Tony Marsh interviewed by Nick Dison

Image from  Peter Project . American Moon Jar, 2018

Image from Peter Project. American Moon Jar, 2018

Tony Marsh, based in Long Beach CA, is a contemporary ceramic artist. He was recently awarded the United States Artist Award for his achievements within the field of craft and contemporary ceramics. He is a professor and Program Chair of ceramics at California State University in Long Beach and is on the board of the Archie Bray Foundation. Marsh has worked with numerous artists, and is the director of the Center for Contemporary Ceramics. His work is internationally renowned and is part of public collections across the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His current exhibition, American Moon Jars and Crucibles, is on display at the Ceramics and Design Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Tony Marsh talked with Nick Dison about craft, new plans for the Center for Contemporary Ceramics, and ideas on art.

Nick Dison: First off I'd like to congratulate you for being awarded the artist fellow this year, I know you do a lot in and around Cal State Long Beach and within the field of ceramics, that's a major award and can you tell us a little bit about it?

Tony Marsh: Every year people are nominated for the award, people that are nominated have to apply. I think what's interesting about it is that it cuts across all the Arts and Letters, it's authors, poets, singers, songwriters, musicians, conductors, filmmakers and then, from across all the visual arts and performing arts, so it's really comprehensive and this year, there was 45 fellows picked. Each artist was given a very handsome cash award and the opportunity to get together for three days in Chicago and share with one another.

The thing about it that's very interesting to me in particular is that for someone like me that's been in the field of ceramics for a long time, and it feels very small actually, we all know each other, especially if you have been around for a long time, like it or not, good or bad. So we receive the kind of support from our community and get plenty within ceramics.

What we don't see so often though is recognition from outside the field, so that's what this is and it really- the thing that I liked about it was that it put me on even footing in a sense. I think all the artists that were there felt this way, we're all on even footing, no matter what our practice, no matter what our identity or racial background, or age, or positioning, in an institution or not, our financial status, the playing field was leveled for a couple days, we all just appreciate each other and what one does and I really love that about it.

I felt like it was very special. The people that put it together work very hard to come up with a funding to support that many artists, it's a pretty remarkable endeavor and then all the hard work they have to do to identify the people, I think there's over 500 people who were chose to apply, 45 people got Awards so it was great and I'm just, I'm very grateful to to be treated with a lot of respect, it was very nice to get out of your bubble, I'm kind of a studio rat, so to get out of my bubble here once in a while and go share with all kinds of artists of all stripes from top to bottom, that was really just great. I was very honored.

ND: That's awesome, that's amazing! Where there people that you knew that were also awarded that award or was it all new people that you're meeting at this conference?

TM: Well for one thing, in the cohort, the 45-member cohort of 2018 fellows, there were four MacArthur award winners, that's the genius award and so that's pretty lofty company. I think for someone who's kind of come from craft like me, to be put in a lineup with those people, that was pretty amazing and so yes in the field of craft there were two other people from ceramics, Julia Galloway from Montana and Patti Warashina from Seattle. They were also awarded the artist fellow this year, I know them pretty well. After that, I didn't know anybody, I knew of people, but I didn't know them. I was nice to meet so many great people.

ND: That sounds like a wonderful experience. You mentioned craft, why is craft important within the field of ceramics and how would you define craft?

TM: Well craft is how materials are treated, it's how things are built and the manner in which they're built and the intentionality and how things are built, it's not why things are made, but it's how they're built and how materials are dealt with and used. There's such a broad range, kind of a limited definition of the application of craft is something because there can be people, that on the surface of it look extraordinarily sloppy and careless but they might be very intentional, in how they're doing things because that's the way they wanted to look for a reason and so I could even put those kind of people in a category of careful crafters. If they're highly intentional and kind of living out their intentions in the work, regardless of what it looks like versus somebody who's trying to build a Swiss watch and do it right and reproduce it and get everything down to a 1/100 of an inch tolerances and make sure that all the rules of craft are engaged, histories are upheld. I think that's kind of what it is.  

Craft versus art, I mean a lot of people are tired of that subject, I never get tired of it. I think it's endlessly fascinating and interesting to understand, if you're maker. I feel like craft is something that, it's part of the continuance of history and the legacy of the history and it's about bringing the past forward and remembering the past and honoring the past, how things should be done properly. In craft, I think that is hard, one of the ways I understand it is that it's made. It's about reassuring the culture, things are good, things work well, things are well built and they come from traditions, that are strong and so there is something about craft at large, that is comfort, comfort that history, that things will be good, things will be well done, that history matters which is very different than art.

I think arts job in part, is not to reassure, craft reassures - art is subversive and art is a critique, it's a critique of something and art typically does not want to uphold the good standing of history and wants to destroy history and say look at me, don't look at that, look at me, I'm what matters, I am of this moment, that's irrelevant now, I'm what I just supplanted, what used to be important and now what I'm going to be is important, an artist is kind of that way and it's very, it's a very different mindset in craft and so true crafters versus true artists, so is there all kinds of flashover boundaries in between I mean, of course, are there territories in which one another engage? Yeah, of course. Is one important to the other? Yes, of course. Are they the same thing? Absolutely not.

So, that's, it's alright, they're more engaged than they ever have been in some ways and good art always takes good craft on some level, take some kind of craft, it's got to be there, but it's usually not what the art is about and the arts kind of in trouble in art circles if it's about its own craft, it doesn't get to be about other things, so it's a very interesting topic, I could probably go on for a while but go ahead if you got another question.

