As the curators of Dirt on Delight predicted, presenting an exhibition about dirt will bring the clay artists out of the studio. While researching the show last winter, Walker coordinating curator Andria Hickey, quickly found out that a number of Minneapolis’ best ceramics artists are in some way connected to the renowned Northern Clay Center or the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ceramics. Both institutions proved to be invaluable resources and provided important insights about some of the issues Dirt on Delight grapples with: the crisscrossing between craft and contemporary art traditions, the need for critical dialogue around clay as an art medium, and the weight of the history of ceramics itself. These informal conversations prompted the Walker, the Northern Clay Center, and the University of Minnesota’s Visiting Artist Committee to bring three artists from the exhibition—Ann Agee, Kathy Butterly, and Beverly Semmes—to the Twin Cities this October for a series of artist talks, workshops, studio visits, and a panel discussion.
In late June, Hickey spoke with program partners Emily Galusha, director of the Northern Clay Center, and Tetsuya Yamada and Margaret Bohls, associate professor and adjunct professor of ceramics, respectively, at the University of Minnesota, about the future of clay in contemporary art.
The Northern Clay Center (NCC) has been taking the pulse of contemporary ceramics for the past 20 years, producing groundbreaking exhibitions and inviting well-known artists—two of whom are included in this exhibition—to give lectures and workshops. Given your work with those artists and your contributions to the field in general, how have you seen contemporary ceramics evolving over the past decades?
NCC’s mission is the advancement of the ceramic arts. We address our mission with the presumption that anything is possible in the medium of clay for the serious artist. In the hands of a skilled and talented potter or sculptor, clay can be made into an object—a tea cup, a vase, a sculpted child, or stylized building—that communicates the maker’s ideas and purpose and provides a fresh view of tea or flowers or childhood or space. The medium has a long and rich history of cultural expression and utility. Whether an object is utilitarian or decorative, clay has been used for centuries to express aesthetic ideas.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of artists (potters and sculptors) working in clay, both primarily and as one of their media of choice. The best work still tends to be done by those with the clearest vision and the most talent. It also tends to be done by those who have a command over the technical requirements of the medium, which they can choose to flout if they wish. They put the craft involved in working in clay in the service of the ideas they are trying to express. Ceramicists increasingly feel free to push against and through—or simply ignore—artificial boundaries between so-called art and craft created by the (largely) Western, and especially American, combination of art historians and dealers.
Although Dirt on Delight includes several artists from the center of the field of ceramics, this exhibition is not intended to be a survey of artwork being done in clay. Instead, it provides a very particular vision of the sculptural possibilities of the medium. How do exhibitions such as this affect your practice as artists and teachers, and members of the ceramics community as a whole?
Clay covers all history and all our contemporary life. There is something so significant and fascinating about the creative process with the primitiveness of clay, and that seems to be within us as human beings. It is timeless. Dirt on Delight offers expansive vision of both the mainstream art world and the contemporary ceramic scene. There are limits, and sometimes these limits have caused bumpy rides in both areas for artists. This exhibition leaves the limits behind, and opens the doors, which ultimately provides us with more possibilities. If you look at the artist’s background and types of work carefully, you will find diverse identities throughout the works in the exhibition. It is interesting to find such expansive views through what appears to be a limited medium.
In my experience there have been very few, if any, exhibitions like this one that presents clay in a mainstream, contemporary art venue. Ceramics has never existed, and probably never will exist, in the limelight. I believe that most artists choose to work in clay exactly because it is (either safely or dangerously) on the periphery. My expectation is that this exhibition will incite some controversy, not only within the mainstream art community, but also among artists and craftspeople who work in clay. Hopefully, it will call attention to existing prejudices and challenge those of us who work in clay to take a broader view of the possibilities of our own medium. Through this exhibition, viewers will be able to directly connect to the undeniable presence, the visceral tactility and joy of objects made in clay.