Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010

Articles & Reviews

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Mary Drach McInnes

Contents | Home


by Mary Drach McInnes

The Convergence of Parallel Tangents

by Timothy John Berg

Time, Place, and Perception

by Lawrence A. Bush


by Rory MacDonald


by Michael Jones McKean

Interdisciplinary Mind, Deft Hand

by Annabeth Rosen

To Eat, To Die, To Play

by Linda Sikora


by Linda Sormin


The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Michael Tooby

Modern British Potters and their Studios

by Douglas Phillips

A Guide to Collecting Studio Pottery

by Juliet Armstrong

Ceramics Film Festival

by Leah McLaughlin

Getting it Right

by Alan Wallwork

NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.

In the spring of 2009, Linda Sormin and I co-chaired two national panels on collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches in ceramic art. At the annual conferences for the College Art Association (Los Angeles, California) and the National Council for Education in Ceramic Arts (Phoenix, Arizona), we were pleased to have a number of our colleagues from across the United States and Canada to address this vital issue as practitioners and professors. 

At the beginning of the 21st century, many of us are asking ourselves and engaging our colleagues with essential questions on the nature of practicing and teaching art in a post-disciplinary world.   A central concern - I would characterize it as a force - is the investigation of interdisciplinarity.  Ceramics - under-represented in critical literature and largely seen as a material and process-bound practice - offers an unusual vantage point for this discussion.  Before outlining questions we posed to the panelists, I would like to offer a few brief remarks about the interest in interdisciplinary studies.

Even with a sustained enthusiasm in this area since the 1960s, there is continued dispute over the term ‘interdisciplinary’ itself.  In their article ‘Advancing Interderdisciplinary Studies’, Julie Thompson Klein and William Newell define interdisciplinary studies (IDS) as ‘a process of answering a question, solving a problem, or addressing a topic that is too broad or complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline’.1 They further note that interdisciplinary studies draws on various perspectives and integrates these diverse perspectives through the construction a more comprehensive view. ‘In this manner’, notes Klein and Newell, ‘interdisciplinary study is not a simple supplement but is complementary to and corrective of the disciplines’2

So this activity is seen by its advocates as an essentially curative act for an ailing system.

Clifford Geertz, in his watershed essay of 1983, ‘Blurred Genres:  The Refiguration of Social Thought’, examined and endorsed the breadth of new research that cross disciplines.  For example, Geertz cites the writings of sociologist Erving Goffman who employs the language of the stage, along with game theory to his analyses of etiquette, diplomacy, crime, finance, and law. Perhaps being trained in anthropology (a discipline that Clyde Kluckhohn once likened to ‘an intellectual poaching license’) made Geertz so favorable to - as he put it – ‘fiddling around’ with disciplines.3 However, in this text Geertz asserts more than simple academic pilfering.  He sees in this innovative scholarship ‘a radical alteration in the sociological imagination’ that propels us in directions both difficult and unfamiliar.4 And he makes the following – startling - observation:

It is a phenomenon general enough and distinctive enough to suggest that what we are seeing is not just another redrawing of the cultural map - the moving of a few disputed borders, the marking of some more picturesque mountain lakes - but an alteration of the principles of mapping.  Something is happening to the way we think about the way we think.5

Is there, I wonder, a similar shift - a refiguration - of our visual imagination that lies behind the recent urgency of interdisciplinary studies? 

The rise of interdisciplinary activity in the academy coincides with the emergence of postmodern discourse.  This preoccupation seems to flow naturally from the imperatives of cultural theories (such as Deconstructionism, Marxism, Feminism to name just three) that are all hostile to the status quo and in general, to institutional structures.6

Addressing the purity of a discipline is commonplace now and practitioners freely cross medium-specific and conceptual boundaries.

Intriguingly, while divisional borders remain intact at most academies, disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundary crossings may lie beneath the surface of an institution.  Klein and Newell suggest that a growing pedagogical category encompasses hybrid communities and interactions that are less visible - if not invisible - on organizational charts.  Their list of these activities include the following:

Problem-focused research projects
Shared facilities, databases
Interdisciplinary approaches
Collaborative teamwork
Enhanced disciplinary curricular to accommodate new developments in scholarship and research
Inter-institutional consortia and alliances

Thus, innovative activities may be present, yet not always be overtly evident.

What is apparent, however, is that the making of artists has changed dramatically.   Howard Singerman in his book Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University charts this development since the late 19th century.  During the twentieth century, the primacy of drawing from the figure has been replaced by an open-ended, discursive practice.  Through a series of verbal critiques our students learn to position themselves within a broader, yet provisional, chain of events.  Singerman argues that current studio education is an ongoing process of negotiating a set of coordinates that have been laid out by professors.7 What are the coordinates that we should set today?

