Ceramicist Laura Ross thinks the worst part is over. Since last June, she’s been working at a frantic pace in her Oldham County studio — producing large quantities of pots, firing multiple pieces multiple times, and selecting the best work to save. In recent weeks, she has been distributing her creations to galleries around town.
Ross is one of many Louisville-area artists whose work will be featured in some of the 77 exhibits related to a massive conference that visits Louisville from March 14-17 — the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA). She’s also the only area ceramicist of six demonstrators chosen by the council.
“When they contacted me, my jaw dropped to the ground,” Ross says of the news that
came from Joe Molinaro, an Eastern Kentucky University ceramics professor who also is the NCECA program director. In Ross, the council found a regional artist with a national reputation and the confidence to work in front of a large audience. As a demonstrator, she will present slides of her work and show the techniques and skills that make her one of the region’s best ceramicists.
“I’ll be doing things I can do well, like the lidded baking dish, throwing on the wheel and hand-building,” she says. Since 1985, Ross has specialized in functional ceramics, what she calls “pots for living,” which are often wheel-thrown, then manipulated to make the pieces less symmetrical. She prefers that her work reflect the soft clay from which it came.
But her participation is just one aspect of the conference.
Louisville will soon be covered in clay with the arrival of the council’s 41st annual conference, which it has titled “Old Currents/New Blends: A Distillation of Art and Geography.” Convention organizers expect up to 6,000 attendees — including artists, collectors and representatives of clay-support businesses — making the conference the largest international event devoted solely to ceramics.
The city expects it to generate nearly $2 million in revenue for local business while allowing it to showcase local artists and galleries, according to Jim Wood, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“It will be a huge amount of information for all of us, in all aspects dealing with clay,” Ross says. She admits to still getting a little nervous thinking about the event.
Other area ceramicists and gallery managers express similar sentiments: While
they’re thrilled and grateful for the conference’s presence here, they are slightly overwhelmed. That’s due in large part to the timeline; typically a host city gets two years to plan for NCECA. Louisville didn’t get that luxury; it was scheduled to play host in 2008, but naturally agreed when asked to move ahead a year after the scheduled host city, New Orleans, was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Nearly 130 vendors will be at the conference, featuring the most current technology, ceramic equipment and supplies. That’s one area of the conference that will surely prompt attendees to break into their ceramic piggy banks.
Being selected as the host city is a huge deal, say John Guenther, a ceramics professor at Indiana University Southeast, and Todd Burns of the University of Louisville fine arts department. They’re NCECA’s on-site liaisons.
“This clay conference is international in scope,” Guenther says. “It will be a ‘biggie’ for Louisville to be the host.” Burns adds that “planning has been pretty tough. I won’t say it’s as tough as the Olympics, but it’s close.”
Both professors also helped title the conference — “Old Currents/New Blends: A Distillation of Art and Geography” — which Burns says was chosen to “give it a sense of place.” That is, they want to help visitors relate to Louisville’s location through its references to the Ohio River and Kentucky’s bourbon-making heritage.
Ross has attended many other NCECA conventions and says they’re terrific places to broaden understanding. In particular, she cites the 1993 gathering in San Diego. While it didn’t change her style, she found “the clay work totally different from what it is around here. The great thing about NCECA is the variety, the wide spectrum of clay work — it really challenges you to make better work.”
The conference itself, which includes the usual convention standards of workshops and presentations (Louisville-area clay artist Rand Heazlitt is a panelist), is only one part of Louisville’s NCECA experience. Many artists and collectors are equally excited because, for the first time, Sculpture Objects and Functional Art (SOFA), an organization that promotes decorative arts and design through its sales in New York and Chicago, will be part of the ceramics conference. SOFA holds annual sales in New York and Chicago, and its exhibitions, which feature museum-quality art that draws collectors from around the world, have become the gold standard of craft exhibitions. Inclusion in a SOFA exhibition is a big deal for artists — the work is seen by lots of people who only buy top art.
“SOFA and NCECA will raise the bar about clay awareness around here,” says Ross, who will have works in the SOFA/NCECA Gallery Exposition, in the Convention Center, by virtue of her role as a demonstrator.
The Speed Art Museum will conduct a SOFA/NCECA collectors’ tour from March 15-16. It includes viewings of local private ceramic collections, such as works owned by the Rev. and Mrs. Alfred R. Shands (visit the NCECA Web site for more details).
“Collectors inspire other people to (collect),” Al Shands says. After years of collecting Kentucky crafts, he began purchasing national artists after attending the 1989 NCECA conference in Kansas City, where he says there were “a lot of different galleries of artists that I’d heard about but hadn’t seen.”
After nearly 25 years of collecting, the Shands now focus on ceramic
sculpture and site-specific pieces. “Sculpture is where we are now; the collection is breaking that somewhat artificial barrier of craft vs. art.”
They collect high-quality artists with national and international reputations, such as abstract expressionist ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos, and Betty Woodman and Rudy Autio, the latter whose work they first bought at the Kansas City NCECA.
Another major part of the convention involves 77 exhibitions featuring works by local, national and international artists, from as far away as Scotland and Australia. For Louisville-area art lovers, the shows, which are open to the public, are NCECA’s gift to us. Ross is featured in nine exhibitions, including the Carnegie Center for Art and History’s “Ohio Valley Clay: Function and Form.”
The shows feature a wide variety of ceramic styles and techniques, from vessels to sculpture, hand-built to wheel-thrown, traditional to avant-garde. The dates vary; some exhibitions are on display before, during and after NCECA, while others are open only during the conference.
Artists were invited to participate by the shows’ curators. A few of the exhibitions were juried, including “The Best of Kentucky Clay,” with works by Kentucky artists at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (Ross is one of the ceramicists in this show), and the “National Juried Woodfire Exhibition” at Thrown Together, an exhibition of the best wood fired ceramics by American artists.
The most significant shows are KMAC’s “NCECA 2007 Clay National Biennial
Exhibition,” billed as “the premier national juried exhibition for the ceramic arts,” and the “NCECA Regional Student Juried Exhibition” at the University of Louisville, which features exceptional work by college and university students.
Because one of the goals of NCECA is to increase society’s appreciation of ceramics, it has the necessary arsenal, with its enormous size and clearinghouse of information. There’s the potential to enlighten many long after the convention leaves our city — and so, it’s clear there are residual benefits as well to being covered in clay.
For more information, visit www.nceca.net. Contact the writer at [email protected]