When it comes to working with clay, beginners are often intimidated by its raw form — how could a lump of mud turn into a vase, bowl or favorite coffee mug?
Tucked within both the east and west corners of the UAA campus lie the ceramic studios; the hand-building studio is located in the east Fine Arts Building and wheel-throwing within the west Gordon Hartlieb Hall. Inside these walls, pure magic happens.
“I think that my favorite quality about clay is that you can get it to look like any other material in the world, with the exception of anything clear like plastic or glass,” said ceramics instructor Melissa Mencini.
“There is this really great group of artists who deal with ‘trompe l’oeil’ [French, meaning “to trick the eye”]; they make things that look like wood, drift-wood, metal, flesh — but it’s all clay! It’s so limitless in nature that it’s hard to not be intrigued by it.”
The ceramics program boasts six classes within a calendar school year; three are taught by Mencini and three by Professor Steven Godfrey, head of ceramics. Within these class constraints the program has over 60 students in wheel-thrown ceramics and about 25 in hand-built.
The production of wheel-thrown ceramic objects is no laughing matter. Each cup, bowl or vase goes through a rigorous process before it resembles the artistic masterpiece that held your latte this morning. It all begins with a grey lump of minerals known as clay.
During the first semester of wheel-thrown ceramics, students are taught how to mix the clay, wedge it, center the gooey ball and turn it into a delicate form. Before their first firing in the kiln (an oven for clay) these objects are known as “greenware.” After the clay has dried to a “leather-hard” state, it is again centered on the wheel and trimmed to remove excess clay. At this stage it begins to actually take intended shape as a cup, bowl, etc. After the item has been trimmed it is “bisque fired” — after which it takes on a chalky exterior. And finally, is “glazed.” Glazing is the last stage of the production process; it entails dipping the object in a smooth, pigmented substance with the consistency of mud that (after yet another firing at a higher temperature) gives pots their beautiful glass-like and glossy finish.
“I spend around six hours a week in the studio outside of class time, but it is totally worth it. The product outweighs the hours you spend there,” said Art major Rachel Coe.
Coe is finishing her first semester in beginning wheel-thrown ceramics (taught by Mencini) and had nothing but good things to say of the program.
“Making ceramics is like shopping in a sense; you get to take home so much cool stuff. If you want to succeed at any art form it takes time and commitment, but the outcome is completely worth it.”
If you are in need of an art credit or a new coffee mug, perhaps it is time to broaden your idea of creativity and get your hands dirty — and by all accounts, the ceramic studio, knee-deep in clay, is the place to be.
“It’s an amazing material,” said BFA student Scott Jelich. “That you can take this lump from the earth and turn it into something beautiful and then put it into a kiln and it will hold that shape; it’s just amazing.”
The UAA ceramics program has its foundation in the promotion of curiosity and creativity; its heart is to give students a chance to create things with a unique and personal approach. But creating a masterpiece does not happen overnight.
“It’s hard because when you look at someone who knows how to throw well, they make it look really easy. It’s kind of magical watching it, almost hypnotizing,” said Mencini. “Then beginners sit at the wheel and they think it’s going to be this really easy thing, but it takes years of practice to make it look easy.”
But do not let difficulty discourage you, as with all good things, it only takes time.
“I would encourage people to take this class because it stretches your creativity,” said Coe, “and opens up an artistic part of you that you didn’t even know that you had. And it’s really flippin’ fun.”