. Culminating this project was the exhibition The State of Things held at the Norwegian National Museum in Oslo. On a pentagram painted directly on the floor they constructed an installation of ceramics and photo documentation from The Eagles Nest.




Collaborating since 2007, Tine Brokso and Karen Kjaeldgard-Larsen compose the Claydies studio in Copenhagen. The duo operates in contradictory, humorously associative and opinion-forming universe, ranging from the mundane to reflective. Their True Feelings series, tableware pinched while blindfolded. Their aim, in part, is to turn expectations we have regarding the aesthetic principals of ceramic design upside down and make critical commentary of mass produced objects.

Synnove Vik, recently observed “ The strength of applied arts and crafts in Norway and Sweden in 2011 reflects as many relevant tenancies as in the artistic field as a whole. Nevertheless, a strong link with materials and physical artistic production is an inevitable part of crafts. Artists have their background within a specific knowledge of materials and craftsmanship. The material is often the point of departure for the art object, and the concept is often derived from the material itself. The craftsperson’s material knowledge is inextricably tied to their craft, whether we are concerned with a purely formal-aesthetic object or a conceptual work. This gives the craftsperson a great advantage compared with most contemporary artists, which is particularly pertinent with Scandinavian arts and crafts.”



Repeatedly, I return to ponder the reasons why clay has captivated me. Unquestionably, it has provided me a balance and focus in life, a centering presence informing my worldview. What is it about this seductive material that bonds us all today, with all its historical and cultural connotations and closeness to our everyday lives? It is bewitching, revealing itself in many guises. This medium, with its manifest historical and cultural connotations is transformative, while in the process, connects us at a deeper neural level. Unencumbered by language, reaching across civilizations, clay reveals to me the possibility of a more linked humanity. As a museum curator, it is incumbent for me to make the work come alive with depth and power, reveal individual stories, and celebrate our similarities and differences. This IAC assembly, by nature of its global mission, can provide new pathways to advance an engaging discourse crossing not only geographic boundaries, but building bridges to other disciplines in the broader arts and design fields. Although we might be in a state of flux, it’s a thrilling time to be involved in ceramics, always and forever.

Peter Held is Ceramics Curator at ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center