Push It

Push It

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Nicholas Bivins; Glass + Cup, 2011; ceramic, wood; 7 x 8 x 3 in. Photo: Nicholas Bivins

At Archie Bray, tradition means innovation.

Every field has its enduring fabled place, where the greats triumphed and new talent aspires to be. For golf, it's the Old Course at St. Andrews; for country music, the Grand Ole Opry. For clay, it's the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts.

The story, by now, is legend: In 1951 Archie Bray, a brickmaker with a passion for the arts, built a pottery next to his factory, the Western Clay Manufacturing Co., at the foot of the Rocky Mountains just outside Helena, Montana. His dream was to provide a place to work "for all who are sincerely interested in any branches of the ceramic arts." In a magical piece of serendipity, his first resident artists were two young, maverick Montanans named Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio. Profoundly influenced by their time there, they went on to revolutionize clay as a sculptural medium.

Bray died in 1953, but people never stopped coming to work at his pottery. Today it remains a mecca for inventive ceramic artists the world over, many of whom will make a pilgrimage to Helena this summer for its 60th anniversary. "From the Center to the Edge: 60 Years of Creativity and Innovation at the Archie Bray Foundation" is the theme of the celebration, to include a symposium, exhibitions, and a distinguished lineup of artists, from leaders at the core of the field to experimenters at the periphery.

"We're trying to be conscientious about not just patting ourselves on the back for lasting as long as we have," says Steven Young Lee, the Bray's resident artist director since 2006. "What makes the Bray so special is that it has maintained a commitment to be an innovative and cutting-edge experience for ceramic artists."

The Bray hosts 10 long-term residents, some for up to two years, along with other artists who come for a few months. The atmosphere is unstructured and nurturing. "There aren't formal critiques. The resident artists aren't students," Lee says. "What we offer them is the freedom to just be in the studio and commit to their work, and we try to provide the best possible facilities and environment for them to do that in."

Residents get free workspace and access to equipment, but are responsible for their supplies and in-town lodgings. The Bray selects them on merit, aiming for a diversity of styles and approaches to the medium. "We all consider ourselves predominantly clay artists, but there are so many divergent paths in the mix. All of us try to push the boundaries a little," says resident artist Aaron Benson, who makes architectural forms using clay in combination with wood and other materials. Just 26, he came to Helena with his wife and two toddlers in 2009 after graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and has since produced an extensive, refined body of work that's gained him acceptance to graduate school at Alfred University in New York.

"It's been a huge blessing. It allowed me to explore and have the freedom to take risks, make mistakes, find out what's working for me and what's not - that total freedom to just push the work," Benson says. Without a doubt, where he is has been a motivating factor. "It's like: ‘The bar has been raised. You're at the Bray - step it up.' "

Past and present live in harmony on the Bray site. Along with newer, modern facilities, old buildings are being reused, converted to studios or galleries. "There's a really wonderful kind of romance that comes with that," Lee says. "You feel connected to the history, and to the growth and evolution that's taken place here." Wander the grounds and you'll stumble on artifacts: piles of bricks, sculpture fragments, and discarded pots by the scores of makers who've passed through. Old beehive kilns stand, ghostlike, in the ruins of the brickyard, shut down in 1960. In the original pottery building, you can see the spot where the "gang of five" - Voulkos, Autio, and distinguished foreign visitors Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and Soetsu Yanagi - posed for an iconic photo in 1952.

"You can't escape it," resident Nicholas Bivins says of that history, that trailblazing approach to clay that's in the very DNA of the Bray. "I think about how hard it must have been [for Voulkos and Autio] working in the brick factory all day, lifting literally tons of clay, and then doing their own work at night. They had this absolute commitment and dedication. Those guys, they changed the game of ceramics. Maybe the strongest tradition here would be innovation - breaking all the rules and expectations for what is anticipated from ceramic artists," Bivins reflects.

"I changed my work completely," says Courtney Murphy, who, since arriving last fall, has switched from white clay to earthenware for her pottery. "It was a hard transition, and I definitely made some ugly pots at first ... but I also got some very thoughtful criticism and advice from other residents and visiting artists. It really helped me to figure things out." She's been inspired by the camaraderie.

"It's a great community," she says. "People here are all making really different work, so you get exposed to a wide range of knowledge. Right now the group is pretty amazing."

Even after their residencies end, artists are forever part of the extended Bray family. Some serve on the board. A number have put down roots nearby. Former residents Richard Notkin, Robert Harrison, and Christopher Staley have homes in Helena; Julia Galloway recently settled in Missoula. "They come to our openings, bring visitors," resident Jana Evans says of the alumni who are always passing through. "They stop in the studios and ask us what we're working on. They're so encouraging. It makes us feel we have a support system."

"What's so great about the Bray is that it has managed to remain rough around the edges," says potter Sarah Jaeger, a onetime resident and former board member, who's lived in Helena since 1985. In the early '80s she was about to graduate from the Kansas City Art Institute when she saw a picture of the Bray, and knew, viscerally, that it was where she needed to go. "It has that Western quality of things being unfinished. It gave me the sense of space I needed to do my work, in my own way."

That no-frills authenticity reflects the stark beauty of Big Sky Country, with its vast plains and majestic peaks, heavenly summers and hard winters. "You don't know perspective until you've spent time in Montana," says Kurt Weiser, the Bray's resident director from 1977 to 1988. "The landscape makes you feel small, and the population makes you feel enormous."

Today a professor at Arizona State University, Weiser is another who keeps close ties to Helena, spending summers at the house he built there. The Bray has a come long way from when he first arrived from Michigan. "Back then it was like Mars, a junkyard, full of beat-up kilns, pickup trucks, barrels," he recalls. Artists built up the place, put in sweat equity. "There was no administration for years and years. It was like a clay camp, an art ranch. Everybody sort of feels like they own it, because they put so much into it." From hauling clay to patching roofs, "if you wanted it done, you had to figure out how to do it."

During Weiser's tenure, the foundation dramatically expanded its grounds by purchasing the 25-acre brickyard property in 1984. In 2004, then-director Josh DeWeese oversaw construction of the $1.75 million, 12,000-square-foot David and Ann Shaner Resident Artist Studio Complex. Under Lee, the Bray continues to upgrade, recently adding seven new state-of-the-art, energy-efficient kilns, including two Dutch-made models so advanced a ceramist can control firings from anywhere in the world via the Internet.

"The studios are so luxurious now, it's like the Clayboy Mansion," Weiser jokes. "All the fantasies we used to have about what the setup would be have kind of come to life."

Helena has evolved, too, into a sophisticated city with a vibrant arts scene - museums, a symphony, community theater, numerous cultural organizations. Archie Bray, whose original vision for his foundation encompassed all the arts, planted some of these seeds. "He would bring actors and dancers out on the train from New York to perform," Lee says. "We have great photographs of a very young Peter Voulkos teaching ballerinas how to throw on the pottery wheel."

To this day, Lee adds, the Bray often hosts visiting artists from various disciplines - writers, painters, photographers. "It's exciting to have different perspectives come into this environment. We're trying not to only invite people with a similar point of view. We want to see how we can push this field in a way that can really challenge it," he says. "What we've realized is that we're really not doing anything much different from when we started." Sixty years on, it's still about providing artists, in the simple, memorable words of Archie Bray himself, with "a fine place to work."

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.

This version of the story corrects the caption for Peter Voulkos' Ukam. The object was misidentified in an earlier online version and in the print edition because of an editing error.