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From the hands to the kiln: the art of ceramics

From the hands to the kiln: the art of ceramics

From the hands to the kiln: the art of ceramics
September 09
00:03 2014

By Samantha McDonald/Staff Writer

While ceramic production is not as bold as metalsmithing or as romantic as painting, the product can span from glassware to television components, making ceramics some of the most widely-used art objects in everyday life.

The versatility offered by ceramics also allows for both the manufacture of prosthetic limbs and coffee mugs, a feat accomplished by few artificial materials. It is through this field of fine art that craftsmen create products that are at the center of human culture, a mission in which UNT’s artists are hoping to take part.

With about 25 students, the ceramics concentration at UNT is undoubtedly small, a detail emphasized by its two full-time and one adjunct faculty members. However, the group exhibits a quiet kind of talent through its alumni who have graduated into their desired teaching positions at universities and community colleges in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including a student who was featured in “Ceramics Monthly,” the world’s largest ceramics magazine, and the bimonthly, “Clay Times.”

Associate professor of studio arts Jerry Austin said that although most undergraduate students develop the skills necessary to either open a professional studio or sell their works to a gallery, most of them go to graduate school to become experts in the discipline.

“I’m very proud of that,” Austin said. “We sort of have a dynasty of really good instructors in the Metroplex.”

Regardless of the direction ceramics students take, undergraduates and graduates share one thing in common: their desire to turn the craft into a lifestyle.

“Most of them are interested in making a career out of the ceramics field,” Austin said. “It’s almost a calling. You just get it in your blood.”

The art process

Ceramics students start with a beginner’s class that introduces them to basic fabrication techniques, such as learning how to use the potter’s wheel. While demonstrations of the discipline compose most of the course, students are also taught to decorate and glaze the wares they create.

In the intermediate class, which is divided into hand-building and wheel-throwing techniques, professors put an emphasis on clay body formulation, glaze mixing, firing theory and practice of the craft. The first steps of firing with the provided electric and gas kilns are also learned in these classes.

Finally, the advanced class gives students the chance to sharpen their skills and improve competence through the atmosphere of a ceramics studio. All firing and baking in kilns is done by students.

As an advanced ceramics studio student, art education senior Jennifer Mack has been hand-building since seventh grade and wheel-throwing since 10th grade. She enjoys the course for its lenience in restrictions, allowing her to create self-selected objects while learning new techniques such as building trays, which she had not created before.

“Building a new thing each time is like a new experience,” Mack said. “Usually there’s a variety of the things we make. [The class] seems pretty open, so I can do what I want for the most part.”

Because Mack is also taking other art classes, she has to divide her time between the art buildings.. Although the walk from the ceramics building on Oak Street to other art buildings in a short period of time could sometimes be an inconvenience, the best part about the distance is the isolation that gives students the time to work without the distractions, she said.

“It’s kind of cool to be in your own little space,” Mack said. “We’re not connected to a bunch of people going through the halls, so it’s like we’re on an island.”

Fruits of their labor

Three galleries located in the art building display student works as well as works from major artists around the country who are invited to the university as visiting artists.

The student-run Lightwell Gallery presents rotating exhibits each week throughout the academic year while the North Gallery is the primary workspace for fashion, interior and communication design majors. The main art gallery on the first floor of the art building is home to curatorial and installation projects from students and renowned artists alike.

Gallery attendant Nikolai Lanier has witnessed many ceramics works in his academic tenure. As a drawing and painting senior, Lanier has never taken a ceramics class. However, a number of his friends who are involved in the concentration had their artwork featured in galleries on campus and at booths during outdoor events, such as the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival. Opportunities like these allow students to not only learn entrepreneurial skills, but also hone their craftsmanship to create a piece that is both pleasing to the eye and useful for more than one purpose.

“Ceramics students are always looking to display their works because their stuff is usually utilitarian,” Lanier said.

However, not all ceramics objects are functional in nature. Some are produced with the intention of being purely sculptural through art pottery, such as decorative figurines and wall tiles.

“It’s pretty labor-intensive,” Lanier said. “But the work that they produce is pretty phenomenal.”

Featured Image: Visual arts junior Lindsay Mullin molds and shapes clay on a potter’s wheel to form a cup on Saturday in Oak Street Hall. Photo by Samantha McDonald – Staff Writer

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