Seward’s Northern Clay Center: A mecca for the ceramic arts


The Northern Clay Center‘s current exhibition, 2009 Artists of NCC, is a showcase of some of the finest work of the center’s teachers, students, resident artists, and campgoers over the past two years. The exhibit, which closes at the end of the month, is a collection of 134 functional and sculptural works, spanning two of the center’s galleries.

Kate Maury, an instructor at NCC whose Vase is featured in the exhibit, explained what makes the Twin Cities and the Northern Clay Center such a haven for ceramic arts.

“The Twin Cities are like a mecca for people who work in clay. It has a high concentration of clay artists, due to Warren MacKenzie who studied with Bernard Leach and then returned to teach at the U of M,” Maury says. Leach was an important figure in Japanese folk art. “Many of Warren’s students settled here and set up studios. The University continues to have dynamic faculty, which draws great students to the area as well.”

“In addition,” adds Maury, the Northern Clay Center is a nationally known and respected venue for artists to work and show at. They are instrumental in educating the public and creating supporters of the ceramic arts.”

NCC receives grants from both the Jerome and McKnight foundations. The Jerome Project Grant is for emerging artists, and McKnight Artist Fellowships are issued to mid-career ceramists. McKnight residencies are also available, bringing out-of-state artists to NCC. The center also offers workshops and classes to the public and area schools.

Angie Renee Lund, an instructor at NCC, received the Jerome grant back in 1999. Her Fearful Heart and Untitled are among the exhibition’s most original works. Fearful Heart is a rakuware mold of a human heart with the word “fear” painted all over it, and has cracks in the surface throughout. The artist explains that her inspiration came from a transformation she had undergone in the previous year. “I’ve been working with a shaman, and my heart’s been closed, so I started working on these heart pieces. With opening up my heart, there’s a lot of fear in that.”

Why clay? Lund explains: “It’s very tactile, especially on the wheel when it’s all slippery and wet. I love nature, and dealing with earth elements.“

Jennifer Rodgers, an instructor whose Milkbox is featured in the exhibit, had similar intentions for choosing the medium. “Clay has the ability to be and do so many different things. This versatility really appeals to me and I am constantly trying to find new ways to reinvent the medium for myself,” says Rodgers. “There is a strong connection to the everyday, to the real, to the concrete, which has been an important element in my work thus far. This relationship does a few things: it allows for some element of familiarity and it allows me to address larger and more complex issues.”

A nationally-touring clay exhibit, Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay, is currently on display at the Walker Art Center. Many of the artists and instructors at NCC will soon attend, and Maury has already visited the exhibit.

“I thought the show expressed the diversity of material,” says Maury. “From the masculine presence of Voulkos to the flounce and delicate nature of Butterly’s work, all approaches were represented, all phases of the process were explored.”

Maury argues that ceramics tend to be underappreciated in the world of contemporary art. “The old argument between craft vs. art has not been an issue here in this region,” she says. ”And for the Walker, devoting an entire show to ceramics is great to see.”

Crystal Erickson ( is a freelance writer and photographer, with preoccupations in hip-hop, art, and bicycle anarchy.

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