ND: Thank you, that's a very thoughtful answer, I like that. You have a show American Moon Jars and Crucibles on display at the Ceramics and Design Gallery in Santa Fe, can you tell us a little bit about the show and what are some of your ideas about the American Moon Jar?

TM: Well the crucibles, I've been making it for about ten years or so and I've been showing them mostly in Europe, not so much here. American Moon Jar, the title there, it's something that I mean it's kind of an inside joke, it's not a joke but it's inside stuff you know, in the sense that if you're a potter or if you know pottery history, if you know, Asians ceramic art history, you'll hopefully, you'll know something about the Korean Choson dynasty moon jars. They are some of the most exquisite and beautiful kind of dynamic, reserved, subtle pots in the history of Asian art and in the history of any kind of pottery. I've always loved them like a lot of people have and there's a lot encoded in them because they are really shrines to Confucianism thought and beliefs, Confucian beliefs, that embody, that present them the way they are and so I think that's interesting that culture embeds itself in things that are made, that the Korean moon jar is pretty high up on the food chain for me in terms of what's embedded in it. I love them and a lot of potter's love them and every now and then you see people take it on you know, though, they'll make something, they'll call it a moon jar and it's a western iteration of that in the west anyway, a lot of Korean potter's do too and they'll make a big round jar like a moon jar and so that's fine with me.

I like the idea but I wanted to make kind of my own moon jar and so I am making cylinders these days, I decided to call it American moon jar, that gave me the freedom to not have to be obedient to the to the beautiful orb, full bodied shape in a Korean moon jar and it's a way to honor it, but not make the same. Of course the surfaces on a lot of these crucibles is cratered and lunar landscape like and the rocks on the shelves that adorned the outside of the vessel, could look like lunar landscapes. I wasn't caught up with that but I was aware of it.

If anybody knows very much about the history of the work I've made over the past thirty years, it's classically made vessels, ceramic vessels that are based on pottery, pottery is the subject matter and history of pottery is the subject matter and all the things that pottery has ever been asked to do, the laundry list, you know, beautiful things and throughout all cultures all time, it's the short list that, this is what we need pottery to do in our culture, to present, to preserve, if you think about kimchi jars and sauerkraut vessels that you've made, those are pottery and they are designed to preserve. It's also about beautification of the space, it's about the commemoration of an event on the surface, it's about ritual, and then after that the list gets short, there's a list of six or seven things that are primary reasons why pots have always existed and I want to use those things, so I've made vessels and then put things in them symbolically and ritualistically, so really this is a continuation to that, except the objects are not inside, they address the outside of the vessel on shelves.

For me that is an abstract story but it's a little bit like the Greeks who wanted to paint a story around the outside of a vessel, so I'm just doing it to mention, kind of a sculptural language but the one on the outside of the vessel with a sculptural language.

ND: Your glazes are beautiful there's a lot of depth to them, you want to talk about that, the surface and your process of glazing the moon jars?

TM: And the crucible too even more so. Yeah, I do, I mean I'm happy to - I've had to think about it a lot and engage it to make it meaningful and I feel like especially if you're older and have done something for a while in a certain kind of territory, you get very good at it, and for me just speaking for me, virtuosity, the ability to do something extremely well is sends a signal that things are no longer- the better I get at something, the stiffer it becomes the less alive it is. I have to find ways to subvert my virtuosity with a certain set of materials or skills you know, techniques or whatever.

In order to do that is I stop taking notes as to what I was putting on a surface, I'm highly intuitive, I'll take the commercial glaze and I'll just add something to it to subvert it without measuring that thing but just try it and make adjustments maybe, I don't keep notes, I layer things extremely deep sometimes.  I'll alternate firings between gas and electric kiln, I'll reduce, I'll fire without cones and I don't take notes you know, so I don't, I can't always remember the sequence of events, I could remember it fine I'm not going to go to notes and retrace my steps and reproduce something just to get a similar effect if I can help it, or I won't do it for very long so I like that actually because it keeps me in the state of discovery, like every time I open the kiln, I am like yeah.

ND: Happy surprise.

TM: It's the woodshed you know, out to the woodshed for what you just did and so I like it though, yeah, when it’s really interesting it is just spellbinding, open the kiln, it's like, my god, the transformation of materials, they co-mingle and move with heat and atmosphere, it's magical to me because, those crucibles, they're the same materials that the crust of the earth is made out of and like the crust of the earth was at one point in time subjected to a lot of heat and things fuse and then they move, gravity causes things to move and interchange and stack and flow and so if you look at those vessels, they're almost always, not always but almost always straight cylinders and all that topography, all that dimension is frequently glaze, it's stacking up and I find different ways to work with it, I come back and do very odd things in between firings. I'll have big loaf of glaze fall off on the shelf, I've got powder down there, so it doesn't stick, I pick it up, I take serra set and slap it back on the side of the piece, put a stainless pin through it, put glaze on it and fire it at a lower temperature. It becomes conventional, it's kind of an interesting way to create shape. Were so geared to create shape of the plastic material clay, and I'm just making a straight walled cylinder and creating all this dimension with glaze, so I kind of like it because it's the mild thumb in the eye of how things are supposed to be made and I kind of like, I kind of like being in mild arguments in my work with the history of how thing should be done, sometimes it's a serious argument, but I like it, it helps me to kind of go against the grain a little bit in terms of how things have always been done or supposed to be done. I use gravity by firing a piece upside down, but when you flip it back after the firing the glaze appears to be flowing up.

