29 November 2012

And Then It Was Gone . . .

There are days when you notice that you took something for granted; something so warm and cozy and inviting that you never realized it would someday be gone . . . 

I received an email on November 28th, just as I was about to walk out the door to catch the shuttle for school. It was regarding the closing of the clay studio at The University of Texas at Austin.

My immediate response, written in a flurry of anger and prompting me to miss the shuttle to school, looked something like this: "Clay is the absolute best, most encouraging material out there and to deny students from being able to experience this full-throttle is inconceivable."

I re-read the email at least a dozen times throughout the day. It took me a while to actually digest the contents of what I read . . . And then, after a day of things bumping around in my head, I came home from teaching and burst into tears.

Ceramics at UT Austin was my life. MY LIFE. Anyone who knows me knows that they didn't have to look any-further-ever than the ceramics lab to find me. Between 1995 - 2000, that's where I was. And again from 2007 - 2008, that's where I was. I grew up there. I learned about work ethic. I learned about critique. But most importantly, I learned to be myself and became a part of a very welcoming and strong community of artists and makers.

In 1995, I was gently persuaded (strong-armed, really) to take a ceramics class at UT Austin. I was a painting and photography person and suddenly needed another 3D course requirement for my degree. I was cranky about it and remembered thinking that I didn't want to make cups and saucers. I was being a spoiled brat. I was 22 and obsessed with color. I didn't think that I would be able to get the same satisfaction out of clay that I got out of painting or color photography. Nevertheless, I enrolled in my first ceramics class . . . And I can honestly say that it completely changed my life forever.   


I could write a long-winded essay about what I used to make then compared to what I make now and blah, blah, blah. But this isn't about that. You see, clay is not just about creating a product or a piece of artwork. Working with clay instills a passion for more than just the finished piece. It's about process, community, and collaboration. In a nutshell, you are taking mud and making something out of it. Sometimes it's functional and sometimes it's sculptural. There is so much connection to the material from start to finish, it's crazy to even think about.

When I started out in clay in the mid-nineties, I didn't know what I was doing with my life. I knew that I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn't quite sure how to make that happen. Ceramics sort of focused me, grounded me. It's incredible how a material can do that. And, it probably doesn't make a lot of sense to people who are not artists. But something happens when there is a connection to a material. It's almost other-worldly. Something else takes over:  passion.  

There was an amazing group of people in the ceramics lab at that time who really influenced me:  Wendy Cook, Rachael Shannon, Bob Schmidt, Lisa Barber, Jennifer Quarles, Janet Kastner, Don Herron, and Richard Bonner

Lisa Barber was the resident graduate student at the time and she and I were tight. We would work really late hours, stopping every once and a while to get Slurpies or watch Conan. We played music really loud and occasionally dance parties would break out. Jennifer and I called these dance parties Club Cone 10. Okay, that was probably more me than Jennifer, but it was hilarious at the time. (I realize as I am writing this that no one outside of the clay world will get this or think it's funny. Quite possibly none of the clay people will think it's funny either.

Jennifer and I also created the bubble, and we talked about everything in that space. We talked about boys we liked and didn't like. We talked about our families. And, we talked about art:  really great conversations about art making and what it meant to be a maker. We did things we probably shouldn't have in the studio, but we were young and learning about boundaries and lifely things . . . 

I raised a little white dog named Raku in the ceramics lab. He slept in a little laundry basket under my table.  

And who can forget the first NCECA that we all went to together in Dallas? We decorated our professor Janet's van while she was in a lecture . . . And each NCECA after that just wound up getting crazier and crazier.

I made the weirdest things during that time period:  a series of clay bras, clay shoes, slab-built clothes, cakes, a giant 85 pound green and pink Kitchenaid mixer that ended up being left on a picnic table in West Texas somewhere because it was too heavy to even bother bringing back from a show. It was all crap, but it was so important to make at the time. It's the doing of things and constant creating that's important. (Making art always gets you to the next thing you'll be making, so just keep making.)

Richard Bonner told me one day in the studio that I had verve. I didn't know what it meant at the time, but it stayed with me forever. Now I understand . . . 

In 2007 when I re-enrolled in school, I immediately signed up for advanced ceramics with one of the most fabulous instructors I have ever had the pleasure of working with . . . And I met a crazy person named Moses. I say this in the most loving way possible. Like me, Moses was obsessed with clay. Together we spent hours--no--DAYS in the ceramics lab making things. We bought clay together, critiqued each other's work, and argued about things. We even broke one of those huge windows in the studio together after a not-such-a-good-idea of wanting to play baseball in the kiln yard with a stick and a piece of clay. Moses lost his grip and the stick went flying into the window and shattered it into pieces. Thankfully no one got hurt, but the look on Moses's face after it happened was absolutely priceless. (It was not unlike the look you see on his face in the image above.) We supported each other in a quasi-competative manner, which was good for our artwork and our energy.



