Kiln me softly 

Ceramics and sculpture students display wares in annual event

Now in its 18th year, the annual Christmas sale and juried show put on by the Starving Sculpture and Ceramics Students (SSCS) organization is a tradition in the UM art department. People line up early outside the Art Annex for first crack at buying functional and decorative sculpture and ceramic pieces. Once inside, they’re treated to hot drinks and holiday goodies, plus live entertainment by musically inclined students and faculty members, including professor Beth Lo. But in its first year, the show was an emergency response to an unplanned firing of wares that forced a massive cross-campus relocation of students, equipment and instruction.

“It was my second year of teaching,” Lo recalls. “We had a fire in the kiln room, and we had to move the entire ceramics facility, including the kilns, over to Schreiber Gym. It was a pain in the neck, so much labor and work that I started wishing for a technician. That’s what our first sale was for. I think we made a couple thousand bucks. We hired David Regan, who is now an adjunct professor here. After many, many years of showing that we were willing to do the bake sale thing to get a technician, the School of Fine Arts eventually realized our need, and two years ago we were given a new staff position in the art department.”

The sale and show are open to submissions from all UM ceramic and sculpture students. Fifty percent of the selling price for each piece goes toward the SSCS fund; the seller gets to keep the other half. Now that the program has a full-time technician in Regan, proceeds from the annual sale have been freed up for other uses. Two years ago, Lo says, the money paid for UM ceramics students to attend a national conference. Last year, it went toward $100 scholarships for students wishing to attend workshops offered by area artists. The fund also covers travel expenses for visiting artists and professors, most recently visiting artist Kathy Butterly, and the cost of hiring a professional photographer to make slides of student work.

Christmas money buys wood for the department’s anagama kiln at Lubrecht Experimental Forest, too, which burns through five cords of it per firing. “Sometimes I feel bad about that,” Lo admits. “We fire it for a whole week. It consumes a lot, but it’s not wood that would otherwise be used for lumber.”

Use of the Lubrecht anagama is optional, says ceramics student Ben Malouf, and not part of the required curriculum. He prefers the annex studio’s nine electric and two gas kilns (the adjacent kilnyard holds an additional gas kiln, two soda kilns and a raku kiln) for aesthetic reasons: “The all-over charred look isn’t really my thing.”

Malouf is still deciding what to put into the show and sale, but he’s leaning toward one of his ceramic hard hats, which are pretty much what you’d guess: slip-cast safety helmets drawn on with underglaze. The show and sale, Malouf says, are together but separate, held in two different spaces in the annex. Items in the show aren’t necessarily for sale, and items for sale aren’t necessarily part of the show proper. Generally, he says, pieces for sale tend toward the functional.

Generally, though not necessarily, seconds graduate volunteer Orville Chigbrow. Chigbrow divides his time in the annex studio between helping students with their work and concentrating on his own. Today he’s scurrying back and forth between the kiln room and his side-room workspace, where a gently sloping, foot-and-a-half-square tray is drying upside-down on a domed plaster of Paris mold. The plaster, he says, draws moisture out of the clay, speeding up the tray’s trip to the kiln. Similar trays in various states of completion are scattered around the room; Chigbrow may or may not try to sell or at least exhibit the one currently drying on the wok-shaped mold, depending on how it turns out. Like Malouf, he prefers the more consistent performance of the studio’s electric and gas kilns to the (literal) potluck of the anagama. More so than Malouf’s hard hats, Chigbrow’s trays are decorative and functional; he demonstrates by moving one from sushi position to wall-art position to show its adaptability. Functional or otherwise, how does he decide on a price for his work?

“Well,” he reflects, “that’s one of the things artists struggle with all the time. The hardest part is detaching yourself from your work and trying to see it objectively.”

Students, he says, tend to let it go for cheap. “They underprice their work to get a little money to buy Christmas presents.”

Likewise, he says, a lot of the people who line up early to get in are simply looking for cheap Christmas presents with artisan cachet. The bargain-hunters don’t chafe him too badly, though.

“Publicity is publicity,” he shrugs. “ I do wish we’d get a little more attention during the year, though. Arts always seem to be last in line when it comes to funding. It’s weird that we have to raise money to buy the equipment we need for our own education. It’s disappointing, I guess, but we benefit from it.”

Lo estimates that the three-day sale usually grosses about $10,000, some of which does go to buying specialty equipment not covered by a separate equipment fund. Chigbrow thinks it could have made twice as much if participating students had priced their work more realistically, but obviously it’s about more than just making a little pocket money.

“It’s just too much fun,” he says. “I’d be here all the time if I could. Beth usually has to kick me out by about halfway through the second day.”

And it’s exciting, he adds, to see all the hustle and bustle involved in buying, selling and wrapping pieces to protect them in transit. And all the kibitzing—Chigbrow himself seems like the retiring type—is gratifying, too: “Everybody is just as excited about someone else’s work as their own.”

The juried show is a “no-refusal” show, Lo confirms, meaning that any student in the department can enter a piece—only one, though, to make sure there’s enough room for everyone. All of the work will be adjudicated for individual awards and prizes by ceramic artist Lela Autio, now in her third year as juror. Lo and her fellow faculty members supplied the jury at the first sale 18 years ago; jurors in the interval have included Lolo ceramicist Adrian Arleo and Rudy Autio.

“We used Rudy for many, many years,” Lo says, “just because of his connection to the university and his experience with international ceramics and having seen ceramics all over the place. I think we just decided to spread it around a little bit to give him a break and have a different eye looking at the work. Lela has been wonderful. She’s taught in the public schools and is a real catalyst kind of personality. I’ve just found her jurying to be very thoughtful. She takes it to a very professional level.”

“And isn’t it crazy,” she exclaims, “that there’s an Arleo and an Autio, both ceramic artists in town?”

This year’s SSCS event will also include prints, photos and other two-dimensional art organized by the UM Artist Collective. The three-day sale and juried show (which will be up through Dec. 14) starts Thursday, Dec. 9, at 4 PM in the UM Art Annex. See Calendar for complete details.

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