I like to open a kiln, see something and not really quite understand how I got there, that's what I like about it because I don't want to trade party tricks too much,  and I really like the idea of being in the position where I see something and I really love it, it's filled me full of desire and then but I don't know how to reproduce it, so I've got to dream into it and try things and try other things that may take me somewhere else and I'm really like a thirsty artist out in the desert looking for water again, can't find water or if I was in Italy trying to find some vino. Yeah, so I like that, I like it a lot, it works for me, I get excited.

ND: Yes sir, definitely! Getting new and interesting results is exciting. To change direction a little. You are father, a teacher and artist, you're on the board of the Archie Bray Foundation and director of the CCC, how do you manage to do everything?

TM: Grandfather too.

ND: Grandfather as well, of course.

TM: Well I can't say, I've ever done everything in my life well you know, it all sounds great, when you lay it out like that but I don't know that I've been that good at everything and I feel like you're really only able to do so many things in life really well and that's a small number, and then the more things you try to do the more diffused it gets and the more one thing will suffer, to the advantage of another. But I like all those roles because it makes me feel like life is full and rich and it's like juggling raw eggs sometimes, which they don't want to drop a raw egg, there's the things I usually take up are important to me, I mean it's not just the CCC, I've been running a travel program here for 25 years, visiting arts program for 25 years, making my own work and teaching full-time and developing a facility for 30 years, I've had a lot of help recently, Chris Miles has been great, he has come on board in the last five years but up until then it was probably just me doing stuff and so it makes me feel like life is rich, but like I said I didn't do all the things terribly well, unfortunately.

ND: Yes, I can imagine, it must be a lot juggling everything, I know I have trouble keeping on top of everything.

TM: I think I can say that I have one thing that helps is, if you can- in life if you can direct yourself towards things that you are devotional to, like I could never believe they pay me to teach, Id teach for nothing, it doesn't feel like a job, I come to work and have a lot of fun and I do have to work hard on it but I don't, it doesn't feel like drudgery like this horrible job room, counting the days to the weekend, and then counting days to my retirement, I can't wait to get out be free and so I pretty much do things that feel rewarding, and I think that it can give you a lot of energy for getting things done.

I like running a travel program, it never rewarded me monetarily, I never took a penny out of it, I paid frequently to travel with students overseas, but I felt like the internal rewards were really rich, the kind of things that I saw happened for students, given I know who our students are and the kind of sacrifices they make. In the educational history of their families were frequently, they're the first person to go to college in their family but, when I can see how lives are changed, that's truly what I'm in the business of, when I can see that, the internal rewards for that kind of stuff are tremendous and that's all I need, that gives me a lot of energy to persevere.

The same thing about being creative in the studio, I think that's why I like the sense of discovery, where it's not just the same old predictable stuff coming out of the kiln, that there's a lot of tremendous internal rewards and discovery, and it's helping people and be of service in teaching, I think it's a lot of internal rewards, so I think those are the things that really motivate me, it's the sense of internal reward and yes I do get paid to teach, I do need to make a living but I don't do it for money, I really don't.

I mean, it's funny story that the checks that we got for the artist’s fellow award, it is a serious amount of money, and I forgot my check, I didn't even pick it up, I didn't- I was so enthralled by the people there talking and sharing that I forgot. So, everyone needs money, I'm not always entirely motivated by money, I mean I need money and I appreciate it, I am thoughtful with it and all that but I'm really kind of motivated by other things that give me a lot of energy. Even if all things fail around me, so if I make a body of work, it's a total failure in the marketplace or in the galleries, I kind of don't care, and in a certain sense I do care to say that but I in a certain sense, I have a great time making my work and I really enjoy it, so whatever happens after that, it's gravy if it does work out, but that doesn't detract me from my engagement I had with it, making it.

If I hated making my work and then I got torn up by the critics and didn't sell, no one cared then it's a total failure. But I try to make sure that my engagements in making are very satisfying and rewarding, so that's a long way to answer your question, all those things that I try to do are, I do them because they're rewarding to me internally.

ND: Love what you do and never work a day in your life. I'd like to ask you a little bit about the Center for Contemporary Ceramics.

TM: My dear colleague, Chris Miles started it, he did all the heavy lifting, to get the name and recognized on campus, as a center. I think there are 31 centers of all different stripes on our campus that serve different purposes but there hasn't been one in the School of Art and so Chris put all the paperwork together and asked me if I wanted to be part of it. He ran it through, got it signed off and made it official.  He asked me to be the first director because the CCC is based on what's been going on here last 25 years, even before  I got here. We try to bring interesting people to campus always, we need interesting teachers , we need interesting artists. It's been my inclination that was important, so almost the first day I was here, I've been inviting painters and I think 1985, when I was part-time here, I invited a painter from San Francisco to come down and stay with me for a couple weeks, organize a show in clay, and so I've always seen the need for it because no matter how spectacular a curriculum is.

I've always felt like that the curriculum never gives  enough, that wouldn't give them what they need and in total, especially undergrads they have to go out and face the world after they finish their program here and be armed the way I feel like they need to be armed, when the world confronts them, so I try to plug gaps, in holes in education and certainly to have a non-academic model here for someone who's just making their work, the students can engage in different ways but not as a teacher in the classroom who's giving them grades and giving them assignments and giving them lectures but just working and really trying to get a lot of really diverse artists here, so they work in lots of different ways, the same with part-time faculty, always hire interesting makers, hired to make and give them studio space here so they're making in the building, full-time too, full-time teachers are making in the building, then we're bringing artists in to make in the building, then bringing other artists in just to give lectures.

