Milwaukee Hosts National Ceramics Conference
Thousands of artists have come, and viewers can see hundreds of exhibits, many more zany than you might expect.
For those interested in ceramics (and their legions are growing), the annual conference of the National Conference on Education for the Ceramic Arts is the place to be. Every year, more than 3,000 potters, artists, educators and students gather in a different city to exhibit artwork, demonstrate their skills and deliver geeky academic papers on anything from the origins of British blue and white transfer printing to the mechanics of building a kiln that runs on hydrogen (I’m not kidding).
The past few years have taken the NCECA conference to Seattle and Houston, which both have their charms, but a ceramics conference represents a tiny blip on their radar. In contrast, this year’s conference in Milwaukee is a big deal for the city, as its museums, galleries and schools have been dying to find ways to share their cultural bounty with the rest of the world. Wisconsin has a proud ceramic tradition—from the many rural potters that dot the rural landscape to almost all of the schools in the University of Wisconsin system, which all seem to nurture their own specialties and communities.
Over the next week, Milwaukee (and surrounding towns like Racine, Sheboygan and Kenosha) will be bursting with over a hundred exhibitions, demonstrations and special events. While ceramics certainly possesses an (ahem) “crunchy” history, you’ll certainly find far more than lopsided brown travel mugs around town. Although the conference takes place in the Wisconsin Center downtown, the jewel in the NCECA crown is arguably their biennial invitational exhibition, which is taking place at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The show, entitled Flow: The 2013 NCECA Ceramics Arts Invitational, features mammoth ceramic sculptures, introspective installation pieces, mind-boggling 3D fabrication and works that challenge the notion that ceramics have to be “beautiful”.
The Wisconsin Center also has plenty of art that is on public display. The mezzanine level of the conference center is almost entirely devoted to exhibitions that are free and open to the public from Wednesday morning through Friday afternoon. You’ve just got to brave the hordes of clay geeks to see them. The Wisconsin Center includes showcases from some of the most venerable ceramic-based arts organizations in the country—namely the Archie Bray Foundation from Montana and The Clay Studio from Philadelphia (full disclosure: the writer is the Clay Studio’s curator). The Conference center is also hosting an exhibition of figurative ceramic sculptures from the Racine Art Museum, an exhibition of homegrown Wisconsin talent, and one of my personal favorites, the always stunning K-12 exhibition, which provides a platform for shockingly virtuosic ceramic art by elementary, middle school and high school students.
Another spot that is hosting no less than 13 exhibitions is the Pritzlaff building (333 N. Plankinton Avenue). You can see exhibitions that range from Neil Forrest and John Roloff’s geological exploration of the Great Lakes to The Subjective Meadow, which is an installation of work created by Chicago Art Institute Professor Katherine Ross… in collaboration with two mules (yes—you read that right). The Pritzlaff is also hosting exhibitions and installations that riff on cultural traditions like the Japanese tea ceremony (by Tetsuya Yamada) and vessels used in African-Diaspora religions (Adam Posnak). There is a sprawling exhibition entitled Taming Nature that explores flower arrangement and another entitled Working Draft that seeks to broaden the dialogue about what constitutes ceramic art.
One of my main recommendations (sight-unseen, mind you) is an exhibition organized by Jill Foote-Hutton, who is the curator at the Red Lodge Clay Center. Foote-Hutton recognizes that ceramic art is fundamentally about the act of touching and interacting with objects made out of clay. She has engineered an experiential exhibition (also at the Pritzlaff) entitled Within the Menagerie, that invites viewers to touch and interact with certain elements, which is meant to draw them into the narratives of the artists.
Immersive Stages, another show at the Pritzlaff, includes an impressive roster of young artists who make both functional and non-functional works. Like the Menagerie exhibition, Immersive Stages seeks to draw the viewer into the worlds created by the artists.
Vanguard Sculpture Services (3374 W. Hopkins St) is hosting a couple of knockout shows with some of the top artists in the field. A Complicated History, organized by Southern Illinois University Professor Pattie Chalmers, uses ceramics to portray (and explain) an instant in time. The artists in the exhibition are all linked through friendship and various professional connections, and have work that generally tends to be quirky and pop-culture based. On the other end of the spectrum is an exhibition at Vanguard by University of Hawaii-Manoa professor Brad Evan Taylor, who creates monumental ceramic sculptures that emphasize the transformative potential of the kiln. Taylor engineers his forms to slump, crack, melt (and generally misbehave) while being fired.
If you feel like a day trip, the Racine Art Museum, which is one of the top craft museums in the nation, is showing masterworks from their permanent collection. The UW-Parkside Gallery in Kenosha is showing a survey of American ceramic masters that may change your mind about youth vs. experience entitled Old Hands in Clay, featuring work exclusively from artists over the age of 70.
The theme of this year’s NCECA conference, by the way, is “Material World,” partially a cheeky Madonna reference, but also a multi-layered wink to the role that ceramics plays in our lives. From our grandmother’s china cabinet to the plates and knick-knacks we sometimes take for granted, ceramics looms larger in our lives than we realize. Every ceramic object is a minor miracle of science and history, and even the most simple one has a range of meanings attached to it.
In a society that cares increasingly about where its food comes from (was anyone else surprised about the bit on last week’s “This American Life” about artisanal toast?), ceramic art is due for a similar reappraisal. Milwaukee is currently filled with thousands of zany artists who range from earnest to post-modern and anti-authoritarian. Take this opportunity to explore the ceramic arts, Milwaukee. You might come away with a new favorite mug, or you could have your brain scrambled by an artist with an unexpected perspective.
Garth Johnson is the Curator of Artistic Programs at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia and a Director-at-Large for NCECA. His artwork can be found at www.theothergarth.com.