Survival in Ceramics: A Survey of Art Students 5 Years to 30+ Years Later

Article excerpt


IN 2004, I WAS WORKING ON A MAIL ART PROJECT WITH MY Clay III students and we inadvertently contacted three artists who had educational ties to Antioch College. I was amused by the coincidence, but did not give it much thought. This past year, the phenomenon happened again when I was applying to an artist residency program. I began to wonder, "Just how many former Antioch ceramics students are out there?"

In graduate school, I remember a professor telling me that only 10 per cent of graduates in the arts continue pursuing their craft 10 years later. This percentage shocked and worried me, but I felt determined to make it into the 10 per cent. Now, 16 years out of my own BFA program, I can only find a handful of my former classmates still working in the medium. I understand the difficulties of money, family, time, etc, but what about those who were able to continue? What did they do differently? I decided to use the resources at Antioch as well as my own informal research to try to 'dig up' as many former students as possible and to see if there was any common link to artistic survival in the world of clay.


Antioch College (Yellow Springs, CH) was founded in 1852 by the Christian Connexion movement. The college is now a private nondenominational Liberal Arts institution. In 1853, Horace Mann became the first president of the college. In 1920, the co-operative education plan (Work/Study educational model) began under the guidance of college president Arthur Morgan. Today, Antioch stresses the ideals of classroom learning combined with national and international work experience, community responsibility, a shared governance and a small faculty to student ratio.

The Visual Arts at Antioch have been active since at least the 1920s when Arthur Morgan helped establish a working bronze foundry at the college. Ceramics was not officially introduced as a program until Professor Cynthia Metcalf was hired in 1956 (although some alumni I heard from remember a wheel being available before). Metcalf left the college in 1965 and the potshop remained relatively quiet until Professor Karen Shirley came to teach at Antioch in 1967 staying for one year. Professor Jan Jones joined the faculty in 1968. Tragically, Jones was killed in a plane crash in Canada the following year. Despite her brief career at the college, her students tell me they owe her a debt of gratitude for her instruction and philosophy.

After the death of their professor, many students continued working in the studio and formed a community around the potshop. Beginning students were aided by senior students and an atmosphere of peer-centred learning was formed. Jones' position was later picked up again by Karen Shirley who then continued on to a 30-year career at Antioch College. Scores of students passed through her studio and many have made a name and living for themselves in the ceramic medium. During her tenure at Antioch, Shirley was joined by Michael Jones as Artist in Residence. Karen Shirley retired in 1997. In 1998, I began my career at Antioch.

By the time I completed the research component of this project, I had contacted more than 40 former ceramics students. Each of these were given a questionnaire designed to find common links to career choices and unplanned episodes that aided them in carving out a life in clay. I found no single path for each individual artist.

The first common link I ran across was the fundamental 'need' to work in the medium. I have experienced it personally and seen it time and again with my students. From the people I spoke to, many said they would continue to work in clay even if they did not show, sell or make a living by teaching.

Studio ceramist, Kaaren Stoner, describes her need for clay as a constant presence: "You have to have a passion for your work. After 36 years full time, I still love going to the studio every day. …