So I felt like that complement of all those different voices and in a given two or three year period of study for student here was, it's like that the P90X, it’s muscle confusion because the exercise just different muscle groups. I felt like thats what I wanted to do when I saw the infomercial, I thought, yeah, that's right I want to do P90X in the studio and give people muscle confusion and give them all kinds of voices in their time here and not just to be run based on the model of my work or my ideas about art. But that they would be exposed to lots of different voices, really diverse voices and then say we have to sort it out, of course try to help but I felt like that was really a quality education, and plus as time has gone on, we've got more and more serious artists here and so they have had professional engagements and we pair them up with students and then students can help them make their work and that work frequently goes into exhibitions, actually all over the world now and help them make it, help them finish it and sometimes they get to deliver to the gallery and sometimes there is a pre-opening night dinner with the gallery director, patrons or collectors and things like that. They get to attend that dinner and so that's a tremendous insight and confidence and the building of skill-sets, and the upping of a trajectory of vision for students and what they might want to try to accomplish and a little money in their pocket, that they get paid by professional artist.  

It's not academic, it's not run by a class syllabus and a series of lectures and grades and things they have to do, it's just a real life experience that complements the actions of academia, or academia is better at dealing with abstractions, instead of dealing with some of the realities on the ground, so I wanted to kind of fill that gap and fill a gap with travel, so those are the kind of the two branches of the extracurricular activity we've done here and it's just been my inclination to do that, I think Chris wanted to institutionalize it because, I've been here 30 years, this will not go on forever, it's run by a personality and if it's going to continue, it can't, it's not going to be run by a personality.

As much, so we're trying to raise money now to create the endowment and leave the center in really good shape so that the next person that takes it over, the next director takes it over can actually fund programming, we've always done really well, we've done well without any money really but it will take money and so that's what we're doing.

Just building a facility here has been fascinating for me because when I got here, everything was indoors, this place was built by the founding faculties, they were all educated back east and, so back east ... you got everything inside. So, when I got here the kilns, raw materials, glazes, clay, clay mixers, all the kilns, everything was in doors, slowly we have been getting it outside, it opens up the inside for studios and workspaces, classrooms, gallery space for the presentational work and then the outside a lot of space out there, we just filled it up with kilns, you know, we have 30-plus kilns here, we just got another car kiln. I'm sorry you’re not here to help us Jr because it's a lot of fun.

ND: Would love to be there to help!

TM: We picked up a big car kiln from a school that was getting rid of it, so we grabbed it as we've done many times. With this kiln, we are converting it into a downdraft form an updraft kiln, we are also extending the height of the kiln to be our biggest kiln yet. It's going to be devoted to the CCC so that ambitious artists can create. So, for me I'm just continuing to do what I've always done but I'll help Chris build something that will last when I'm gone.

ND: I saw the CCC account on Instagram, it's exciting to see all the progress of the CCC and the visiting artists that are there.

TM: Yeah, yeah, very excited, I like it.

ND: Yeah, definitely and then how do you select artists to come and participate in the CCC?

TM: Well it goes back to- well, a lot of things, it's not formal, it's just me meeting people and having a sense about what I might mean to bring them here. I travel a lot and I keep an eye open, I meet somebody, I drag them back. A few decades back I was invited to go to Alfred, to give a talk and while I'm there, of course I want to meet all the grads and there's like 16 grads there. So, I am going space to space and Kristen Morgin was a grad there at the time. I was absolutely immediately stunned by the quality of artistic vision that she had, and I just knew, I felt this, I saw this amazing artist, and so I invited her to come back and she was in residence for a year or two. She wanted to teach, so she taught, we were able to hire her. She retired after ten years, but making huge difference here.

So frequently when I'm traveling, I'll meet people and I'll invite them to come back. I want to be surrounded by talented people here, I think that's been essential for my own kind of scene a well-being, I want to be surrounded by really talented people, I like it, so that's been my inclination and then as we become more and more well-known, there are people of course that will apply. I get emails and texts and things like that, Instagram messages. People are asking how can I apply, how can I be a resident there, but it's really, it's based on a couple things, these days I am more interested in bringing people here that were not raised in the field of ceramics. I don't want people that ran all their degrees through ceramics programs  from AA to BA to BFA a to MA to MFA, you know ,straight went through in ceramics.

I'm more interested in people that either maybe have no formal education or they grew up as painters or sculptors and now as mature artists they are turning to clay because it is a very interesting material. They bring mature artistic ideas to ceramics but they may not have a place to do it and so I try to find people that are talented, mature, not raised in the field of ceramics and are naturally ambitious and then we bring them in and we try our very best to help them do that, we support them in every way possible, I don't charge them for anything really as much not charge people for firing or space. I want them to come here and raise their game, I don't want to come here to make stuff they have always made. But so we can help them elevate their vision and their ambition and make things they never thought they can make, that's what I like to see because it's serves our students to watch artists do that, it serves the artists to do it in a certain field, it helps to grow the field and I think that the think that is really interesting these days about the field is that you've got all these people participating now, they've always been there but not in these kind of numbers and this kind of visibility.

But people from outside the field, visitors and just bringing artistic ideas to the field, they're not coming to it thinking of it that they have to quote ceramics or the vessel, pottery or anything. They just bring mature ideas to a very kind of fascinating material base and they come work and I feel like, it's my job to never say no, I don't want to say no you can't do that. There's a lot of craft Dogma, that kind of dictates the kinds of things you think you can do and can't do, is like no you can't do that, no you should do this or this won't work, there's a lot of that, and I don't like it per say, I don't want it. We can't ruin equipment here so certain things we have to abide by. I want to listen to what an artist, when they tell me I will listen to what they say about what they think they want to make and then I want to help make it, I don't care how hard it is, we've got some pretty good challenges, but that's part of the excitement and if they can put up with a little bit of failure sometimes, then we'll get it right most of the time, so I don't know if I rambled on there.

