NCECA 2014: Our Top 10 List

NCECA 2014: Our Top 10 List

Lauren Mabry, Cylinder NCECA 2014

Last year we gushed over Lauren Mabry's Cylinder in the NCECA Biennial; this year, she was center stage as one of the Emerging Artists.

The NCECA conference never disappoints – an exhibitions wonderland, plus inspiring lectures, delightful demos, and provocative discussions. There’s more than any one person could take in, which is why this year, ACC librarian Jessica Shaykett and I hit the road together to attend the National Council for Education on the Ceramic Arts’ 48th annual gathering, “Material World,” in Milwaukee.

After taking a little time to digest everything we saw, heard, and did, we’ve assembled our list of favorite moments and memories. We present them here in no particular order, because when you’re talking about the brilliant smorgasbord of NCECA, narrowing this list to 10 was challenge enough.

1. Any list would be remiss without a nod to Theaster Gates, who delivered one heck of an engaging keynote presentation. “Yamaguchi, Soul Manufacturing Corporation, and a Potter Named Dave: The Need for Blackness Within Contemporary Ceramics” merged music and visuals, as Gates leapt from personal experiences to larger trends and issues within the contemporary ceramics and art world. Later, responding to a listener’s question, regarding how do you get more (and more diverse) people involved in ceramics (and by extension creative endeavors, the arts, so on), Gates gave an emphatic, pithy answer that echoed in our heads: “People can be caught anywhere. Anywhere in their trajectory. Invite them.

2. We have three words for what happened next: best combo ever. Words cannot express the performance by Leslie & The LYs that occurred during the Wednesday night Randall Session, an annual tribute to the creativity of artist Ted Randall, so here is a little video simulation. Our hats are off to NCECA Director-at-Large Garth Johnson, whose love of all things camp was surely behind this.

3. A key stop for any ceramophile during NCECA is the Gallery Expo, where you are able to roam and purchase handmade objects from a variety of participating galleries. Lillstreet Art Center, a community space for artists and students based in Chicago, stood out this year with their presentation of works both unique and functional (a lá Joseph Pintz) and sculptural (Matthew Dercole). Placed side-by-side, visitors got a real feel for the variety of talents cultivated at Lillstreet.

Other highlights at the Gallery Expo included the presence of our friend and neighbor, the Northern Clay Center, with stunning new works by Midwestern artists including the likes of Randy Johnston, Ursula Hargens, and Kip O’Krongly, as well as an up-close-and-personal viewing of the NCECA 2014 Emerging Artists’ work at the NCECA gallery.

4. Speaking of the Gallery Expo, another highlight – we admit with no shame at all – was immediately snatching up a gorgeous Julia Galloway sugar and creamer set from the ever-awesome Art-Stream Nomadic Gallery. In previous years, we’ve resisted the urge to buy things until the last day, twisting ourselves into knots in the face of so very many covetable ceramics. But you know what? NCECA is not about restraint, people. It is abundance – and generosity – in every form. From more shows and lectures than you could possibly see, to the free and open exchange of ideas and technique, to the gift of time that speakers, demonstrators, organizers, and volunteers make. So this year, we put our money where our hearts were. Right from the get-go.

5. Speaking of the open exchange of ideas and techniques: If you are a student of any age working in ceramics, NCECA is definitely the place for you. On this year’s highlight list, we want to shout out to the drop-in critique sessions where students can have their portfolio reviewed by renowned national ceramists and the student perspective lectures. In addition, the 17th Annual National K-12 Ceramic Exhibition was particularly exceptional this year, featuring the best-of-the-best student work from around the country by artists as young as five.

6. Another must-mention? Hide-N-Seekah. This Instagram-based scavenger hunt, which debuted last year in Houston, is the brainchild of potter Adam Field. To play, you follow all the artists the Hide-N-Seekah account (@hidenseekah) follows. Throughout the conference, those artists post visual clues directing people toward hidden pots – and everything is finders-keepers. Thirty-five artists contributed work to the Milwaukee edition of Hide-N-Seekah, and even our tragic failure to find a pot ourselves didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the game. A perfect counterpart: The “Virtual Realities, Material World” panel, featuring Field, Ben Carter, Carole Epp, and Michael Kline, which covered platform innovations like Hide-N-Seekah and the ever-growing ways social media can contribute to a studio practice and sense of community.

7. Another stand-out panel: “Marks Matter in the Material World,” moderated by Donald Clark of, and featuring curator Bruce W. Pepich, collector Rebecca Sive, and art dealer Jeffrey Spahn. As the senior editor of American Craft and the council librarian, we spend plenty of time fact checking and researching objects and makers, therefore it comes as no surprise that we both appreciated the experiences and insights shared. From each presenter’s point of view the audience learned how a lack of makers’ marks can lead to the de-accession of objects in museums and the abandonment of works at auction. The ever-spirited Pepich concluded his talk with encouraging artists “while you’re at it, put a date on it too!” A humorous conclusion to a problem not often addressed, yet prevalent within the craft field.

8. One more favorite lecture: “Clay, Recovery, Love, and Forgiveness.” Laura Cohen and Herb Massie, community arts directors for Baltimore Clayworks, gave a wonderful presentation about their work (in partnership with the Fetzer Institute) at Tuerk House, a west-side institution for men in substance abuse recovery. Reflecting on their talk, we couldn’t help but recall the opening night lecture, in which Gates observed that arts institutions sometimes fail to invite in or engage with people right in their own neighborhoods. Balitmore Clayworks, via its Community Arts program, has for more than 22 years made a priority of connecting with its city’s underserved communities.

9. Last year, we came back raving about Lauren Mabry’s fabulous cylinders. This year, it was a treat to see her among a top-notch roster of emerging artists, including Zimra Beiner, Renee Brown, Mel Griffin, Adam Shiverdecker, and David Peters (who, coincidentally, we featured in the April/May 2012 issue of American Craft – in an article titled none other than “Material World.”)

10. Finally! The Baumgartner Galleria at the Milwaukee Art Museum provided the ideal light and sense of movement – or “Flow” as the exhibition’s title would suggest – for the 2014 NCECA Invitational. From Gerit Grimm’s mythological Leda and the Swan (2012) to Linda Swanson’s temporal installation Osmogenesis (2013), "Flow" comprised a strong showing from today’s most innovative artists using clay to express the “significance of flow in a physical, historical and symbolic sense.”  

What were your favorite NCECA moments? Let us know – and see you next year! NCECA 2015 is in Providence, Rhode Island, on March 25 – 28.