Monday, November 28, 2011

INTERCONNECTIVITY AND THE OUTWARD LOOKING GLASS OF CERAMICS: NCECA Journal 2010


Jake Allee





                I think more so today than before, many students are making educational choices based more on immediate economics and convenience.  Many students stay in their immediate region where they grew up due to the advantages of in-state tuition and living at home.  More online courses are being taken to eliminate commutes and time constraints associated with attending college.   Higher learning institutions encourage this because of the cost of building physical classrooms.  Often times students I see are attending higher education because it’s a norm society, or their parents tell them they must.  I also see people encouraged to take directions with their education with the idea of simply making money instead of seeking out a personal interest in life.  The net result often times becomes an attitude towards higher education that equates to the experience as jumping through a series of hoops only to find that the metaphorical treat for the feat does not exist.  I feel that many of these decisions compound to create a situation where the success of a student after they leave school can be inhibited.  I know many people who have degrees that don’t use them because they have not been thoroughly encouraged to look out into the world and seek out a life of learning through personal experience beyond their comfort zone.  For better or worse, we live in a country where education is being viewed as a right and not a privilege.  I think it is possible to combat this by broadening the experience the studio class room has to offer to expose students to the numerous paths ceramics has to offer.

                Ceramics is an incredible field to be involved in because we have not only a collective community that has small clusters of association spanning out to world connections, we have a culture.  This culture is connected by a common technical practice and language as well as a desire to inject philosophical concern through the media.  This culture spans geographical and political boundaries and the rest of the art world at large sees this. It takes a little extra effort to put a group of students in your car to an opening or a lecture away from school, but that type of experience is what maximizes the full potential the power of teaching has to offer.  Exposing your students to other perspectives on making art is only a phone call away to one of your friends teaching at another school in your region.  Propose a trade in lectures and demos.  It doesn’t take a large budget to make it happen, but it does take a willingness to believe that the energy you put into the ceramics community can return to benefit you in many other forms.

I have always held that ceramics is the universal media of art making.  The material is capable of being utilized in art for not just utilitarian objects or sculpture, but also design, print making, drawing, painting, and a variety of inter media approaches indicative of our contemporary age. You can offer all of the courses basic to any art department with clay and students need to know that all of these disciplines can be expressed through clay.   Through using examples of ceramic interconnectivity with, geology, chemistry, and even math, clay becomes a catalyst for learning beyond just art and provides the practical connection to concepts learned in a liberal arts environment.   Ceramics can be and mean so much more than the class that is used to fill 3 elective credit hours.  It can be trip around the world to discover our common connection to cultures very different than ours or a journey back in time to a place where ceramic objects had a different meaning in society.  Ceramic culture in many areas of the world holds the same basic understanding of technique but can offer so many different approaches.  I put quite a bit of effort into having my students realize this because the studio classroom or even the Art Department should not be a bubble to hide in, it should be a room with no walls packed with doors to be opened for discovery.  Students as well as teachers should have this perspective.

My students are offered all the knowledge I have, plus all the knowledge I am going to learn.  I stayed in academia and chose it as my career path because I feel the act of learning is never done.  The material techniques of clay offered through an expanded curriculum create a structure for teaching that allows me to bring the outside world into the classroom as well as take the class out of the lab for the best experience I have to offer.  The program I teach in offers the basic and advanced hand building and throwing courses with the addition of three levels of ceramic sculpture, production throwing, thrown and altered technique, low fire techniques, mould making, and of course glaze calculation as well as kiln building.  These courses are offered in a stacked format so they can be offered on a two year rotating schedule that will accommodate students that complete the course work towards a BFA from start to finish as well as transfer students coming in with previous coursework completed.  The net result creates a system that allows students to focus on ceramics for their degree without having to repeat courses and creates an experience that covers as much technical information as possible in preparation for continued education or work experience in the field of studio ceramics.  The syllabus and preliminary work for course structure and assignments is pretty elaborate, but it creates an open system for teaching in a cross disciplinary manner.  I tell all of my students, if I don’t know how to do it, we will learn together.

Utilizing this structure and philosophy in conjunction with sharing my personal exploration and research in ceramic history and travel abroad I believe it is possible to not only produce students that are capable of a successful career in art, but have a view of the world through the eyes of ceramic culture.  I think it’s important to teach creativity career construction as well as art making.  There is no other media in art that has the interconnectivity that ceramics has with so many other disciplines, lifestyles, cultures, and philosophies.  There is no other art media that has so many opportunities made available through making personal connections and showing yourself as a member of community.  To fully understand this through personal experience is to create a mind set for  adventure  in a life of art and more importantly the desire to go out into the world a seek a path that is your own.  We live in a country where opportunity is incredible, but you have to look out beyond what is put out in front of you and be creative to take full advantage of it.  Avoiding self imposed limitations and applying work ethic can open one of the many doors the vocation of ceramics has to offer.  That path is different for everybody, but passion will lead the right way for each individual.  In my six years of teaching art I have come to operate my classroom not as a factory for making individuals that become artists, but as an environment to view the rest of the world through the looking glass of ceramics.  The view is great and from that perspective a career and a life of making art is a possibility that can be realized.  

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