Total Immersion

Greg Crowe on his McKnight Residency at the Northern Clay Center| Greg Crowe

[ technical: artists in residence ]

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For three months, from July to August 2008, I undertook a McKnight Artists Residency for Ceramic Artists, awarded by the Northern Clay Centre (NCC), Minneapolis, MN, US. I was also supported in this residency by a Mid-Career Fellowship from the WA Department for Culture and the Arts. I originally became aware of the NCC in 2002 when participating in the Upper St Croix Valley Studio Tour, Minnesota. I was invited to participate by Jeff Oestreich, and was based at his studio, about an hour’s drive north of Minneapolis. Whilst there I visited the NCC a couple of times and was very impressed with the facilities and the very professional promotion of all aspects of ceramics.


When awarded the residency, the NCC put me in touch with various people who had rooms to rent in the area adjacent to the University of Minnesota. However, I was ultimately responsible for organising my own accommodation. The first people I contacted had a place available which was very comfortable and only a short walk to the NCC. It was a very enjoyable way to start each day, crossing the Mississippi River then up Franklin Avenue with, incongruously, a very large East African population. There was also a wholefood / organic shop only a few hundred metres from the NCC, which was ideal. The NCC is a not-for-profit clay studio/organisation that has been operating for about 15 years. It is now in its second location in an old factory that has been converted to studio spaces, kiln room, shop and gallery,

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with the addition of contemporary office and library space. It is recognised as one of the major centres of its kind in the US. There is always something going on at the NCC – exhibitions, activities, classes, firings, and visitors coming through from other parts of the country as well as overseas. During early September, the American Pottery Festival (an annual weekend exhibition/fundraiser) is held – a great opportunity to view a large selection of work by 24 ceramic artists from across America.

The work space was great with lovely natural lighting along one whole wall, a choice of wheels, ware rack and work bench. Sarah Millfelt, director of education programs at NCC, helped me settle in. The NCC staff were all extremely warm and welcoming. Steve Wickland (maintenance at NCC/potter) and Mike Helke (gallery assistant /potter), were very helpful with all my queries about materials and processes there.

In applying for the residency I knew that my main focus of exploration would be on further development of textural surface on thrown forms, something that had interested me for the last five or so years. I usually work with wood-fired salt glaze and I did have the option of wood-firing, but the NCC wood kiln was at least an hour away at Jeff’s. I initially accepted an invitation to put a few pots and some tests in a wood-firing being done by Steve Wickland and Lee Love, the previous McKnight Ceramic Artist Resident. I participated in this firing but ultimately decided to concentrate on soda glazing, using the gas kilns at the NCC. I had a long term interest in soda glazing, especially since working at Jeff’s in 2002, as he is internationally acclaimed for his work in this area. While unable to resist the temptation to do a wood-firing, I think concentrating on soda glazing for the majority of the residency proved a wise decision. The two soda kilns at NCC were constantly being fired, once or twice a week. During July and early August, while I started making pots and doing tests, a number of people very generously allowed me to put my initial pile of tests (clay bodies, slips and glazes) in their firings.

Whereas in Hovea, WA, I usually do two firings a year in my large wood-fired kiln, at NCC I was able to get tests through almost every week and did five firings with a substantial number of pots in each firing. The rapidity of testing, making, firing and being able to act on the results immediately was of enormous benefit. I teamed up with Leila Denecke to do the firings. Leila, a very experienced soda glazer and an established potter in Minnesota, was also at the NCC on a McKnight Fellowship. We will both participate in the McKnight exhibition at the NCC in May 2009. She was very well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the NCC kilns. There seemed to be as many theories on firing them as there were potters using the kilns.

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The kilns seemed to be particularly affected by the atmospheric conditions during summer in Minnesota. We worked together well on the firings and, as they progressed, long discussions ensued.

The residency provided me with a solid, continuous block of time to further develop ideas. I was able to spend 12 hours a day, seven days a week for three monthsconcentrating on my own work, with time to experiment and try many ideas that I had been thinking about over the preceding few years – total immersion! I also really enjoyed another challenge – making work for an exhibition in a three- month period. My time at NCC challenged my thinking, especially using soda rather than salt. Using different materials sometimes made me question or re-assess recipes that I had become familiar with.

The NCC and the Minnesota pottery community were a ceramic culture in which I felt totally comfortable; an environment in which all things clay-based were taken seriously and there was a strong emphasis on pots. This has been well documented with articles in various ceramic magazines on Warren McKenzie and the pottery culture that developed around him and many of the students from the University of Minnesota. There seems to be a genuine appreciation in the community of ceramics and the values inherent to handmade objects.

At home in WA, I live on five acres on the outskirts of Perth in a bush environment. My wife and I have lived here for nearly 30 years and it is the only home our children ever had. We built the house and workshop. I love the block of land where I live. I work with the local clay. I wood-fire. People often comment that my work has a sense of belonging in my environment; however, at times I feel a sense of isolation or alienation from the culture in which I reside and work. But whilst at the NCC, I felt Australian, and made work that I feel was Australian. Did I try to duplicate a feeling, a sense of the work, a surface and colour that I was familiar with? I am not sure. I experimented with a wide range of surface textures on the thrown forms, introducing a variety of new ones. Some of the vase forms became more structured and rhythmic, with almost geometric patterning on the surface. Other vase forms became variegated with a fragmented, heavily textured surface on the top half and a contrasting, more spiralling linear pattern on the lower half.

The residency was a wonderful opportunity to develop my own work for three months without simultaneously lecturing, as I have done for most of the last 20 years. It enabled me to focus totally on pottery. I returned home with a myriad of new ideas to work on, as well as an appreciation of what a small group of potters can achieve and the significance to me of a supportive environment.

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Author: Australian Ceramics

In 1956, The Potters Society of Australia was formed to encourage and foster the development, appreciation and recognition of potters and pottery. It was the first ceramics organisation in Australia. In 2006, our name was changed to The Australian Ceramics Association to more fully reflect the scope of practice of the members. We are a national, not-for-profit organisation representing the interests of practising potters and ceramicists, students of ceramics and all those interested in Australian ceramics. We actively support and promote quality, specialist ceramics education nationally. T: 1300 720 124

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