ND: No, that was good, I think you started to touch on my next question. How do you define contemporary ceramics and what is unique to contemporary ceramics that we haven't experienced in the past?

TM: Well contemporary, I mean if I'm going to be flip with you, contemporary ceramics is defined by the fact that it should be contemporary, made now, it should be largely ceramic.  If it is not ceramic then you get into tricky semantics, like Kristen Morgin. You can't call her work ceramics technically by textbook. She makes beautiful work as far as ceramics but she doesn't fire her work, she stabilizes it by other means than firing, which is how you stabilize it traditionally, so her work is sculpture, it uses clay, it’s a misnomer to call it ceramics.  

So, I mean that's the broadest definition I can give you, largely made out of ceramics and made in the moment. Did you ask me what's new in the field?

ND: Yeah, unique or new, that we haven't experience in the past?

TM: Well, history is not dead to me, I fear history is a little bit dead, but not to me, I'm not a scholar, never claimed of being a scholar, I am interested, very interested in history of ceramics.

So certainly, it's not new, there have been artists, who have been trained in the field of art, back into the 19th century and probably before that who worked with clay and made stuff and didn't make it according to the kind of the rules of craft. So, there have always been artist doing that like Picasso. So, it's not new that artists are working with clay but they're kind of working with clay in more numbers now, I think than we've ever seen.

It has become very popular for a lot of reasons, one is because the market for it, because you got all kinds of artists, maybe they make paintings for $100,000 but some make a piece of ceramics for $25,000 that helps open up marketplaces for artists and for galleries and so they like it on, just on economic terms but a lot of artists like working with it because it's so anti digital, so much about the hand, so hard to control, so immediate, such a recorder of the moment. And its reversible, if you don't like something in the moment wedge it up. It's very very unique and I think it's very fascinating for a lot of artists to work with and I think that and so there are a lot of mature artists and immature artists working with clay and kind of bringing a new kind of a voice and understanding to it in the moment. That is something that the field is taking note of that craft, the appearance of craft, it may not be as important as a lot of people think. That's very upsetting to some people and very liberating to others.

I had another point that was interesting but I forgot it sorry.

ND: So, this dialogue with other artists that aren't particularly trained in the field of ceramics, having those kinds of conversations you believe that's furthering the field of ceramics?

TM: Well yeah, I feel like there's an impact- for one thing like I wanted to say, I just remembered is that for one thing the quote-unquote kind of high crafts movement, that ran across a lot of boundaries and craft materials, clay, fiber wood, metal. That really went on from probably, had its seeds in the 60's, 70s, 80's, into the 90's and then kind of done, when that went and things really changed. It's when most of the medium specific galleries, kind of stopped being medium specific, they started picking up different kinds of art or they went out of business or something and so when the medium specific galleries, for example  the Garth Clark or the Frank Lloyd. When those people were done and ceramics didn't have a place to hide, it didn't have a natural home in the gallery world anymore, with all the media specific galleries and it didn't have a place to hide either and so now because those galleries don't exist. I think this is really the big shift and really actually fairly important and kind of a wonderful thing, a new day but most artist, most ceramists or artists that work with clay, even if I say exclusively clay, have got to go out and just compete with other artists or for a voice in the contemporary dialogue. They can't go hide in the ceramics gallery, medium specific gallery and so they have to go compete with art and artists and I think that's just fantastic and most galleries now, it didn't use to be the case but most galleries are willing to entertain one or two or three or four people that work with clay, it's become kind of an equal art making material now to everything else and so I think that's a huge shift and that's just a kind of a level of acceptance now that I don't think is going to change and a lot of artists, particularly clay, almost every gallery showing some kind of clay art, that's talking about LA or New York. If you're going to approach a craft gallery for representation, that's a different kind of culture, if you're joining and you know, your behavior merits it, if you're going to go to an art gallery though, you're going to have to think differently, behave differently and so I think that's going to have some kind of importance on how the field gets shaped I believe.

ND: That was very insightful. What do you envision for this CCC and other any immediate future plans or goals that you're working towards?

TM: Well, we're trying to raise money, we've got one very generous, extremely generous anonymous donor, it was half million dollars on the table as a matching grant, so we're working hard to try to find money. Five thousand dollars was donated this morning so that becomes ten thousand, it goes into an endowment and then the endowment will be used for operating expenses eventually, when we draw on it. That's the big thing we're trying to expand the facility and draw up all the protocols, how we operate and raise money to ensure success of the CCC.  

We've done work intensive in the summer, we don't schedule classes, we try to bring in a lot of really interesting artists, so I let them take on life at home, work together, eat together during summer months and we got students coming in from China and Korea. I like the choices that are win-win-win and that's where the program wins, if someone comes here and works the program wins, the artist wins, your students win, everyone's done it personally, so those the kind of people I like to have here.

We're going to continue to bring in people and with an orientation ever so slightly to people that were not reared in the field, so educated in the field and also if we can help them produce work for exhibition, we like that a lot, that's real, that's put it online, we like that and so those are the kind of proposals that we will continue to entertain. Otherwise we're going to fundraiser things like that but I don't think you're asking about that, it's just to continue to do what we've been doing for a long time actually and try to do it really well and in such a way as the students benefit.

ND: When are the work intensives happening this summer, what are the dates for those?

