Reimagining the Wheel: Ceramics Students Blend Identity & Craft

Student in a tan apron sits at the pottery wheel, focused on their project
Photo by Claudia Staut, CLA student
Student smiling at the camera while holding their painted ceramic vase
Photo by Claudia Staut, CLA student
Student in a striped apron focused on painting their project
Photo by Claudia Staut, CLA student
Student listens to music while shaping their project on the pottery wheel
Photo by Claudia Staut, CLA student
Student gets close to the table to shape and examine their clay project
Photo by Claudia Staut, CLA student

The art of ceramics has been influential for thousands of years, with the oldest known ceramic artifact dating back to 28,000 BCE. “If you look at the way civilizations operated, it was part of commerce, it was what people used to survive from season to season, to store food, to protect their bodies, to make homes,” says Chotsani Elaine Dean, Assistant Professor of ceramics. “It’s one of the foundational technologies,” she adds, alluding to industrial ceramics, the silica tiles in space shuttles, and the connections between glaze and industrial glass. Ceramics is nearly universal, with widespread uses; but as Dean’s classes show, it still has a lot to teach us.

A Range of Resources

As they share about their class and personal projects, the members of Dean’s introductory and advanced ceramics courses eagerly—and perhaps nervously—await the results of a major event: the department’s kiln firing. This process converts clay into its more durable final form, ceramic material. The event draws students from a range of ceramics courses and many local community members. To prepare, students and staff must cut and separate wood, make wadding for the bottom of the pots, and load the chambers. The firing itself can take from thirty to forty-eight hours, with groups of students and faculty watching the kilns for six-hour shifts. “The wood kiln is a volatile process,” Dean explains. The pieces transform in many ways; they could shrink, warp, form bubbles, and change color.

This process is part of what keeps ceramics engaging after all these years: a sense of unpredictability, of anything being possible. It is also a perfect example of the many high-quality resources available to ceramics students at the University of Minnesota. The department provides access to electric kilns, gas kilns, wood kilns, and a soda kiln.

Maya Jackson with her face-shaped clay planter
Maya Jackson with her ceramic planter in its pre-firing form

There is also a great range of materials available to students. Maya Jackson, who will be studying in the Post Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago next year, explains how she uses a variety of clay bodies to create planter vessel forms adorned with faces, inspired by research of and “using African American and biracial features.” The many resources available, she says, have “definitely contributed to bringing out different features and showing their different dimensions.” Clay can be temperamental and tricky to work with, which students find often helps them learn to let go of perfectionism. Ceramics is a craft that takes time and will inevitably contain some imperfections. “The beautiful thing about clay is that whatever you give to it, it will give right back to you,” says Brooke Burns, a studio art major. “So if you give your work impatience or frustration, that’s all you're getting back.”

The skills harnessed in these courses go beyond experience with physical materials and kilns. For an early project, the intro class researched historic pieces of ceramics art and used graphic design software to create posters showing artwork that interested them. Students in Professor Dean’s courses often use 3D printing software, navigating many computer programs in the process. For example, Justina Leibowitz, a first gen student pursuing a bachelor of individualized studies degree, uses Adobe Fresco, Adobe Capture, Tinkercad, and UltiMaker Cura to create 3D printed stamps for her projects. Through use of these digital tools, students learn unique ways to enhance their artwork, gaining a level of comfort with such systems that they may not find elsewhere. "I never thought I'd use 3D printing in my ceramic work, but I've gained so much confidence in what I'm able to create.” Leibowitz says. “I've already printed over twenty original designs to use this semester."

A Crafty Clay Community 

While the results of their glaze firings may be uncertain, Dean’s students are placed in the middle of a tight-knit, dependable community. Lily Winslow, an art history and studio art double major, speaks glowingly of the local art scene. “We have a really vibrant arts community in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” she says, adding that it is further bolstered by an excellent alumni network. With plenty of former UMN students attending nearby art shows, art sales, department kiln firings, and other community events, it’s easy for students to feel connected.

Lily Winslow's ceramic sculpture
Lily Winslow's completed ceramic sculpture

This is especially true in the ceramics classes. “I really love the community we have,” says Sara Thimmesch, a student in the Introduction to Ceramics course. “We just like to chat and hype each other up. It's a very collaborative space.” Reilly Miller, an upper-level ceramics student and gender, women, and sexuality studies major agrees. “There's so many different ways to share knowledge and materials. I feel like it's really hard to resist that,” Miller says. “When you're in a space like this, it encourages collaboration. It's essential.”

Professor Dean plays a big role in fostering community amongst her students, who speak of her with admiration. “I always want her feedback. I know that she is just a wealth of knowledge,” says Burns. The sentiment is echoed by student Laura Boase, who says “Without her, this class would be so different. She makes it incredible.” Along with providing valuable expertise, Dean emphasizes unlocking students’ creativity. She explains that, when students express doubts along the lines of, “I’m not creative, or this is too hard,” she asks, “What did you accomplish before you came in here?” Her instruction helps hone and find new uses for skills and interests that students bring to the classroom. 

Melding Artistry and Identity

Ceramics may have a long and celebrated history, but students continue to find ways to push the medium, exploring personal topics and contemporary issues. Reilly Miller identifies as genderqueer and says, “Ceramic art has given me an outlet to explore gender in. This is the first time I've ever had an actual physical three-dimensional medium to do it with.” One of their pieces, titled sister, allowed them to explore different iterations of their body, using clay as a vehicle to explore gender-affirming surgery in a way that provided “liberation and freedom.”

Ceramic objects by Zoe Keck
A variety of ceramic objects created by Zoe Keck

Miller’s approach of blending academic interests with art is shared by many classmates. In the Ceramics Sculpture course, biomedical engineering major Katherine Gottwaldt designed sculptures of human hearts and nerve systems. Zoe Keck, a graphic design major, uses underglaze painting to recreate the packaging of products she purchases.

Agricultural communications and marketing major Pajda Yang designed a carefully crafted white and blue vase. To incorporate her Hmong identity into the piece, she decorated it with a stenciled rice pattern from her culture. “At first we didn't really have a written language,” she explains, “We just made symbols to tell our stories and differentiate ourselves.” In addition to exploring cultural history, the vase’s pattern and functional design were inspired by her agricultural classes and personal aesthetic preferences.

These wonderful pieces are just a sample of the stunning individual creativity on display in ceramics classes. As Miller puts it, “This art form means something different to everyone in this room.” Professor Dean expands on this idea: these courses are “supposed to help you position [yourself] and learn how to navigate the world. Because when you work with clay, you see three-dimensionally. You have to.” Studying ceramics gives students a space to develop countless skills, embrace and celebrate their identities, and craft art that is entirely their own.

Share on: