The Clay Alliance

December 2nd, 2018  |  Published in November 2018

Several small arts organizations in the Greater Cincinnati area fly under the radar.  Clay Alliance is one of them.

Studio San Giuseppe at Mount St. Joseph University presents the Clay Alliance 20th Anniversary Exhibition from November 5 – December 7.   This is a juried exhibition showcasing quality work of 35 members and a timeline of the group’s history.  Velma Dailey, gallery director, said that members of the Alliance approached her in February 2018 about the possibility of a show.

Members also created bowls for sale as part of the exhibition to benefit EarthConnection, a ministry of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, which founded the Mount in 1920.  As an outreach to the community, EarthConnection provides fresh, organic vegetables to a variety of food banks.

Nancy Hopkins, Opposite Sides of the Same Coin, Ceramic 12″ x 18″ x 7″

Gwen Heffner, the show’s curator from the Kentucky Artisan Center, said, “This organization’s name includes the word ‘alliance,’ which is an especially good word in reference to clay artists.  I have approached the curating of this exhibit with inclusiveness in mind.”

Heffner was surprised and pleased with the variety of works submitted.  They varied in scale, materials, subject, approach and detail.  “I found tiny pots, large vessels, textures, colorful patterns and painterly images all rendered in a variety of clays,” she said.   “There is a good mix of wheel thrown and hand built forms,” she added.

The Alliance also participates in the Empty Bowls program, a unique fundraising project.  Empty Bowls is a project designed to help school students ages 4 to 18 in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky in Kids Café, an afterschool program with a meal and enrichment activities provided by Freestore Foodbank.  Held on November 4, this year’s fundraiser was a soup dinner that netted over $8,000.  To date, the Alliance has donated over $331,582 to Kids Café.

Patrick Dougherty, Labyrinth I, Earthenware, 28.5″ x 12″; Brenda Tarbell, Cloud Vessel Group, Porcelain Paper Clay

This is an ongoing service commitment of the Alliance to a program that serves more than 2,500 hot meals each week to more than a dozen school sites.

Kids Café is part of a larger, national effort by Feeding America, with nearly 120 member food banks helping to provide afterschool meals to children.

The history of the Clay Alliance goes back over twenty years.  A small, but active, group of artists creating clay pieces started organizing the Clay Alliance in 1997 and began meeting in 1998.  The organization’s mission is to raise the profile of clay and clay artists in the Greater Cincinnati area.

Co-founder Pam Korte, now a retired professor of art from Mount St. Joseph University, heard a lecture about Contemporary Clay by Bill Hunt, editor of Ceramics Monthly at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Korte was hooked.

She recalled that a group of women, including Louise Jenks and Sandy Gantzer, talked about making a long-lasting clay organization.  They initially recruited twelve local potters to join the Clay Alliance.  Korte and others noticed the burnout and demise of other craft guilds and wanted to start an organization that would endure.

“I tell every young person interested in clay that the Clay Alliance is the way to get involved,” Korte said.  She also served on its board for several years.

The Alliance provides networking, mentoring, ongoing workshops, community service, sales opportunities and a sense of camaraderie to those who join.  Korte guides potters to get their feet wet in smaller exhibits and explains the jurying process.

Experienced potters also show newer members how to organize a show, price work, and find a market for their work, for instance.  In addition, they train potters in a number of other fields, including obtaining commissions, getting started in a studio, display and presentation, and teaching.

Members number 154 with an age range from college age students to the mid-90’s, but the median age is 50 to 70, both male and female, who come from the Greater Cincinnati region, but even as far away as Middletown.  Word of mouth, referrals from schools or studios, or current members bring members to the Alliance.  So, there is institutional support in the community for the organization.

Pam Korte, founder; Louise Kahn Jenks, founder, and Linda LeGendre, member

Korte said, “We welcome everyone at whatever level.”  King said the group is an eclectic mix of people.

One challenge the Alliance faces is finding members who want to step up to the board.  “It’s time for younger people to join and increase their level of leadership,” said Korte.

Membership is open to anyone with an interest in clay (i.e., teacher, professional, amateur, collector, gallery owner and supplier).  The annual fee is $25; student’s fee is $15.

Clay Alliance has served 500+ members through fellowship with each other, sales for its members and service to the community for over twenty years.  Korte said, “We stayed true to our mission, with service, education, networking and outreach.”

Millennials won’t join, according to president Bruce Canfield, because there’s no money involved.  That said, the Alliance sponsors an active membership campaign with high school and college students.

The Alliance is not a 501(c)(3) organization, but it is a nonprofit. Canfield has served the organization for twelve years on the board, as treasurer and as its president.

