Contemporary Collective

Ceramics and community engagement: an interview with Erica Iman of the Kansas City Urban Potters

Ceramics have loomed large on the Kansas City arts scene in 2016. With the city playing host to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts’ (NCECA) 50th annual conference this past spring, many galleries around town joined the fun with ceramic-themed exhibitions of their own. If all the buzz has you starting to take notice of ceramics, we recommend starting with the Kansas City Urban Potters. A collective of seven local ceramic artists, the Kansas City Urban Potters is a group aimed at not only creating functional work of the highest craftsmanship, but engaging the community and creating more exposure for contemporary pottery. Kansas City Spaces sat down recently with collective member Erica Iman to discuss the group, its goals and how it’s reaching the community.

Kansas City Spaces: How did KC Urban Potters get its start?

Erica Iman: We’re made up of seven members who collaborate on ceramic works. We realized a couple summers ago that there were several of us around the same age that were trying to get ceramic businesses going—trying to do it full-time and survive off our artwork. We all got together at a coffee shop and started discussing what the community needed and how we could support the community, and we decided to form Kansas City Urban Potters. We work on projects together, work on exhibitions, bring in artists from outside the area and try to expose people to ceramics and what contemporary pottery means for us. When they hear pottery, a lot of people think of country pottery, kind of crockery-based. We’re trying to get our work out in the community a little more and expose people to the idea that pottery can have a contemporary look.

KCS: In what ways do you interact with the community?

EI: We have lots of programming that we do as a group to connect with the community. We’ve done a couple of exhibitions so far, and we’ve also gone to schools to show kids how we make our works and talk to them about different avenues in the arts. We think this is important, especially now that arts keep getting cut in schools.

We’ve checked out other clay organizations too and looked at events that they’ve done. One we liked was The Clay Studio in Philadelphia; they did a Guerilla Mug Assault where they went out to the streets and replaced people’s disposable coffee cups with ceramic mugs. We’ve also been doing things like creating a set of dishes that we can cheaply loan out to different events in the area so that they can use handmade cups for receptions and events as opposed to disposable dishes—little things like that.

We’re also currently working on a space in Westport. It will have a shop in front, and three of our artists will have studios in the back. We’ll be able to show people how we work, and the front will provide space for community engagement events. We recently received a Rocket Grant through the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Art Museum. We’re going to put that money into the project space and to do pop-up engagement workshops with the community.

KCS: For an organization that started as a support group, you’re very community-focused! Where does that come from?

EI: I think we realized that we’re a part of this community, and that there’s a give and take in supporting one another. We feel like that community engagement is really important, between who is going to support us as makers and us supporting them, too. We personally enjoy interacting with people, too, and ceramics is a very hands-on thing anyway.

I think we also considered the area and its history with ceramics. One of our members, Paul Donnelly, teaches at the Art Institute. There’s a rich history of ceramics at the Art Institute; a lot of important ceramic artists have come out of the school. The community has a rich base of ceramics to pull from, and we want to connect to that and make people aware of it.

KCS: What are your goals for the future?

EI: Our biggest focus right now is getting our space open and having room for the public to come in and start doing a lot of small projects. We’re going to have our grand opening for the shop the first weekend in October, and we’ll probably soft open before that. In November, during Black Friday weekend, we will be having a holiday pottery sale at Unity Temple on the Plaza, and our spring sale is in the works right now, which is a large event for us. Long-term, we are really interested in collaborating with other businesses, local chefs and restaurant designers.