TM: The work intensives this summer is going to be June 1st to August 15th and we have all kinds of sort of artists coming in from all over actually, I keep inviting more people, groups from Asia are coming and going but this is not open to the public, so I don't want that to be published, so you can't sign up for a workshop, we've done that in the past but we're not doing that now, it's really for the benefit of our students, it goes back to the muscle memory thing, I want all kinds of interesting makers here that are not structured, they're not giving formal demos, they are not giving formal critiques and they are not giving assignments, they're just working, if you want to join them, great.

My fear after watching the enterprise of higher education, being part of it and then watching it, participate in it, my fear is that, I see not just higher education but I see some of the young people that come to us and they're far too passive, it disturbs me a little bit and I feel like the system kind of creates passivity, it's like you just sit there and wait until I tell you what it is, how it works, how to do it, how to get it right and then after I tell you, oh yes then you can go out, take a shot at it but you better not, you better wait, I'm going to tell you before, I don't like that it's too passive for me, I think if you want to know something, go learn it you know, I don't say, I never thought you were passive in your education, I wish more students went about their education the way you did. So that's why I don't like to structure everything for everyone but I want to put them in position where they can succeed.

ND: Yeah, thank you Tony, the time I was at Long Beach, it was a beautiful experience, I mean being part of the travel program going to Italy, working with the visiting artists, it was definitely a life changing experience and I do thank you for that.

TM: Yeah, you're quite welcome, I feel like the whole things just been an adventure, I think if a teacher can go on an adventure with a group of students, I think it's better that everybody learns, it's not stillborn, where everyone, the teacher knows what's going to happen before it happens. I feel like this program is always a little bit on the edge, just an adventure, good, bad maybe, but mostly good.

Nick Dison is a first year MFA student at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville. He received his BFA in Studio Art from California State University of Long Beach.

More info on Tony Marsh:

AuthorLinda Lopez

I was recently reading John McPhee's new book, Draft No. 4, and a there was a passage that struck me about how he uses a dictionary in his writing process. McPhee says, "I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one." He then gives examples of how looking up very common words leads him to much more compelling and accurate language in his final drafts—citing examples of definitions he has utilized. Simple enough, to be sure. However, the language McPhee presents in his examples felt far richer and more nuanced than what I typically find when I perform a dictionary search on, say, my phone. My immediate thought was, "What dictionary is he using, and how do I get one?!" Call me naive, but until that moment I just hadn't thought it could matter so much. 

As it turns out, I'm not the first to be so enamored with McPhee's attitude on dictionary usage. James Somers, who often contributes to The Atlantic wrote a fantastic blog post back in 2014 (shorty after McPhee's chapter had been published by The New Yorker) that not only locates the Webster's edition McPhee prefers, but goes one step further in showing you how to set your digital devices to offer that exact edition. Somers' accompanying article serves as a tidy introduction to Noah Webster and the many dictionaries that followed in his wake. Somers elegantly illustrates why these early editions have never been bested. If you want to peruse some 1913 edition definitions, you can find a website with its entries here: You can find Somer's post here:



AuthorMathew McConnell

Got Art? Show Us! | Honors College Blog

Deconstructing Art is a week-long, pop-up art gallery hosted by the University of Arkansas Honors College. The gallery will run from February 19 – 23, 2018, and will feature a panel of arts professionals followed by a reception on the evening of February 22.

  • What we’re looking for: Undergraduate student art that will help frame a conversation on the nature of art and the role art plays in society. We welcome any type of art—funky, traditional, modern, serious—to be installed for a week in Gearhart Hall. If you think you have something to offer, and you know you can install it with either your own supplies or our limited offerings, fill out the form below and let us see your work! We are looking for artwork for students from all disciplines, whether you view art as a hobby or a career.
  • Need to know: If selected, you will be in charge of installing your work in Gearhart Hall on Sunday, February 18, 2018. The Honors College can only offer a limited amount of supplies – basically, hooks and a hammer.
  • Submit your work here: Deconstructing Art Submission Form
  • Final deadline: February 1, 2018
AuthorMathew McConnell

Adam Posnak and Mathew McConnell were recently featured in the spotlight section of Ceramics Monthly for their innovative "Pots as Textbook" approach to Wheelthrowing (here is the original pdf of the printed feature). 

UARK Pots as Textbooks.jpg

Ceramics Monthly: Why do Introduction to Wheel-Throwing students at the University of Arkansas buy a handmade pot in lieu of a textbook?

Mathew McConnell: I had been bringing to my classes portions of my personal collection that were relevant to each assignment. After some time, I realized I was articulating something far beyond the technical aspects of a successful pot when talking about these distinct and well-known characters that inhabit my daily life. I was speaking in a very personal, even emotional way about them. I show my students the first real cup I bought and talk about all the phases of my life it has followed me through. I talk about the pots that I know are bad technically, but that always sit at the front of my cupboard. I also gently upwrap the shards of a piece that has been broken for years, but I can’t bear to throw away. These pots don’t simply serve as anecdotes for me. I truly feel connected to them, enriched by them; they have sensitized me to the world in ways I can’t fully express. I desperately want my students to know those feelings, too. And, I’m not sure you can make good pots if you haven’t been affected on a deeply personal level by them. So, what to do? The answer seemed pretty obvious: force them to buy great pots and live with them!

Adam Posnak: I instituted this practice after observing Mathew’s teaching. I thought it was such a sensible thing to do, and pure genius.

CM: How do students react when you tell them? 