The panels were formed to address this very issue as it concerns ceramic practice and pedagogy. Ceramics have traversed physical boundaries, infiltrated social traditions, and assimilated linguistic codes.  Historically, the field has had an active dialogue with other craft-based practices as well as ‘fine arts’ that reflect the cultural zeitgeist.  Yet in the last century, ceramics has been seen as a conservative practice lying outside avant-garde discourse.  The modern education of the ceramic artist has supported - even bolstered - this perception by often resisting contemporary pedagogical strategies.

Ceramics, a traditionally material- and skill-based practice, has been taught with a focus on a narrow range of processes.  With the rising dominance of interdisciplinary activities within art school curricula, this pedagogy is being challenged.  The interest in changing and broadening educational pathways is creating anxiety and fostering apprehension within the ceramic community over the real or perceived loss of technical ability.  Linda and I asked our panelists to address these fears and to consider the following questions:  Do we continue to teach technique as a skill set or do we convey it as a language system?  What is the pedagogical balance between material-specific knowledge and interdisciplinary information?  What constitutes artistic fluency in the 21st century? Is it possible that ceramic’s slowness in incorporating interdisciplinary approaches may now be used to critique postmodern practices and offer new strategies of studio practice? 

The panelists’ commentary reflect a diversity of interests, opinions, and alliances—yet all are committed to examining the yet all committed to examining the ever-shifting terrain of contemporary practices.  Our presenters were as follows: 

Linda Sormin (Rhode Island School of Design) explores her collaborative work with survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, industrial design students in Providence, and community members in Regina. 

Timothy John Berg (Pitzer College) is a multi-media installation artist. He discusses his recent collaborative efforts in his own studio practice.  Further, he poses possible paths for ceramic pedagogy as a new professor in one of the nation’s leading centers for interdisciplinary education. 

Rory MacDonald (University of Regina) addresses global changes in studio ceramics.  MacDonald details how historical ceramic sites (Jingdezhen, China) and contemporary industrial centers (Kohler, United States), have presented new opportunities to artists.  He explores how international residencies and exhibitions have created new means of defining collaboration and community through craft.  MacDonald raises questions about the prevailing model of individualism, and - drawing on his own collaborative experiences in France and China - about what skills and languages are required to negotiate new environments. 

Linda Sikora (New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University) focuses on the contemporary embrace of a more open and diverse theoretical, conceptual, and process-based models for artists/educators and examines how this expansion of discourse is evolving established educational programs.  She asks questions on where we are drawing our pedagogical models, what new precedents might we create, and most provocatively, need we beware of enlightening ourselves into a new dark age?

Annabeth Rosen (University of California, Davis) is a sculptor.  As the successor to Arneson at Davis’ famed TB-9 studio, she contrasts her own education with current pedagogy.

Lawrence Bush (Rhode Island School of Design) is the head of the Ceramics Division at his institution.  He offers an ‘open book quiz’ on essential questions facing those in ceramics who are wondering about boundaries, material limitations, and ghetto mentality among other issues. 

Michael Jones McKean (Virginia Commonwealth University) is an installation and mixed-media artist.  His talk delves into the lively state of interdisciplinary teaching today and raises a warning about current practices creating new practitioners that are ‘simply honing their own brand of “intellectual whimsy’” and producing a new type of mannerism.

We would like to extend our sincere thanks to the following individuals and organizations that have actively supported this publication: 

Monique Fouquet (Vice-President of Academics, Emily Carr University of Art and Design) for her participation as discussant for our panel at the College Art Association annual conference

Joseph Lewis III (Dean, School of Art and Design, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University) for his support of this project

Neil Forrest (Professor, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University) for his contributions to our early discussions on this issue

Videographers Ben Jackel, Rebekah Myers, and Fonda Yoshimoto

College Art Association (CAA) and National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) for the hosting of our panels

Conference Media for their permission to use excerpts of “A Question of Depth:

Collaborative and Interdisciplinary Approaches in Ceramic Art” from the College Art Association’s 2009 Annual Conference in Los Angeles

Steve Roden for his permission to use an except of his sound piece, ‘Winter Couplet’ and an accompanying illustration.

And finally, to the audience members during the past year who challenged and critiqued, emphasized and expanded upon, our panels’ content.

Thank you one and all.  Mary Drach McInnes and Linda Sormin.

Listen: Introduction   |    Watch: Introduction

  1. Julie Thompson Klein and William H. Newell, ‘Advancing Interdisciplinary Studies’, in William H. Newell, ed., Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature. New York: College Examination Board, 1998: pp.3-22. back to text
  2. Ibid p.3. back to text
  3. Clifford Geertz, ‘Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought’, in William H. Newell, ed., Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature. New York: College Examination Board, 1998: p.228. back to text
  4. Ibid. back to text
  5. Ibid. p. 226. back to text
  6. See: Stanley Fish, ‘Interdisciplinarity Is So Very Hard To Do’ in William H. Newell, ed., Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the Literature. New York: College Examination Board, 1998: pp.239-250. back to text
  7. Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1999: Chapter 5, ‘Subjects of the Artist’, pp.125-154. back to text

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