WE ARE GATHERED IN A DARK ROOM IN THE EARLY fall of 2007 at the University of Kansas for the weekly occasion of the Graduate Seminar. The room buzzes with tense energy and forced gaiety. A yearly ritual is about to be enacted, when third year MFA candidates present a half-hour slide lecture on their work to the faculty and students at The School of Art. After announcements the lights dim, and the presentations begin. About a third of the way through the night, a wiry compact man with close-cropped hair takes the podium. He walks with the slight swagger of a cowboy, and his brown eyes look both kind and tired. His skin is weathered and tanned and he wears a western shirt and jeans. This is Todd Cero-Atl, known in his community to be both talented and reserved. I am interested to hear what he has to say, but I am in no way prepared for the intensity and eloquence of what is to follow.
Todd describes his coming of age in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas; the son of a mentally ill mother and an absent father. He demonstrates his early sense of isolation through photographs of his favorite hideouts in Dodge City, Kansas. The screen fills with beautiful images of empty sky and crumbling rock. Cero-Atl describes how he used to seek refuge on the land when home proved to be dissolute and insubstantial. He explains that his love of the prairie's abandoned enclosures and open skies was a first aesthetic experience of the ambivalence of containment. The vessel as a metaphor for both refuge and loss is an idea that has haunted him since youth.
Todd Cero-Atl was born into an economically disadvantaged family on July 14, 1969 in Monticello, Iowa. His parents divorced early, and his unstable and physically abusive mother became too dangerous to live with when Todd was 12. He ran away from home to avoid physical harm, and lived in a runaway shelter for two months. At the age of 14, he was placed in Father Flanagan's Boys Town and spent the next four years there, using literature and poetry as his escape into beauty. One teacher took an interest in Todd, and gave him Pablo Neruda's love sonnets. One of the poems described, "feasting on the body". It was through that metaphor that Cero-Atl came into an awareness of his own sexuality as a gay man. Neruda's passionate capacity to own the body's eroticism became for Cero-Atl another ambivalent container, a way to express his early knowledge of flesh as a locus of anguish, yearning and delight.
Though Cero-Atl's aspiration as a teenager was to be an artist, the culture from which he sprang did not encourage it, and he accepted that he would probably end up in meat packing or in agriculture. Initially, he studied Equine Science at Dodge City Community College. But a passionate and prolonged love affair led him to Colorado State University and it was there that he met and was mentored by the ceramist Richard DeVore. DeVore was a trained painter who had switched to ceramics at Cranbrook Academy. At the time, Cero-Atl was 24 and reeling from his lover Nathan Quinter's untimely death from AIDS. DeVore understood Cero-Atl's need to express difficult subject matter, and explained to him that the language of ceramics is coded. Much of the subject matter that Cero-Atl wanted to explore was sexually explicit and dark, with autobiographical themes of illness and persecution running through it. Devore reassured Cero-Atl that pottery has historically been about survival, protection, relationship and community. Were Cero-Atl to venture into potent subject matter, the language of ceramics could definitely contain and nurture his vision. And thus, Cero-Atl was launched into a productivity and originality of vision that is a moving testimony to the power of art to illuminate culture and express universal human themes such as loss, hierarchy, fear and love.
An early piece from that time, Fruit, presents one clay apple sitting vulnerably inside a circle of menacing ceramic cowboys. …