AP: I have found students to be fairly enthusiastic. Though a minority of students have some prior pottery-making experience, they have not typically engaged in an in-depth discussion related to the experiential and visceral facets of interacting with pots. I often tell them that for most people without specialized training, knowledge of pottery would be comparable in the realm of painting to only being familiar with paintings of dogs playing cards; the lowest common denominator (not that I have anything against paintings of dogs playing cards).

MM: I must assume that every student thinks we are trying to lure them into a cult of some sort! And, to be fair, I guess we are. Most are happy to join—it’s an unexpected and welcome departure from the well-worn pedagogical paths they are accustomed to traveling. Some have prior experience with handmade pottery, but almost no one has been asked to concentrate so fully on absorbing the intricacies of its making, handling, and aesthetics—and, in turn, how to translate those observations into language and form. CM: How do experiences using the pots inform students’ learning?

AP: Again, I think it comes down to the interactive aspect of pottery. Students are often surprised by the profundity of their feelings toward pots, which begins to develop almost immediately upon acquiring and using their cups. They often remarked upon the manner in which a pot continually reveals itself over the course of time. Opinions and assumptions about a particular pot evolve over time and through use as well, and sometimes a student may actually come to dislike a pot in use that she/he was attracted to visually, and vice versa. 

MM: Agreed. I also like that it gives them a standard to strive for that exists beyond what any student could accomplish in a semester. We ask them to purchase pots from vendors that only have works by highly esteemed potters, so the students have the best shot at experiencing what excellence truly means. Being able to own, hold, and live with this kind of excellence ultimately propels more sophisticated work from the students. Even when they don’t achieve what they are after, they have a far better chance of understanding where they came up short. Suddenly, they’re not looking to their instructor to explain why; they know why.

CM: What is the most unexpected outcome of this approach? 

AP: As a teacher I am always taken aback by the intuitive way students take to pots. Sometimes I think of an appreciation for pottery as a relatively rarified, acquired taste, but in practice students naturally possess a sophisticated, instinctual bond with pots. I love the enthusiasm that ensues when they begin to use pots, and realize the potential of working with a form of expression that engages literally all of the senses. I point out in a class introduction that no matter how much you love a sculpture or a painting, the chances are relatively low they will ever touch your lips; a simple statement that seems to resound. 

MM: What I find most rewarding is the way a student’s purchased pot unfolds to them as they progress through the skills covered in the course. When they receive the work they may feel an immediate connection, and they may even be able to articulate some pretty sophisticated analyses right off the bat, but there’s nothing like watching a student connect the dots between an action they have just performed and a similar action taken on the pot they have been studying. There’s a real kinship developing in these moments, and an understanding between maker and maker that is wholly unique.

*Originally published in December 2017 issue of Ceramics Monthly, page 72. Copyright, The AmericanCeramic Society. Reprinted with permission.

AuthorMathew McConnell
3 CommentsPost a comment

After last year's hiatus, we are once again hosting a NYC intersession course in May. It's going to be great—it's New York! There will be an informational session on January 30th in the ceramics studio if you are looking for more details.

NYC Poster Pic.jpg
AuthorMathew McConnell


The VCUarts Fountainhead Fellowship in Craft and Material Studies is a 9-month residency for recent MFA graduates. Fellows are provided with the opportunity to concentrate on their work, build community, gain valuable teaching experience, and participate in a vital, progressive community of artists at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Fountainhead Fellowship is a joint project of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, the Departments of Craft and Material Studies, Painting + Printmaking, and Sculpture + Extended Media as well as Fountainhead Development Services. The residency is sited in a newly renovated complex built to eco-friendly, EarthCraft standards. This mixed-use community includes artists’ studios, apartments, a café, an outdoor swimming pool, a dog park and other amenities.

The fellowship program runs mid August 2018 through mid May 2019.

2018 DEADLINE: March 15th, 2018

AuthorMathew McConnell

Sad, sad news in ceramics today.

From Artforum:

Artist Betty Woodman, a sculptor known for ceramic works that are playful yet rigorous combinations of, among other things, Etruscan sculpture, Egyptian art, Sèvres porcelain, and Henri Matisse, has died.

Woodman was born in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1930. She described her first encounter with clay in a high school art class, according to an interview with Priscilla Frank in the Huffington Post, as “sort of like magic . . . We were given some clay and using our hands we could just make it into a shape. The first thing I ever made was a pitcher. As far as I was concerned that was what I wanted to do. It fell into my hands.” She studied pottery at Alfred University’s School for American Craftsmen, graduating in 1950. In 1952 Woodman traveled to Italy, where traditional forms of earthenware, such as majolica, made a deep impression upon her. Since then, she had spent a portion of every year living there with her husband, the artist George Woodman, who died last March. (The Woodmans are a famous artist family: Their daughter, the late Francesca Woodman, was a photographer; their son, Charles Woodman, who is still living, is an electronic artist. A documentary about the clan, The Woodmans, was released in 2010.)

Betty Woodman has had numerous solo exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe, including “Florentine Interiors” (2017) at Galerie Hubert Winter in Vienna; “Theatre of the Domestic” (2016) at the ICA in London; “Interior Views” (2014) at Galerie Francesca Pia in Zurich; and “Of Botticelli” (2013) at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin. Her last New York solo exhibition was in 2016 at Salon 94—the gallery represents her—and was titled “Breakfast At The Seashore Lunch In Antella.” “The Art of Betty Woodman,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006, was the artist’s first retrospective in the US.

