Top 50 Moments of NCECA's 50th

Top 50 Moments of NCECA's 50th


Co-organizers Michael Strand and Namita Gupta Wiggers at the opening of "Across the Table, Across the Land." Behind them is Mark Cole's edible Nacho Mountain.

It’s hard to explain NCECA to those who haven’t been. The annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts has more lectures, panels, demonstrations, exhibitions, and concurrent events than any one person could absorb. But that’s exactly the point: At NCECA, there’s something for everyone – and it seems like everyone, by the way, is there. NCECA is equal parts conference and family reunion.

For NCECA’s 50th anniversary, some 6,000 people descended upon Kansas City, Missouri – one of the great American cradles of clay. Our traditional top-10 list is obviously insufficient for such a milestone, so here we go. In no particular order: our 50 favorite people, places, and things of NCECA 2016.


1. There’s nowhere else to start except with Liz Lerman’s innovative, heart-warming opening address. The choreographer guided attendees through a version of her Critical Response Process, a protocol she developed based on the conviction that feedback should encourage an invigorated return to work, not quash the creative spirit. Her concept may be more relevant today than ever: “We live at a time where speech is really being challenged,” she observed, “where honesty is saying whatever we want, no matter how much it hurts you.”

2–3. Three years ago in Houston, Michael Strand captivated us with his Misfit Cup Liberation Project. This year, one of my happiest moments at the conference was listening to a thrilled Strand geek out at the opening of "Across the Table, Across the Land," the nationwide, community-driven, participatory project that he and Namita Gupta Wiggers created together for NCECA’s 50th anniversary. The opening at the Charlotte Street Foundation’s La Esquina space was filled with music, laughter, and something you don’t often see side-by-side in a gallery: projects from highly regarded, professional artists, sharing the stage with equally poignant submissions from the K-12 challenge.

4. Oh, and that other thing you don’t usually see in a gallery space, at the same opening: Mark Cole’s show-stopping, jaw-dropping Nacho Mountain.

5. One more "Across the Table, Across the Land" project: If you were very, very lucky, you happened upon Gwendolyn Yoppolo, who was in the convention center with a small wooden table, benches, her ceramic dishes and spoons, and an invitation – to craft a bite, reach across the table, and feed someone else.

6­–7. The dazzling moment at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, when you turn a corner and are suddenly dwarfed by Jack’s Poem and YuYu Boston Blue, expansive mixed-media installations by Mark Cooper for the spectacular exhibition “A Whisper of Where It Came From.”

8–9. Another dazzling transition, this one at the Kansas City Art Institute’s new KCAI Gallery: Walking from the room that contains “Chromaphilia,” a show of potently colorful works (such as Lauren Mabry's striking cylinder forms, of which we are still fans), into the austere tandem space of “Chromaphobia,” an exhibition exploring the absence of color in ceramic works such as Laura De Angelis’ Hybrid Vigor.

10. Cary Esser’s newest tiles: On view in “Chromaphilia,” as well as in shows at the Belger Crane Yard Studios Gallery and Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art. Each contemplative set was more striking than the last.

11. Chris Gustin’s prodigious pots: In April, we’re heading out to film a video interview with this newly elected ACC Fellow. But before I managed to track down Gustin himself, I encountered his work – voluptuous, large-scale vessels and truly spectacular platters – seemingly everywhere: at NCECA’s Gallery Expo (Lillstreet Art Center), in the “Anderson Ranch Legacy” show inside the conference center, at the Belger Crane Yard Studios, and at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, to name a few.

12–14. Speaking of Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art: “The Once and Future: New Now,” tracing relationships between makers and mentors, and the evolution of aesthetics, was a spectacular showcase – including both Esser and Gustin, Jun Kaneko, and Richard Notkin, among others. Particularly memorable: Forever More, Misty Gamble’s wall-mounted installation of perfectly piped purple porcelain cakes. Also at Sherry Leedy: Crazy-amazing new vessels by Peter Pincus.

15–16. More amazement: Coco, a ceramic ape by Lindsay Pichaske with hot pink fur, made of peeled acrylic paint, part of “Objectify” at the Belger Crane Yard Studios. (Pichaske also had an exhibition at the Lawrence Arts Center; “Kingdom” featured some of her newest work.) The Belger Crane Yard Studios are also where you could find Christa Assad's monumental Breathe, a seven-foot gas mask made of recycled tires, and Proceed with Caution, a giant traffic cone.

17. Additional amazing things happening at the Lawrence Arts Center: I was blown away by the team who presented on the Art Space – or STEAM – program, an after-school and summer-camp curriculum they’ve developed that combines art, design-based thinking, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) concepts. (Add the “A” of art to STEM, and you get STEAM.)

18–22. Kudos are also due to Anderson Ranch Arts Center, which managed to create a warm, inviting environment out of a convention center room – no small task – for their show “Anderson Ranch Legacy: Mentoring Artistic Excellence.” Every time I walked through, I loved something new. Here are a few: ACC Fellow John Gill’s Vase #4; Brad Miller’s wall-hung porcelain platters; Michael Wisner’s Gray Rattan, an earthenware basket form; and the mottled blue surface of Louise Deroualle’s Untitled wall hanging.

