Clay for All

KC welcomes NCECA conference with a ceramics show blowout.

Clay claims the spotlight, fills the frame, dominates the conversation and asserts a commanding presence in KC’s exhibition spaces this season, as the city plays host to the 50th annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) from March 16-19.

NCECA is the country’s premier organization devoted to promoting ceramic arts education and appreciation, and its annual conference is a showcase for the best minds and makers in the field.

NCECA’s director, Josh Green, lauds the vision and people who have contributed to NCECA’s evolution since its founding in the mid-1960s. “Nurtured by the spirit and generosity of creatives, educators and learners, the organization has embraced the significance of the crafted object,” Green says, “while understanding that art also involves engaging with processes, materials, ideas and histories as part of a larger dynamic endeavor that has to do with the way we experience the world.”

More than 200 free exhibitions throughout the city offer clay enthusiasts exposure to diverse embodiments of this philosophy in works by a global roster of ceramics talent.

Several big shows, including “Shapers of the Field: NCECA Honors and Fellows” at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, honor ceramics luminaries. Others, such as “Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change,” a mammoth invitational of works by 24 artists at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, explore important themes that are defining the field.

“It’s important to me that it’s a clay show, not a ceramics show,” said the Nelson’s director of curatorial affairs, Catherine Futter, co-curator with NCECA’s Leigh Taylor Mickelson, of “Unconventional Clay.”  “There’s a mindset when you say ‘ceramics,’ that usually goes to vessels or sculptures. This show will demonstrate how flexible the medium is in what it can do and how it can be presented.”

More than 200 free exhibitions throughout the city offer clay enthusiasts exposure to diverse works by a global roster of ceramics talent.

An engagement with social issues is a recurrent touchstone of many of the featured exhibits. “Unconventional Clay” will include a pair of porcelain stools bearing images related to the AIDS crisis by Dustin Yager, and Simone Leigh’s Cowrie, a commentary on the black female experience.

Leigh’s work can be seen in depth in a one-person show at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace, which features Leigh’s video and performance works in addition to ceramic-based sculptures and installations exploring race and history.

The theme of social engagement also runs through “Desire,” an exhibit of 37 artists from 27 countries presented at the Belger Arts Center by the Lighton International Artists Exchange Program (LIAEP). The exhibit was curated by ceramic artist Linda Lighton, LIAEP founder, and a recipient of an NCECA Outstanding Achievement Award for her contributions to the field on a global level.

In a recent interview, Lighton said she has been dreaming of doing the “Desire” exhibit for almost a decade, and with the help of Kansas City artist Christopher Leitch, seized the opportunity to do the show in conjunction with NCECA.

“I think we can learn something from seeing what other people desire,” she said, “and understand other cultures better.”

In keeping with Lighton’s belief in the importance of cultural exchange, “Desire” may be the most international exhibit of all the shows on view for NCECA. “Some are LIAEP participants,” Lighton said, but she and Leitch also searched online to achieve the exhibit’s wide international reach, and drew from contacts she has made during her extensive travels.

Women take the lead at the American Jazz Museum, where the exhibit, “50 Women: A Celebration of Women’s Contribution to Ceramics,” was made possible in part by a successful  Kickstarter campaign that raised $3,800 from 52 backers.

Conference organizers are particularly excited about “Across the Table, Across the Land,” which co-curators Michael Strand and Namita Wiggers describe as ” a crowd-sourced exhibition that focuses on social engagement examining how people address community through clay and food.”

Engagement with social issues is a recurrent touchstone of many of the featured exhibits.

Presented at the Charlotte Street Foundation’s La Esquina gallery, “Across the Table” will feature objects and artifacts of projects gathered through an app developed by Strand and Wiggers.

The Kemper Museum will weigh in with an exhibit of artists who expand the reach of traditional ceramics. “A Whisper of Where It Came From,” curated by Erin Dziedzic, will include Sterling Ruby, hailed by The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith as “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century.”

Adjectives like “grotesque” and “unbridled” will apply to many of the works in the show, including sculptures by Huma Bhabha and Arlene Shechet.

Scholars’ Rocks, Dinosaurs and More

From the Crossroads to the West Bottoms to the River Market and beyond, exhibits range from ceramics inspired by Chinese scholars’ rocks at the Kansas City Artists Coalition, to the Box Gallery’s fanciful “Dino-might” exhibit organized around the theme of dinosaurs, to the Belger Crane Yard Gallery’s look at ceramic artists’ mania for decals.

Shoppers won’t want to miss Sherry Leedy’s “Red-Hot Shop,” featuring intimately scaled, affordable works by local and national artists, including Jessica Brandl (see sidebar), Paul Donnelly, Rain Harris and Chris Gustin. Todd Weiner Gallery adds to the event’s global reach with “Image as Metaphor,”  an exhibit of leading Norwegian artist Ole Lislerud’s large-scale ceramic works; Haw Contemporary will honor Toshiko Takaezu and Ken Ferguson with exhibits of works by the two masters and their followers.

All of the exhibitions are free and open to the public, as are the conference’s March 16 opening ceremonies in Ballrooms 2501A-C of the Kansas City Convention Center.

First up is a keynote address by dance innovator, choreographer and activist Liz Lerman. The recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” Lerman has continued to demonstrate a formidable artistic and intellectual reach in multiple dance and education projects, including books, workshops, residencies and collaborations. Critic Mary Jo Sagolla has called her ideas “novel, deep and challenging.” Leading dance educator Mary Seidman praised Lerman for “constantly asking questions and investigating every aspect of humanity.”  Lerman has been in the news lately for her critically acclaimed theatrical project, Healing Wars, about the human cost of conflicts from the Civil War to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lerman’s keynote will be followed by an experimental performance by Kansas City artist Mark Southerland and collaborators, which promises to explore the compelling combination of delight and torment in art and life.

Clearly, pots and objects are just part of the picture when it comes to ceramics today. NCECA in 2016 boasts a big tent.

Get more information about conference events on a free app for mobile devices on the Android and iOS platforms available at For a schedule of exhibitions, see the special NCECA insert in this issue of KC Studio.

About The Author: Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.


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