"Upon reading about UT's decision to close the ceramics lab at the art school tonight, I decided to go ahead and cry about it. I can't begin to count the hours I spent not just making art there, but making friends, eating meals, entertaining myself, and even filling a void on a lonely Saturday night. There was something about it that made it okay to be there at 4am...I miss being an art student tons at times and it's comforting to me to know these places are still there. I'm not interested in any kind of reasonable analysis of what's replacing it or why that can't be done elsewhere. I just want to be sad, romantic and old fashioned here! Thank you for listening." -- a recent Facebook post by one of my friends after hearing the news

"I've tried to express my sentiments to others about how sad it is, but unless you've spent Saturday nights there, had dance parties and moments of panic at 4 in the morning . . . I guess you won't get it." -- a Facebook response to a post on the subject

Perhaps this will be a good thing. Perhaps this will open up lines of communication between UT Austin and neighboring institutions and create a cross-collaboration of programming, where students can take classes from everywhere and receive credit wherever they choose. Perhaps.

But looking at the bigger picture: what does this mean for art? Any art? Is it really that forgettable? What about sculpture? Painting? Are they all dead now? And what about community? What about the huge community that ceramics built--NO OTHER ART FORM does this the way ceramics does this!

All I can say now is that I am so-very-thankful for all of the years and hours I spent in that damn ceramics lab. I wouldn't have had it any other way . . . 


  1. The problem is that UT was behind the curve 20 years ago with regard to digital art, and now they're cutting their own legs out from under themselves in an attempt to jump to the front of the line. The trouble is that there are things you can do in clay that are not possible or appropriate in another medium, and a lot of what you need to know to create 3D objects can be learned more quickly (and less expensively!) using clay than can be learned using a fucking 3D printer.

    While I agree that UT needs to keep moving forward to benefit the institution and its students, to do so on the grave of the ceramics department is shortsighted and irresponsible, regardless of their claim that the decision was not made lightly.

    To say that students wanting more experience in ceramics need to go to ACC is a joke - unless things have changed DRASTICALLY in the past 15 years, ACC students aren't doing their own firings, and there's a total of maybe 6 kilns ACC-wide, with only 2 of those going to ^10. I'm not slighting the instructors at ACC - Sharon Smith, if she's still there, is fantastic - but the notion that it's okay to direct students to an already inadequate and overburdened community college department where they are likely to have much less control over the firing process, which is a key component of learning the craft and art of ceramics.

    Clay can do things that no other material can do, period. That the current leadership at UT COFA can't see the value in that makes me question both the integrity of the decision-makers and the depth and breadth of their own artistic education.

  2. Your story of how you came to appreciate clay is just like mine in that I rolled my eyes, squirmed & thought it was only for old ladies who made vases and bowls until I discovered the magic of it. In my first assignment, I made an elephant the size of a seated four year old in which you can observe my learning curve happening from its janky foot to its much more skillful head. By the time I started sculpting that elephant's eyes I was hooked. I love what you said about some of the first stuff you made being crap, but it was more about the process and the community built around making it. I don't think I've ever fully realized until now how much the camaraderie in the ceramics lab was unmatched by that of any other studio or medium. I never experienced the sense of friendship-making along with art-making that I did there in the painting studio that is for sure. Painting is something you do alone, but making a conceptual teacup [or a ceramic bra] is an experience to be shared.

    I can't imagine how many students currently have a misconception about clay that will now be unable to properly explore and discover its magic despite their bratty reluctance.

  3. NOOOOOOOOO!!!! I spent many long crazy hours and nights and days in the lab. I loved the fiery primitive ancient seeming gas kilns and being up there at all hours to check to see if a cone had dropped. And the people and community were so special. It's so sad to hear I don't want to/can't believe it. I still live near UT and jog on campus by the art building and see the ceramics area from the museum lawn below and each time I fondly remember my time there and wonder about what amazing creations are being made now. Its just awfully sad and wrong that it won't be there. Thanks Lindsey for spreading the word....

    1. Yo Bob, is that you? How are you? Did you know I retired from U.T. 2 years ago, before all this???

      Janet OO

    2. Hi Janet. You probably don't rem me...I was your student in ceramics in UT. I created those massive torso sculptures that kept win ing merit awrds. Anyway....I created 20 of them lol

      Wish you the best !