When we talk about the things that make Kansas City special, there’s the usual nod to barbecue and jazz. And, of course, we talk about the engine that arts and culture have become, especially their role in the city’s urban revival.
But one subset of the arts could make a quiet claim — and often does — that it deserves extra special status. That is the fine art of ceramics — works derived from clay and other earthy substances. There may not be a Kansas City ceramics style per se — eclecticism and individual expression are more like it — but there is an extraordinary lineage of potters and fine artists whose origins begin at the Kansas City Art Institute in the 1960s.
Influential teachers such as Victor Babu, Jim Leedy and the late Kenneth Ferguson helped spawn a couple of generations of artists, made ceramics connections around the globe and earned an international reputation for the private art school’s undergraduate clay program, one of the finest anywhere.
Kansas City’s central role in teaching, creating, curating and dealing in ceramic art works is on great public display beginning Wednesday, as 5,000 members of the field gather here for a conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.
The conference is one thing, but the general public will have numerous opportunities to find out what the ever-evolving world of ceramics looks like. More than 100 exhibits are open at galleries, museums and other spaces all over town. And works at many of the shows are for sale.
This is not your grandmother’s polite table we are talking about. Today’s ceramics, extending from one of the most ancient of artistic activities, involve up-to-the minute arguments over form, function, beauty, taste, politics, culture, life and nature.
Ceramic works can range from delicate and intimate pieces in porcelain — check out the multiple group shows at the Belger CraneYard Studios — to eye-popping, wall-filling installations like Mark Cooper’s wild piece combining numerous materials in a group show at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
The ceramics gathering — you’ll hear arts people talking about NCECA (en-seek-ah) all week — is a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity, made possible only because of Kansas City’s solid and world-class foundation in clay.