By Drutt, Helen
Ceramics Art & Perception , No. 68
World ceramics has become a central part of the permanent collection of the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA). Here, ceramics from 8th--10th century Iran exist alongside antiquities from Peru and Mexico, Southwest-American Indian masters and 10th-century and contemporary African vessels and storage jars. This collection is also a repository for study, for expansion of thought; it is a history that holds pots by University of Iowa faculty artists and graduates of the program, as well as strong examples that respond to Iowa's woodfire tradition. The collection is a reflection of the personal journey of its mentor, Gerald Eskin, and his dedicated commitment to education and the enrichment of the cultural community. Its true strength, however, is the modern and contemporary American ceramics collection which, beginning in 1979, has been served by gifts from Joan E. Mannheimer. The Mannheimer Collection has been reinforced by works of art reflecting the global history of the field.
The study collection, which reveals the diversity of ceramics, ranges from a Chinese vessel of the Neolithic period to a vigorous abstract vessel by Peter Voulkos. The evolution of clay is documented with utilitarian pots, elaborate decorative objects and sculpture, as well as the late 20th century's heightened positioning of the vessel as metaphor. Through the diverse forms of vessels and functional pots, Isaiah's cry, "We are the clay, Oh Lord, and thou, our Potter," is reflected while illustrating a passionate history.
This initiative, the brainchild of Gerald Eskin, is evidenced in the Ceramics Gallery that opened in September 2006 at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. This gallery resides within the 300 sq m (30,000 sq ft) of the museum's galleries, and occupies a long rectangular space, with more than 1.2 m (400 linear ft) of adjustable display shelving.
In that space is an 2.4 x 3.6 m (8 x 12 ft) glass-enclosed study room that embodies Gerry Eskin's vision. It was designed by William Nowysz, a noted Iowa architect, and constructed by David Naso. Steven J. Erickson designed the lighting and Daniel Wildberger was responsible for the graphic design. It was clearly a team effort, with Gerry Eskin and Howard Collinson, director of the museum, at the helm.
Historically, the University of Iowa Museum of Art is an academic institution, within the university, dedicated to teaching. Major collections of art occupy the space, including American and European pieces since 1900 and acquisitions of ethnographic works. Featured among the unique entities, in addition to the galleries, collections, and changing exhibitions, is a study room dedicated to works on paper.
Gerry Eskin challenged the museum to develop a concept similar to its print study room that would permit individuals--students, teachers, and patrons--to make primary contact with clay and, in so doing, begin to understand, when directly holding an object, the differences that exist among the diverse ceramic materials--that is, earthenware, porcelain and so on. It was his hope that, in touching, one might feel the difference between kiln-fired porcelain and woodfired and raku-fired clay. Hence, the birth of a study room for ceramics.
In the catalogue published upon the occasion of the opening exhibition, Howard Collinson writes, "The Ceramics Gallery features a glass enclosure, a study room. The works in the room are visible from the gallery. A small door will admit groups of five or six to the study room. Although only the smallest and most vulnerable pieces in the main gallery are behind glass, in the study room pieces can be removed from the shelves for physical examination by students and teachers. We have specially selected works for this room which are particularly informative to the touch. …