“Ceramics is a very demanding discipline,” explains Bede Clarke, MU Professor of Art. Even after 35 years in the field, he says, “it still takes a lot out of me to do good work.” Clarke’s creative activity focuses on two areas. One involves the use of color and drawing and painting on clay with abstract and figurative imagery, and the other is wheel-thrown pottery fired in a wood kiln to achieve glaze effects.
As a child growing up in New Mexico, Christine VanPool remembers visiting museums and state parks with her family. By all accounts, VanPool was a normal kid who loved to ask questions. Living on the edge of the Mescalero Apache reservation, VanPool developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history of her Native American friends, which led naturally to her interest in anthropology.
The important thing, suggests Clarke, is not the particular artistic genre in which one works — whether still-life painting, landscape painting, making pots, or figurative sculpture — but what the artist has to say. As he explains, “I’m interested in reaching out, as the maker of these things, to other people. The things I create are made to live their lives in people’s homes. I envision them being things people would have in their homes, the way they have their favorite radio station on, or books on their shelves that they like to pull down. I’m aware that I have the potential to contribute something to their daily life. I aspire for it to be something deeply human and compassionate and worthwhile.”
Although their medium is visual, ceramics students are encouraged to articulate their experiences verbally, as well as to write about them. A fundamental part of these classes involves critique, where students present their finished products to the class, talk about their inspiration and ideas, and critically evaluate the work in terms of where it has succeeded and where it has failed. Beyond creation and evaluation, students research a topic (e.g., a culture’s ceramics or a contemporary ceramic artist) and present their findings to the class. “It’s probably my favorite part of the class,” Clarke remarks, “because they become the teachers."
In all his years of making ceramics, Clarke declares, he never set out to do mediocre work. Creative work, he believes, “is what drives the artist to despair and to exhilaration.” Clarke recalls that while apprenticing with Karl Christiansen, the master instilled in him the idea that one never really arrives as an artist: “you’ll never get to the point where you do everything correctly and there is no more to learn, no more to grow.” Learning to make good pots requires nothing short of a lifetime of practice. “There is always more you don’t know,” Clarke adds. “There is always, hopefully, better work to come.”
Bede Clarke has been teaching in MU’s Art Department since 1992, with classes ranging from beginning to graduate ceramics. Beginning ceramics classes are very design-oriented, Clarke explains, “geared toward instilling good design principles and decision-making in students.” Besides sitting behind the potter’s wheel, his students do background research on some aspects of ceramic history—“about 20,000 years of human beings making things out of clay”—a learning process that may involve a trip to the Museum of Art and Archeology as well as to Ellis Library.
Clarke describes how the creative work of making pots necessarily involves research. He has observed that visual artists have a close relationship to the raw materials with which they work. As an artist, Clarke explains that “pottery keeps me honest. Pottery is a very simple art form. It is very demanding in terms of detail, line, shape, and form. Maybe because it’s so simple and unassuming, it makes me focus on what I’m trying to communicate, rather than chasing the latest fad that’s going on.”
“There is great clay right here in Missouri,” says Clarke. In fact, some of the richest deposits are within forty miles of Columbia. But to prepare clay like this, “it is kind of like baking,” he explains, in that you must add a variety of different ingredients—in this case, clays, colorants, and fluxes—to create a clay body. Depending on the ingredients, the clay can be given desired characteristics, for instance filler material like sand or grog can be added to give the clay “tooth and strength.” These materials are combined in different ratios, depending upon how the artist wants the clay to behave: “If you are building a large-scale, thick sculpture, you would choose a very different clay from that used to make very delicate translucent porcelain. An understanding of clay is pretty fundamental."
Once the pot has been thrown, the potter must make decisions while the clay is still wet about handles, trim, texture, or other decorations—details that can add a lot to a piece. If it is kept wrapped in plastic, the artist might have a week or two to finish it. Clarke takes a moment to consider the pot he has just finished throwing and decides that—were he to continue working on it—he would want to alter or embellish it in some way. Clarke has observed that it takes students about 12 weeks of concentrated work to get these basics. “It’s a skill, but it’s more,” Clarke explains. When he asks students how they feel when they are really “getting it,” they report that they feel “connected” to the clay.
While he also works with drawing and painting, ceramics is Clarke’s major creative area. “Ceramics is a very demanding discipline,” he says. “After 35 years, I still find it challenging, so I tend to focus on it – maybe because I find that I need to, to do something that’s any good at all. It still takes a lot out of me to do good work.” His creative activity tends to focus on two areas. One involves drawing and painting on clay with abstract and figurative imagery, and the other is wheel-thrown pottery fired in a wood kiln to achieve the desired glaze effects. Clarke moves behind the potter’s wheel to offer a demonstration on the art of throwing a pot.
VanPool describes her work with ceramic analysis in which she studies the configuration and design of pots and jugs.