He traces his interest in clay to his high school years at Aurora High School in Indiana.  He chose an independent art project in 1975 and asked the art teacher if he could throw clay.  He bought a wheel and has been producing clay works ever since.  “It has been a passion for me,” he added.

But it isn’t his day job. He works at Highpoint Health in Lawrenceburg, Indiana where he is a registered nuclear medical technologist.  “It’s a hard life to make a living as a potter,” he said.

A resident of a small town such as Aurora, Indiana, Canfield couldn’t find anyone to offer advice about the clay process.  He found Clay Alliance through word of mouth.

Canfield said that Cincinnati’s heritage is well represented by the clay community.  For example, he cited Rookwood Pottery, known nationally for its tiles as well as pottery.  Maria Longworth Nichols founded it in 1880.  Her tradition of excellence remains even though there were lean years, changes in ownership and cessation of production in 1967.  After decades of small production, local investors brought back Rookwood Pottery in 2006.   Many area houses have Rookwood fireplaces and some public schools have Rookwood tile drinking fountains.  A dedicated gallery of Rookwood pottery is in the Cincinnati wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

In addition, all the major universities here offer a program in clay, unusual for one city.

Canfield said, “Clay does anything you want it to do.  It’s very forgiving,” unlike some other forms of art.  Korte agreed, “In time, you can realize your dreams.  It’s very hands-on; very tactile.”  King added, “it’s accessible and it’s fun.”

Canfield said he would come home from work and needed space to do something in the studio to unwind.  “It’s a release.  It’s an outlet,” he said.

Korte said, “Cincinnati is a nice place to be an artist. It is hospitable and livable. Our artists are connected.”

Donna King, a retired Human Resources manager from Procter & Gamble, joined the conversation.  Although she received a degree in business from Thomas More University in 1988, she gave some thought to retirement.  “I don’t want to sit at home and watch TV,” King said.  “I always liked art,” she added.

A native of Burlington, Kentucky, King attended a throwing class in Florence, Kentucky in 2006.  “I was hooked and have been involved ever since,” she said.  Her instructor was a member of the Alliance and invited her to attend.  King has served as secretary, hospitality and communications director, and workshop coordinator.  She said that people will share information with you.  “There’s no substitute for that,” she said.  “It is a chance to talk about doing something you love.”

Internationally known potters, based in Cincinnati, include Terri Kern, Nancy Hopkins and Patrick Dougherty.

In Tribute, Ulla Merz, 1938 – 2016

A graduate of McAuley High School, Kern was drawn to clay during her formative years.  “One of my high school teachers bought a vase from me,” Kern said.  She graduated from Xavier University with a bachelor of arts in ceramics in 1987.

Kern received a call from Pam Korte about the initiation of a clay group with local potters.  Kern said, “She convinced me it was a worthwhile pursuit.  I found it was a great thing — with a network of people I could call.  It was a great resource.”

Kern’s work has taken her abroad.  She exhibited “Jewels of the Crown,” representing seven hills of Cincinnati, which became part of a permanent collection at LongTan Park, Liuzhou, (Cincinnati sister city), People’s Republic of China in 2016.

She showed “Inspired by Japan” at Yu Yu Gallery, Setouchi City, Okayama Prefecture, Japan in 2012.   She has also exhibited in sister cities Munich, Germany and Nancy, France.  Private collections across the United States, France, Germany, China and Japan hold her work.

The United States Artists nominated her in 2011 and 2017 for a fellowship.  In 2012, she received the Cincinnati Ambassador award to build community through the arts. She opened Studio 511 in Pendleton Art Center in the early 1990’s. “I was amazed by the people who came in,” she said.  “All were interested in making something with their hands.”

Yet, Kern didn’t feel the need to move from Cincinnati as other artists might.  “Cincinnati is pretty great, centrally located for shows throughout the country.  It’s a culturally rich city.”

“I want to make a living.  Every artist has a different goal.  I could be part of the community,” she said.  She enjoys the interaction with artists and learns from others.  “Being involved in Clay Alliance broadens your perspective,” Kern said.  She has served as education and community outreach director, board president and board vice president of the Alliance in addition to other roles.

There are several fairs during the year.

A seasonal art walk at Essex Gallery takes place on December 7 with attendees visiting the Alliance studio in room 252.

The Alliance will host a holiday fair on December 8 at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center Lindner Annex.  It features gifts for the holidays.

The Spring Pottery Fair will be held in the Woodburn Ave. corridor of East Walnut Hills on May 11, 2019.  Approximately 50 to 80 members will showcase their work

Studio San Giuseppe is a nonprofit art gallery located in the Dorothy Meyer Ziv Art Building on the campus of Mount St. Joseph University.  Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 10 am – 5 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 1 pm – 5 pm.  Admission is free.

For more information about the Clay Alliance, visit www.clayalliance.org.

–Laura A. Hobson

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