Professor Lee opens the door to a kiln in the ceramics studio

'It's a clay thing'

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The vibe is low-key in the Calder Arts Center ceramics studio, but the creative energy is palpable — not unlike the process of forming clay into the beautiful, interesting and often functional pieces that emerge from the hands of a ceramic artist.

Indeed, the clay these artists use helps set the tone for the creative atmosphere, said Hoon Lee, associate professor of ceramics and the program's coordinator.

"You have to be super patient to deal with clay. You cannot force it. You have to wait for it to dry and for it to fire," Lee said.

In turn, that necessary patience invites people to share and to build a community to help each other and to mutually learn, he said. Spend some time in the studio, and you can observe students working on pieces or discussing their craft, jumping in when needed to help roll out or cut clay, or sometimes offering advice, like one late-semester exchange when one student brainstormed with another on why a piece cracked.

"It's a clay thing," Lee said. "Clay is one of the oldest materials humans have been using, and nothing much has changed. It's the same dirt, the same process, the same hands."

For those who experience the "clay thing," the art form is intrinsic, he said.

"With ceramics majors, somehow they know this is what they want to do and they come in to our program," Lee said.

Small clay 'kiln gods' are pictured: a face and a frog among them.

Students in the ceramics program make 'kiln gods' for good luck that they place on top of the kilns in the hopes their artwork comes out of the firing process unscathed.

A student works on a clay piece in the ceramics studio

Andrea Johnecheck, a senior majoring in art education, adds glazes to her ceramic pieces. 

Cookbooks and inspiration

Jacy Nichols can attest to that notion, though she noted her path to pursuing her passion was circuitous.

"I started with a different major and ended up here," said Nichols, who is pursuing a bachelor of fine arts in ceramics. "From the start I knew this is what I wanted to do. It's just not where I started."

Nichols was working in a portion of the studio sectioned off into stations for the student artists to create. Shelves line this area, showcasing their varied creations. Many students, including Nichols, have videos running on computers as a way to help clear their heads while creating.

Surrounding Nichols were a number of intricately designed cakes made of clay, right down to the piping and decorations that you would normally see on a celebratory cake. Nichols looked through old cookbooks at her mother's house and came across retro cakes. Inspired, she bought a cake decorating kit and worked with clay consistency until she could use that material instead of the usual frosting for the designs.

Nichols said the experience in the ceramics studio has her eyeing graduate school and a career as a faculty member in ceramics.

"We're really given creative freedom in here," Nichols said. "I have been inspired by being with people who really know they wanted to do ceramics."

In a different part of the studio, Grace Heiss, an art education major with an emphasis in ceramics, is hanging out with other art education majors.

Heiss, who wants to be a high school art teacher because that was the time she discovered her artistic passion, said she is still experimenting to find her style. Next year is about finding her voice.

"I like pushing the limits of the clay and finding out what is possible," Heiss said. "Although it is a time-consuming process, it really helps you understand yourself, it pushes your own boundaries, and you work through your creative blocks and whatever problems you run into."

That kind of passion is what drives ceramic artists, Lee said.

"This is what they want to do. This is what they want to do not just for college but for 30 or 40 years," Lee said. "You have to feel it."

Ceramic tea pot and cups are displayed at an art gallery

A selection of finished ceramics pieces are on display in a small room inside the ceramics studio at the Calder Arts Center.