This beginning ceramics sculpture course introduces the methods and vocabulary essential to hand-building and glazing ceramics. Students explore endless sculptural opportunities through a variety of hand-building clay techniques — from practices that have endured for centuries to modern patterns and decals that offer striking intricacy. As context is critical, students are exposed to the history of ceramics, along with current artists shaping the future of the medium.
ArtCenter: How would you describe this class to a prospective student?
Nicola Vruwink: The focus is two-fold: There’s the technical, craft aspects of working with clay, as well as thinking about the intentional and conceptual. Clay is one of the most forgiving and least forgiving materials — you can achieve fast results, but what I really want students to practice is intentionality in the execution of the craft.
It’s the unexpected that drives us to make more and explore the medium. For me, this class opened a new possibility to make sculptural works that translate words and personal narrative into a physical form.Rouzy HanesyanFine Art
AC: What inspired the direction you took with the curriculum for this class?
NV: What’s amazing about clay is the foundation of the medium has remained the same for hundreds of years. Students may have had some experience with clay, but it’s key to learn the best practices. We also focus on our relationship with clay. Your morning coffee mug, your kitchen sink — we all have this intimate knowledge of ceramics, whether we’re aware of it or not. I also stress intentionality. With clay, you must move forward; it’s difficult to go back. When you pay attention to each stage of the craft — wedging the clay, making a pattern, considering the design — it will be visible in the end result.
AC: Handcrafted ceramics have gained popularity in recent years — why do you think that is?
NV: We live in such a fast, digital, mass-produced world, and when you see these intimate objects that so clearly convey the work of the hand and time spent, it reaches us on a level we’re craving. The medium offers such an opportunity for engagement with your viewer — whether it’s through a functional or nonfunctional object.
AC: What are some of the different techniques students learn and explore?
NV: We start with pinch pots, a very simple way of working clay into forms. We move into slab formation, coil building, slump and hump molds and slip casting so students have exposure to more production-type techniques, as well as glazing and some decals for surface decorations. I love the language of clay.
AC: What are some of the assignments and materials you hope will challenge students to break new ground creatively?
NV: For the first four weeks, I give students a word and ask them to interpret the meaning though clay. Some words, like “cowboy” or “squish,” have an easy relationship to a visual; while others, like “almost” or “rotund” are more abstract. I also task students with making two identical pinch pots; everyone’s shocked at how difficult that is. Students also create a personal place setting with four objects. I’ve had students make gorgeous plates and cups. One student made traffic cones; another student crafted these charming little characters for someone who likes living alone but doesn’t want to eat alone.
AC: What were some of the most interesting and surprising ways students have responded to challenges and assignments?
NV: Ceramics is a Fine Art class, but students from other majors — film, graphic design, illustration and product design — often take the course. I try to build enough freedom into the curriculum, so students can apply the assignments to suit their field of practice. I’ve had students do performance pieces based on their relationship with ceramics, including a student who served a whole meal off the objects he made.