“Unfussy but remarkably erudite, her pottery comfortably foregrounds ceramics’ conventions and place within (or outside of) this erstwhile art-historical canon,” said Suzanne Hudson of Woodman’s show at LA’s David Kordansky Gallery for the April 2015 issue of Artforum. “The rigor of Woodman’s engagement with the medium was here belied by the visceral convolutions of color and runny streaks of paint that turn the surface of her vessels into canvaslike grounds.”

AuthorMathew McConnell

Each semester, we present an exhibition of works from all students enrolled in ceramics courses, from intro-level undergraduates to grad students. It's a great way to cap off the semester, and also gives us an opportunity to invite the public into the studio and share what we have been up to. Here's a sample of this year's exhibition:

AuthorMathew McConnell

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The University of Arkansas is pleased to announce a transformational $40 million gift to Campaign Arkansas from the Windgate Charitable Foundation that will create the new Windgate Art and Design District in the heart of south Fayetteville.

The Windgate Art and Design District will expand on the School of Art’s Hill Avenue sculpture complex that opened in 2016.

The district will be developed close to campus, near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Hill Avenue. It will feature several new buildings for art and design classrooms, labs, studios and potentially a public gallery space. The district will bring together art, design and education, while serving as the central hub for the student and faculty artists and designers at the University of Arkansas and beyond.

“This is a tremendous step forward,” said Chancellor Joseph E. Steinmetz. “Through this partnership with the Windgate Charitable Foundation, the University of Arkansas will be able to achieve nationally competitive standing in the arts, which will in turn place the state of Arkansas on the map as one of the most innovative leaders in the global arts community.

“As a land-grant institution, we are charged with serving the public interest through outreach,” he added. “Thanks to the Windgate Charitable Foundation’s generosity, we will now be able to do this for our community in an unprecedented way. We thank the Windgate Charitable Foundation for this amazing gift.”

The Windgate Art and Design District will further expand the reach and scope of the university’s School of Art, which was established in August 2017 thanks to a $120 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. The School of Art in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences is the first and only accredited, collegiate school of art in the state of Arkansas.

“The Windgate Foundation is proud to partner with the new School of Art and to help it and our state's entire arts community continue to grow,” said John E. Brown, executive director of the Windgate Charitable Foundation. “Our board strives to develop and support the arts in many states, and the Windgate Art and Design District will be an outstanding example of the foundation's highest ideals for the arts and education. In fact, this commitment is the largest single grant awarded by the foundation in our 25-year history."

Robyn Horn, board member of the Windgate Charitable Foundation, said she also believes the spaces in the Windgate Art and Design District will provide the opportunity to engage the community with programming that is free, open and accessible to the public.

“The studio and design space will serve as key components to the Windgate Art and Design District and will invite the community to engage with School of Art faculty, students and international arts programs,” she said.

The Windgate Charitable Foundation has already made a significant impact on the School of Art, said Todd Shields, dean of the Fulbright College.

“In 2014, the Foundation gave more than $2 million to the former Department of Art, providing crucial funding that enabled faculty to expand curricula, improve teaching techniques, fund opportunities for student travel, enhance technologies and procure new equipment,” Shields explained.

The school used $500,000 of this gift in combination with $8 million from the university to build the School of Art’s sculpture facility. Architects from Modus Studio in Fayetteville and El Dorado Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri, designed the building, which houses studio classrooms and shops for sculpture, the school’s wood shop and advanced technology lab, graduate student studios and classroom space for the school’s freshman foundation classes.

Shields said that as a result of the opportunities and new facilities these funds created the number of art history, art education, graphic design and studio art majors increased significantly.

“With the Windgate Charitable Foundation’s help our students achieved higher levels of performance and became more competitive,” Shields said. “We are incredibly grateful for the continued support and cannot wait to see the amazing impact this next phase of our partnership will have.”

All of this growth directly contributed to the department’s natural evolution into a school, said Jeannie Hulen, associate dean of fine arts for Fulbright College and former chair of the department of art.

“Thanks to the Windgate Charitable Foundation, we were able to give sculpture a state-of-the-art, nationally competitive facility,” Hulen said. “By providing art and design students with the resources necessary for synthesis, as well as guidance from invested faculty, the School of Art is able to cultivate creative thinkers and leaders committed to inventive problem solving through art and design.”

Hulen said the creation of the Windgate Art and Design District will free up space in the university’s Fine Arts Center, which will help the School of Art develop planned graduate programs in art education and art history.

“The Northwest Arkansas region, as well as the state and nation, require significant investment in arts education, so this latest gift from the Windgate Charitable Foundation will help the University of Arkansas become a catalyst for that change,” Hulen said.

Additionally, Hulen said the school plans to capitalize on the growth of the visual arts in the region to further enhance the university’s partnership with nearby Bentonville-based Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“Together, we are establishing the groundwork for future growth that will directly empower the local and national art and design community and have a resounding positive effect on the culture of the entire state,” she said.

For more information about the Windgate Art and Design District or the School of Art, please visit

About the Windgate Charitable Foundation: The Windgate Charitable Foundation is a private grant-making foundation established by an Arkansas family in 1993. One of its principal goals is to fund significant educational programs in the visual arts, as well as to provide funding to K-12 and higher educational institutions to develop and support the arts, scholarships and effective instructional programs.

AuthorMathew McConnell

The newly hired director of the Momentary, which will be part of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, moved to Bentonville a week ago in preparation for a 2020 opening. Lieven Bertels has led an international career in visual and performing arts and will be involved in the look of the Momentary, which will be built in the former Kraft Foods plant in downtown Bentonville, as well as its programming and vision.

Follow the link below for the KUAF interview.

AuthorMathew McConnell