23–24. Another delightful encounter, also inside the convention center: Mark Pharis’ striking earthenware vase, CAD-designed and on display as part of “Exploring the Digital Landscape” in the Artstream 2.0.

25. When I spoke to NCECA executive director Josh Green late last year, he hinted at new programming the organization was developing for its 50th gathering. One new feature was the pilot Clay Fab Lab, a room where artists working with cutting-edge digital tools shared ideas, insights, and techniques.

26–27. More new formats! NCECA also debuted blinc20:20, a session inspired by PechaKucha, where individuals gave 20-slide presentations, each slide advancing after only 20 seconds. Kudos are due to Mary Callahan Baumstark, studying at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, who kicked things off with a sharp and swift spin through craftivism, with a special focus on clay.

28–29. Pre-order alert: Jenni Sorkin delivered the Chipstone Lecture, based on her new book: Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community. The culmination of many years of research, it’s due to be published this spring – I can’t wait to read it.

30–32. Several years ago, NCECA introduced their Process Room, a space for 30-minute demos. This year, I caught Jeff Campana’s “Decorating through Disassembly” – file under “So that’s how he does that!” – and, at the other end of things, George Rodriguez’s “Embellishments Through Sprigs.” Why do I love the process room? Ostensibly, each artist was demonstrating a signature technique, but they’re also demonstrating the spirit of generosity – the free flow of knowledge – that defines NCECA and the clay community.

33. More sharing:Making It: Artist/Entrepreneur,” a panel on the business of making, with ample insights from Sunshine Cobb, Meredith Host, Kristen Kieffer, and moderator Kala Stein.

34. More essential visions for what a career could and can be: “Strategies for Change,” a panel moderated by Robert Silverman, focusing on trained artists who’ve used their skills in innovative career paths. Panelists included Nancy Blum, who works in public art; KleinReid, the ceramic/design studio perhaps best known for their partnership with Eva Zeisel; and Mudshark Studios, specializing in made-to-order ceramic molds and other custom work.

35–36. The title says it all: Denae Statzer’s Poised, greeting everyone at the entrance to the 19th Annual National K-12 Ceramic Exhibition.

37–39. Speaking of student work: Juried by Liz Quackenbush and Lee Somers, the 2016 NCECA National Student Juried Exhibition was outstanding – and beautifully presented at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center. There were so many arresting pieces in the show, but I found myself struck by the in-person presence of a simple pitcher and tumbler by Stuart Gair, and leaning in close for a look at the texture of the toast on Donut Goshorn’s Body Map.

40–41. Stuart Kestenbaum, former director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (and current ACC trustee), was named an Honorary Member of NCECA, a title the organization bestows on those who’ve made significant contributions to the field. In his acceptance speech, Kestenbaum – who is now serving as a strategist for the Craft School Experience coalition – managed to sum up, in one anecdote, what’s so special about craft schools, especially in this age of standardized testing. A student, he said, explained it like this: “In high school, if you mess up, you can’t start over again. At Haystack, you can start over again.”

42. Rain Harris and Kyle Triplett’s stunning Tulpenwoede installation, part of “The Garden Party,” one of four fantastic exhibitions staged at the Belger Arts Center. Also at that location: Linda Lighton’s “Desire,” in which Lighton asked international ceramic artists to respond to the word; “Role Models,” a nod to the conference’s mentorship theme organized by the Morean Art Center of St. Petersburg, Florida; and “Every Semester,” an exhibition of work by Kansas City Art Institute graduates, borrowed from collectors, and organized by Cary Esser – and a testament to what a powerhouse program it is.

44–49. I know, I know: How could I have possibly gotten this far without talking about the NCECA Emerging Artists yet? It’s NCECA overload, plain and simple, because this year’s group is a fantastic, fascinating bunch. Joanna Poag and Sean O’Connell both draw on the natural world, though in distinctive ways. Poag’s repetitive sculptures explore parts becoming wholes, randomness transforming into order, while O’Connell might call on natural geometry, observed patterns, or historical ceramics – and translate them into pots for everyday use. Kyungmin Park is another translator of human experience, focusing on facial expressions to create sculptures that, in turn, evoke emotional responses. Sculptor Kwok Pong Tso, on the other hand, focuses on spatial relationships, the process of deconstruction and reconstruction. Tom Jaszczak, the other functional potter in this year’s group, creates incredibly minimal, and yet also incredibly distinctive earthenware pots, in part due to his unusual low-temperature soda firing.

Peter Morgan, the final emerging artist of the bunch and the recipient of this year’s Victor Spinski Award, however, stole the show with his presentation. Let me put it this way: Humor is hard. Humor in a cavernous convention center ballroom – harder, maybe the hardest. And yet Morgan pulled it off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he strikes all the same nuanced notes with his pun-driven ceramic sculptures.

50. A final, persuasive delight: The on-site liaisons for next year’s NCECA conference in Portland, Oregon, gave their pitch – how else – in the form of a Portlandia spoof. See you there!

Julie K. Hanus is American Craft's senior editor. What were your memorable moments from this year’s NCECA? Tell us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in the comments below.