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12th Annual Ceramic Conference in Davis
Event attracts hundreds of clay fans


By Paul Dorn
Enterprise art critic

Davis will be the hub of the ceramic universe this weekend. The John Natsoulas Gallery once again is host of the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art 2001 (CCACA), the twelfth annual gathering of ceramic artists, collectors, curators and scholars, the largest event of its kind dedicated to ceramic sculpture. In addition to lectures, slide shows and panel discussions by ceramic artists, the CCACA will feature demonstrations of ceramic techniques, tours and informal discussions. More than 300 people are expected to attend the conference, with hundreds more visiting exhibits and other activities presented in conjunction with the event.

According to John Natsoulas, the idea for the conference originated during a bar conversation with Robert Arneson. A maverick ceramic sculptor, a pioneer of the Funk Movement, and an influential professor at UC Davis, Arneson hoped to attract other ceramic artists to Davis, to provide an opportunity for networking and sharing of ideas and techniques. "At the time, every academic art department had a pottery program," says Natsoulas. "But Bob wanted to encourage a broader consideration of ceramics, of the use of clay for creative expression, as an artistic medium. His goal was more about fostering ceramics as a sculptural medium among arts educators than anything else."

Natsoulas describes the CCACA as Arneson's legacy. The renowned creator of whimsical ceramic busts of himself in cartoonish poses perched atop columns died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 62, just as the conference was taking hold. "Arneson planted the seed, which has really blossomed," says Natsoulas. "If you look at artists like Esther Shimazu or others, they're exploring many of the concepts that Arneson pioneered. Shimazu uses the same medium to create these wonderful, humorous and provocative full-figured nudes, examining the body in a way that even Arneson hadn't tried."

Previous editions of the CCACA have attracted a veritable who's who of clay and the visual arts, including such renowned figures as Donald Kuspit, author, Artforum critic, and professor of art history at SUNY Stony Brook; Ronald Kuchta, editor of American Ceramics and former director of the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY; and Joan Mondale, artist, collector and wife of former vice-president Walter F. Mondale.

This year's CCACA will feature presentations by many leading ceramics practitioners, including Marilyn Levine, the Canadian-born artist known for her masterful trompe l'oeil ceramic works that resemble boots, belts, bags and other furnishings; Jo Lauria, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and organizer of the definitive exhibition Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000; and Margaret Keelan, figurative sculptor and professor at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.

The CCACA has evolved over the 12 years of its existence, and has become a great focus for the entire Davis art community. Having more than 300 ceramics enthusiasts in town provides a great exposure opportunity for local clay artists. In conjunction with the CCACA, several Davis galleries will broaden the view of contemporary ceramics with exhibits exploring a variety of aesthetic issues in clay.

One highlight is the annual statewide ceramic competition at The Artery. "The competition originated 12 years ago," says Cathie Duniway of The Artery. "Nobody was doing anything like it. Since then, it's gained considerable prestige as a showcase for emerging artists. With all the ceramics people in Davis for the conference, it's become a great opportunity for younger artists and even some established ones to gain exposure. The caliber of the work has always been high. The trend, if any, is an increase in technical skills."

Juror Yoshio Taylor, a Sacramento artist who teaches sculpture, pottery and design classes at both Cosumnes River College and California State University in Sacramento, was also impressed with the quality and variety of the 300 entries, from which he selected 37 pieces by artists across the state. "There were a large number of entries for figurative and narrative works," says Taylor. "That would suggest the possible current direction of clay work in California."

Other exhibition highlights in conjunction with CCACA include Memories of the Land, a collaborative installation of large-scale ceramic work at the Davis Art Center by Bay Area artists John Toki and Daniela Pulido. Another highlight is an exhibit at the Pence Gallery of porcelain sculpture by Santa Cruz artist Karen Thuesen Massaro, who creates precarious arrangements of fruits, vegetables and other geometric forms.

These exhibits, and many others in conjunction with CCACA, will provide a sampling of how contemporary ceramic artists are using clay to explore a variety of aesthetic issues. Once viewed principally as a material for functional vessels, clay is now part of the artistic mainstream. One of the great preoccupations of ceramic artists in recent years has been the desire for validation of their medium as a fine art. According to the organizers and artists involved with the CCACA, that objective has been achieved, thanks in large part to early pioneers like Arneson, Peter Voulkos, Viola Frey, Richard Shaw, Stephen De Staebler and others. Clay is now increasingly recognized as an art form comparable to painting or sculpture.

"Every material has inherent advantages and also limitations" says Stuart Allen, gallery manager at the Davis Art Center. "Clay is very plastic, adaptable to all forms. It can be flat, or it can be malleable and formed. It has a great tactility, a very real physical presence, very different than, say, video. Clay also has an interesting relationship with water. Often artists will let the material 'finish' the piece, creating different surface textures or erosion patterns as it dries, creating a kind of randomly chaotic or unexpected result. The material informs the artist, just as the artist informs and manipulates the material."


Emma Luna: Using Clay to Explore Gender Issues
John Toki: Ceramics as a family affair

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Last modified May 1, 2001

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