You know about the barbecue and the baseball, the fountains and First Fridays. But there’s something else that needs to top your “Best of KC” list, especially this month: ceramic art.
For March and most of April, Kansas City is a mecca for anyone interested in seeing the best and most diverse examples of contemporary ceramics in the world.
More than 5,000 artists, curators, collectors and dealers from around the globe will be here to view more than 100 exhibitions of ceramic art at museums, galleries and pop-up shows throughout the area.
Many will be here to participate in talks, panels and demonstrations at the conference “Makers, Mentors & Milestones,” organized by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) and running Wednesday through Saturday at the Kansas City Convention Center. (Check the NCECA website for event schedules, or download the NCECA Events app for up-to-date information on programming, presenters, maps and bus tours.)
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In short, for the next month you can get a crash course in a medium that has fascinated humans since the beginning of time. No matter how much you think you already know about ceramic art, you will learn much more if you spend just one or two days looking at the incredible offerings installed around town. There also will be opportunities to meet and talk with world-class artists and educators who are notably approachable.
NCECA was founded by artists 50 years ago and is still primarily artist-driven.
“Kansas City has supported its ceramic artists in ways that no other cosmopolitan center has,” NCECA executive director Josh Green said.
Talented artists, strong support
During a recent trip to New York, I saw little evidence of contemporary ceramics at the hundreds of galleries there, and hardly any were shown at this month’s Armory Show, which showcased art from international galleries.
So how did Kansas City become the center for contemporary ceramics in America and probably Europe?
Since the 1960s, the Kansas City Art Institute’s Ceramics Department has developed into what many consider to be the top undergraduate ceramics program in the U.S. Its students win all kinds of awards, and many become successful.
But talented students and professors are only one reason ceramics has an abiding presence here. Kansas City also has the curators, galleries and museums that display ceramics and, equally important, a devoted coterie of collectors who support all of the above.
Sherry Leedy, director of the Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art Gallery in the Crossroads Arts District, represents a number of local and nationally known ceramic artists.
“There’s a long history of ceramic collecting in Kansas City,” Leedy said. “Just look at all the museums and institutions in our area that regularly show ceramics: the Nerman Museum, the Nelson-Atkins, Belger Crane Yard and the Daum Museum.”
In addition to its contemporary ceramics holdings, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art showcases the historic Burnap Collection, composed of 1,300 rare examples of stunning pre-industrial pottery, the largest collection outside Britain.
The Nerman Museum displays not only contemporary ceramics but great examples of contemporary Pueblo pottery throughout buildings at Johnson County Community College; Belger Crane Yard hosts Red Star Studios, which organizes ceramics exhibits and offers classes and residencies for renowned ceramicists.
Since its founding 10 years ago, the Daum Museum in Sedalia, Mo., has amassed an impressive group of international ceramics.
A growing respect
Another important factor, Leedy notes, is the affordability of ceramic art.
“In the U.S. you can build a world-class ceramic collection for a fraction of what paintings and sculpture often go for,” she said. “Ceramics are a really incredible value. Also, collectors in the middle of the country are more open-minded about buying what they really care about, and they’re comfortable mixing ceramics with other art forms.”
In many Asian countries, where ceramics have been highly valued for centuries, a ceramic plate or tea bowl could be the most expensive artwork in the house. In the West, for many reasons, ceramics have only recently moved into the category of valuable, high-status art objects.
In his new book “Playing to the Gallery,” British ceramic artist and Turner prize winner Grayson Perry wrote that when he began his career in the 1970s, “pottery was a naff, unfashionable medium practiced by earnest folkies or dangly-earringed hippy ladies.”
Linda Lighton, a Kansas City porcelain artist whose work is in the permanent collections of the Nelson, Nerman, Kemper and Daum museums, among others, said painters tend to think that ceramicists are the blue-collar workers of the art world.
However, “Wars have been fought over porcelain, which was valued more highly than gold,” she said. “In the ceramic wars between Japan and Korea during the 1590s, thousands of Korean ceramists were abducted by the Japanese and forced to develop a specialized kind of porcelain ware. A European noble actually chained an alchemist in a dungeon until he uncovered the formula for porcelain in the early 1700s.”
The fact that ceramics can be utilitarian, are typically process-oriented and can lead to dirty fingernails means they have often been looked down upon in Western culture, which has historically valued the mind over the body. As Oscar Wilde once said, “All art is quite useless.” And he meant that as a good thing.
In addition, ceramics artists are mostly generous in acknowledging the prehistoric precedents of their art form, while the contemporary art world has typically been associated with the notion of an avant-garde where shock value is prized. However, in the 21st century, globalism has changed that.
“The idea of aesthetic or cultural upheaval in art seems quaint today,” Perry says. “We are in an ongoing state of omnidirectional experimentation.”
The line between fine art artists and ceramics artists has definitely blurred, as more and more young artists incorporate ceramic media into their painting, sculpture, textile and video art and vice versa.
The current exhibitions in Kansas City illustrate that. The Simone Leigh installation at the H&R Block Artspace embraces historic African pottery, architecture and video art. The artists in the “unconventional clay” exhibit at the Nelson integrate every conceivable medium, as well as every possible political stance, into their 2- and 3-dimensional art pieces. The glazed stoneware cups of Ehren Tool combine the materials of classic pottery with philosophical overviews of wars in the Middle East in a simple but viscerally moving manner.
You don’t have to understand the difference between an underglaze and an overglaze to appreciate the wealth of ceramic artistry that now graces our city. Just put on a comfortable pair of walking shoes and get out there and look.