This year’s annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference brought 4,823 clay enthusiasts to charming, intimate Providence, Rhode Island. The event, currently the largest art conference in the world held in the field of ceramic arts, celebrated its 49th year with more than 100 gallery exhibitions and more than 100 lectures and events celebrating the theme Lively Experiments.
When I told people that I was writing a review of the 2015 conference I was repeatedly encouraged to “be nice.” This surprising sympathy for NCECA revealed the public’s awareness of the organization’s vulnerability to criticism and also that there is a deeply-rooted fondness toward it felt by its patrons. The seasoned NCECA goer has witnessed the evolution, the successes, the failures, the risks, and the impending challenges of running such a unique event. NCECA has had a major impact on the lives of ceramic artists by providing a platform for fostering a physical community, learning new techniques, providing exhibitions, scholarship opportunities, networking opportunities, and much more.
NCECA attracts three main audiences: students, professional artists, and hobbyists. Their task of satisfying each group with diverse interests is not an easy one, often facing criticism by one or more of the demographics for the organization’s choices in programming. Each group, though, is essential to the anatomy of the broader clay community.
There exists a beautiful symbiotic relationship between the three groups. The professional artists provide an academic framework for art education and professionalism. The students (the future of ceramic art) learn from the professionals, define new trends in the field, and maintain enough interest to keep public studios open. The hobbyists fund the students continued education through buying art and attending workshops that often allot a portion of tuition to student scholarships.
The ceramic medium is historically rooted in community, first for is production roots, and now for artists use of community studios to offset expensive equipment costs. And from an education standpoint, the unexpected professional/student/hobbyist relationship is fragile and essential. NCECA has a complicated job.
The conference talks kicked off with a Keynote titled Earthenware: A History of Table Traditions and Related Recipes by Dr. Frederick Douglas Opie. It was the equivalent of an art history lesson, a good one, but the content was only interesting to a small portion of the audience, many of the others walked out before the end. This was the fault of NCECA for their choice in speaker, not Opie.
Following his lesson, NCECA announced its 2015 Multicultural Fellowships, a response to the 2014 keynote speaker Theaster Gates’ challenge to cultivate greater diversity in the field. This was a progressive gesture by NCECA, a good first step, but the presentation felt insensitive: a list of six names on a big screen for ten seconds. It was impersonal, similar to hitting the “like” button on Facebook without further action, failing to humanize the awardees by shaking their hands, showing their work, or even listing their names on the website; simple gestures I am sure each of them were deserving of. According to the program, these fellowships were more formally announced at Saturday’s Members’ Business Meeting.
The rest of the week featured 100+ more presentations from demos to gallery talks to lectures. Two of the demonstrators, Kristen Morgin and Matt Wedel, were particularly interesting as ceramic artists who have broken into the wider contemporary art scene. They have managed to transcend this vague ceramic-world/art-world line, a breed rarely seen in NCECA’s programming except in a possibly sarcastic lecture by Marc Leuthold.
Leuthold’s talk titled Ceramic Art Leaving the Ghetto consisted of 200+ slides in 30 minutes, showing on onslaught of successful contemporary artists who use clay. The speed of the lecture was humorous and seemed to subtly mock NCECA for completely ignoring some of the most successful, progressive, and educational artists in the field. After the staff had to pressure Leuthold off the stage for going over his time I was left with a one-page list of incredible contemporary artists, none of which were featured at NCECA or at it’s gallery/museum affiliates.
Amanda Barr, Leslie Ferrin, Brian Harper, and Justin Rothshank held a panel discussion titled The Social (Media) Experiment and even though this topic is hashed out every year, it continues to be fascinating because the popularity of social media in the ceramic community is just getting stronger. The discussion brought up topical questions of identity, sales, self-promotion, and questioned the need for an actual gallery space. NCECA experienced the popularity of ceramicists on social media first-hand when paying conference goers were turned away from talks due to the fire department enforcing maximum capacity and they turned to NCECA’s Facebook page to express their frustration.
Many of the exhibitions were visually jumbled with no solid conceptual framework other than superficial premises like “artist-invite-artist,” or “juried exhibitions.” Many of these shows featured good work like New Bedford Museum of Art, the UMass Dartmouth University Art Gallery, and the Pouring Arts Invitational 2015, but I could not help but think I was just scrolling through my Pinteretst feed of Doug Pelztman’s, Kristen Keiffer’s, and Chris Gustin’s, all the pottery porn stars we are used to pleasuring ourselves to.
