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Creative Strength & Voice with Ceramics

Q & A with Our Newest Assistant Professor - Chotsani Elaine Dean
July 21, 2020

Chotsani Elaine Dean

Chotsani Elaine Dean
Memory Pieced Strip Sampler Quilt: Trade, Commodity, Exchange & Goods - Trading Post: Exchange and Sojourn exhibition Northern Clay Center (NCECA 2019)
"Everyone can discover their own creative strength and voice with ceramic materials and processes."

The Department of Art is excited to welcome this fall Chotsani Elaine Dean as Assistant Professor of Art-Ceramics. Chotsani is a ceramic artist with a passion for teaching that has led her across the country as a visiting artist and lecturer. She encourages her students to embrace all the possibilities of clay and says, "Everyone can discover their own creative strength and voice with ceramic materials and processes."

Originally from Connecticut, Chotsani comes to the University of Minnesota by way of South Carolina School of the Arts, Anderson University, South Carolina, among other locales. Chotsani's beautiful and impactful work may be found in public and private collections, as well as on her website. With ceramics as her medium, Chotsani kicks off her teaching career at the U of MN with ARTS 1801-002: Introduction to Ceramics: Wheel-Throwing and Hand-Building Technique and ARTS 3830-001: Ceramic Sculpture.

Even though busy preparing for a move to Minnesota, Chotsani took a moment with us to chat about teaching, clay, and her love of classic jazz music.

What inspired you to apply for the ceramics faculty position at the U of MN? 

I was excited to apply to a strong liberal arts institution with a significant ceramics legacy—Warren MacKenzie and current faculty members such as Tetsuya Yamada. In March 2019, I came for the NECAA conference that was held in Minneapolis and had the opportunity to curate a conference show at the Northern Clay Center-Emily Galusha Gallery, as well as visit the Department of Art and the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. I was impressed with the school, city, and faculty. When the position announcement came out in the fall, I felt I could see myself at the University again and not just for a conference visit. The vitality and prominence of the community, being at a liberal arts school where students and faculty are able to cross disciplines and collaborate, the facilities, and a warm welcome that I'd felt during the conference, I knew coming to the U of MN would be a tremendous opportunity for me, so was excited to apply for the assistant professor - ceramics position. Boxes packed and I'm ready to travel to the Twin Cities.

What's your approach or philosophy to teaching?

It's important to help students gain confidence and find a comfort level with the material—a material that is so labor-intensive and technical in nature. My teaching methods are student-centered, learner-directed with course goals and objectives that enable me to be responsive to the individual and diverse collective needs of the learning environment. Creating opportunities to work and examine with students, relationships, and perspectives of traditional and contemporary processes. I am interested in helping students gain insight into their creative processes, recognizing the value of pushing beyond comfort zones, and launching self-directed creative discoveries.

There's a broad spectrum of ceramics and each student will have a different calling. My goal is to identify what they find most interesting, but also help them embrace all different possibilities for clay. There is an inherent beauty within the clay itself, it's a humbling material with so much potential. When we talk about the process of ceramics, everyone can take clay out, everybody has to wedge, a tactile experience, you have to align the particles, after that you follow the rules of clay. The material is right there in the earth and ready; we've only scratched the surface.

What do you hope students will take away from participating in your courses?

The desire to take another ceramics class! I hope students will develop and engage an informed discerning criteria for viewing and considering art, explore and seek out new artists, exhibitions, and museums and continue to develop and share the craft and skills from this course throughout their lives and with others.

Who is your most memorable teacher and why?

Well, this answer is hard, because so many teachers have been mentors for me. Really, I've had a "dream team."

  • In undergrad, Ceramics Professor Matthew Towers at Hartford Art School was the one who helped me realize I could teach. I just didn't recognize my abilities as a teacher and he helped me foster this vision of myself. He is still a mentor for me today. 
  • Another standout teacher was Denise Ward-Brown, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the first professor of color I had, which was important to me as a student of color, and she asked me questions that no one ever asked me before. Her approach helped me focus on process and materials in a challenging way. 
  • My second clay class was with Lisa Stinson. I was a transfer student and she engaged with me right away, involved me in the artistic world and residencies.
  • In graduate school, Professor Ron Fondaw taught me how to jump off a cliff and build wings on the way down. He gave me the space to stretch and open the spectrum of ceramics even more—find the vulnerability of the materials.

These educators have and still do, inspire me.

When you make art, do you listen to music or podcasts? If so, what's on your playlist?

Podcast C-SPAN lectures, I love all the academic topics. When I'm doing the tedious bits of work, I keep Murder She Wrote and Columbo on in the background. Maybe it's Henry Mancini's music or maybe it's supporting the exploration of the mystery of clay. The shows also remind me of when I was young and give me a sense of a snapshot in time—looking behind informs forward.

Do you have a favorite quote or song/lyric?

Well, I don't have a favorite quote or lyric, but love music, particularly classic jazz artists such as Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. 

Thank you, Chotsani, for sharing your time with us and welcome to the U of MN!