David Katz had a powerful site-specific installation at Arch Contemporary that appeared to elevate the oldest farmhouse on the Sakonnet Peninsula, magically supported by an unfired clay pedestal. His basic addition had a huge visual and conceptual impact on the permanent structure, lifting it up, but also conjuring images of an inflated raft, relating to the surrounding water. It was so convincing that my first question to Katz was “Did you move this structure here or build your work around it?”
RISD’s ISB Gallery also featured meditative, process-focused work in a solo exhibit of Jim Melchert’s cracked ceramic tiles curated by Paul Kotula, Incubator for Ideas. It was an informative exhibit showing his tiles paired with past articles and images of the artist’s iconic works like Leg Pot and his recorded 1972 performance Changes: A Performance with Drying Slip. On Friday morning Melchert gave an intimate gallery talk; one that you hang on every profound word and the 30 chairs in the room were never empty. Following the inspirational talk I witnessed multiple people commenting, “This is what NCECA used to be.”
The NCECA Biennial at Brown University’s Bell Gallery was juried by Linda Christianson, Jo-Ann Conklin, and Anders Ruhwald. The trio selected 50 outstanding ceramic pieces including work by Zimra Beiner, Matt Repsher, Ned Day, Peter Pincus, and Janet MacPherson. Vlad Basarab showed a fantastic clay sculpture paired with a video titled The Archaeology of Memory- Large Book in which water was dripped onto a rapidly deteriorating unfired clay book. The video showed the process and the displayed object was the collected artifact, rich with detail and fabricated history.
Cade Tomkins Projects hosted one of the most talked about shows at this year’s conference titled Human Moments, a group exhibition including work by Ann Agee, Sana Musasama, Annabeth Rosen, Sally Saul, Arlene Shechet, Andrew Molleur, Kevin Snipes, and Arnie Zimmerman. This show stood out for its uninterrupted quality and professionalism, something many of the other exhibitions and spaces in Providence lacked.
There were, of course, many other shows including the NCECA Student exhibition, the Kirk Mangus exhibit Good Things (previously covered here), Variance a show of current Alfred University grads, the Pouring Arts Invitational 2015 at Narrows Center for the Arts, a Chris Gustin solo exhibition at Dedee Shattuck Gallery, some beautiful shows at the Pawtucket Armory Arts Center, and so many more.
To satisfy the complex professional/student/hobbyist audience in Providence, NCECA tightly packed its schedule resulting in an overwhelming feeling of three separate conferences stuffed into one. This isn’t necessarily a bad strategy for their scenario, but the quality seemed diluted. Overall, the talks were underwhelming with a trend (not new to NCECA) of seeing semi-professional presenters with subtle ulterior motives like self-promotion or gallery promotion. You can’t blame them for seeking more value, they only receive $200 for an hour lecture that could take weeks of preparation time.
Most of the lectures and the NCECA sponsored exhibitions are organized on a submission basis which is the cause for the semi-professional quality in both instances. As on organization with the goal of education it would be valuable to hire both curators (not jurors), and speakers to create expert exhibitions and presentations. Although their current formula does satisfy their mission to “foster global education,” the quality of that education is often compromised by the process.
NCECA is a radically successful social practice organization, its conference is the largest annual “art” event in the world, in that brings together a community of makers who share their lives to obtain a clearer understanding of the medium, lifestyle, and opportunities. This community transparency brilliantly progresses the field within the field (teaching history, sustainability, techniques, etc.) but currently lacks the ability to transcend the medium’s microcosm community. This microcosm loyalty is simultaneously a massive advantage to the makers and the very phenomenon that has worked against the ceramic arts being accepted on to the contemporary art stage.
NCECA attendees have developed many affectionate pet names for the annual conference, my favorites being Pottery Drinking Party, Ceramic Love Fest, and my personal variation, the National Pottery Jerk Circle. All of these, of course, said with a smile by the very people who attend the conference year after year. NCECA is a cornerstone of ceramic social life, bringing together thousands of enthusiasts to “inspire advancement of the field.” It is an event that faces perpetual challenges, but continues to progress and be a successful, maybe essential, social practice piece of the ceramic field.
Next year is NCECA’s 50th Anniversary meeting in Kansas City. It promises to be the largest gathering yet and book your hotels early. This year there was not a single bed available in Providence by opening day.
What did you think of this year’s NCECA conference? Tell us in the comments or join the conversation on Facebook.
Justin Crowe is Writer-at-Large for CFile.