This is my story about graduating from art school at about the same time I became a grandmother. I’m sharing my journey of obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in ceramics with you, hoping to encourage others in mid-life or later to jump off the deep end and enroll in school full-time. As older adults, we bring a lifetime of experience to the classroom, we realize it is a privilege and honor to attend a fine arts college, we know how to play well with others, and how to get a good night’s sleep. And, most of us have already acquired a solid work ethic. You’ll gain the skills you need to find your artistic voice. You’ll dig deep within yourself and know how to make your artistic vision a reality. You’ll gain the confidence to endure juried shows and talk intelligently about your work to strangers. And, you’ll become entangled in a network of fabulous clay artists both local and national.
My father was a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA). He attended the then five-year college tuition-free thanks to the GI Bill. His professional focus was commercial art but he had the most fun painting, sculpting, and woodworking—simply creating. He had a huge amount of natural, raw talent. He said he owed a lot of his success to his CIA education, and claimed it gave him the building blocks to create whatever he liked. In fact, he was so good at art I never pursued it. How could anyone measure up to such talent? I went into marketing instead and earned an undergraduate and graduate degree. I realized I could be creative through writing, photography, and design. I worked on branding campaigns and served as corporate spokeswoman and liaison to the media. I wrote press releases, articles, radio and TV commercials, and pitched local, national, and international press to gain publicity for my employers and their products. After 25 years, it was time for a change. If understanding the foundation, the building blocks of art, was critical to becoming an artist then that’s what I would do! Years later, unfortunately after my father passed away, I followed his advice.
Following in My Father’s Footsteps
I quickly learned that organizational skills from my previous career came in handy. I created a six-month timeline outlining tasks needed to complete an art admissions portfolio. I took numerous summer courses in areas where my skills were weak, like life drawing, at community art centers and colleges. I got my hands on a MacBook Pro and made daily visits to the Apple Store to learn how to use it. I took classes at a local camera store and became proficient at taking decent photos of my work. Lastly, I wrote what I hoped would be a compelling essay. I delivered the portfolio in person with a nervous stomach. A few weeks later, the acceptance letter was delivered with news of a merit-based scholarship based on my portfolio. I was now a college freshman in her mid-50s! My husband told clients he was married to a coed and my three grown kids thought it was rad that their mom was going to be an artist.
CIA was challenging from the start—70-hour work weeks were the norm. Some classes were harder than others. I hired student tutors for help with anything related to computer-aided design. My life drawing skills were non-existent. There were days when I left that class and secretly cried in the ladies’ bathroom. I worked hard. And harder still. Summers were spent preparing for the fall classes. For the first time, I maintained a 4.0 average and wished my parents were alive to see it. There were times when I thought of quitting, like when my younger daughter required unexpected surgery. I took a few weeks off to care for her. My foundation design instructor and fellow students sent cards to our home with clever drawings urging me to stay the course, literally. One student found a “Kimberly” pencil nub and mailed it to me. He said my presence was missed during class. I had to stay enrolled, so I did. I was so impressed with the quality, patience, and dedication of the instructors. I continued to make friends with students. They were respectful and their kindness, talent, and confidence blew me away. My expectations were exceeded daily. I knew I was fortunate to be learning from ceramic greats Judith Salomon and William Brouillard. The critiques were tough and got even tougher. There were some accolades too. I arrived early, listened intently. My past career was my secret weapon—I already knew how to write, document, and research. I also knew how to get through a 14-hour day. I needed an edge desperately; my fellow students were exuberant and youthful with boundless energy. More importantly, they were tech savvy.
At the end of my senior year, with three shelved walls displaying my artwork behind me, I delivered my one-hour defense to an audience of nearly 100 people. What’s Left Behind, the title of my book and presentation, commemorated, memorialized, and preserved my nostalgic memory. It detailed the history of nostalgia, its impact on our lives, and its importance. Through research I learned that in the 1600s, a young Swiss medical student by the name Johannes Hofer coined the word nostalgia by combining the Greek words for homesickness and pain. Hofer was troubled by the frequent occurrence of mental and physical ailments suffered by soldiers fighting on foreign soil. He thought if he could locate and remove their nostalgia bone he could cure them. I was awestruck by his idea. I quickly suspended my disbelief in the idea that the nostalgia bone was real and built an ornate porcelain reliquary (influenced by the gold reliquaries of the Middle Ages that held fragments of saints) upon which was perched a 24-carat gold-gilded nostalgia bone. I began to hand sculpt porcelain nostalgia bones and use them to build structures reminiscent of my childhood. My brother’s tree house, our childhood home, and the gurney that wheeled my mother to the van headed for the crematorium were just a few.
As a kid, I always loved making things. In the 1960s, Mattel manufactured my most memorable toy, Incredible Edibles. Complete with metal molds and Gobble Degoop liquid candy in foil packets, one could make bugs, worms, and other disgusting things to eat in six delicious flavors. The baked, rubbery candy smelled and tasted awful but watching it transform from a liquid to a solid was mesmerizing. Somewhere I have a picture of me in my white quilted robe beyond jubilant because on Christmas morning under the tree was, you guessed it, my Incredible Edibles set. I guess you could say this was akin to what I do today—pour slip into molds and minutes later unearth a solid sculpture. My kiln is larger than the oven I used to make candy, but still does exactly what the toy oven did; transform something into a permanent object. Even at age nine I was interested in object permanency.
As I grew older, naturally family members started slipping away. The more family that died, the more nostalgic I became. About ten years ago, my mother died. Her loss hit me the hardest. I was inconsolable. Months later, my husband sent me to Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency for two weeks to study under Tom Bartel, an Ohio clay artist known for his often disturbing yet humorous figures. It was just the immersion I needed. Under Tom’s tutelage, I made two busts, a king and a queen. I didn’t realize until months later that I had sculpted my parents. The royal couple symbolized two people I loved deeply and would never see again. I love these pieces not because they would win any art prize, but because when I gaze upon them I smile and think fondly of my parents. It’s a bit comical because the king and queen are obviously fed up with each other in a lighthearted way. I guess that’s why I had always kiddingly referred to my parents as The Bickersons.
A Testament to Time
What’s clay got to do with it? Because of its malleability and tremendous capacity for memory, clay allows me to mine what I know and create objects relating to my past and that of my ancestors. Like nostalgic memory, white porcelain clay oozes purity and innocence. It is the white knight saving the damsel in distress (if for some odd reason she cannot save herself). White is what rescues us from the dark. Clay, like the human mind, has a tremendous capacity for memory. Each time I touch it, a permanent record of my hand is recorded. Like memory, clay stands as a testament to time, and its finicky nature demands nothing short of complete attention. As I age, I realize that keeping memory alive and honoring the past is critical. Just as nostalgic memory forms the backbone of the mind, tangible objects serve as physical evidence of one’s life story. And what better material for keeping precious memories safe than recreating them in porcelain? Prized for its durability, delicacy, and exotic origin, porcelain was historically referred to as white gold. While some ceramic artists devote their lives to it, kings and emperors have long demanded it.
It’s been a year since I graduated and I’ve been fortunate enough to be included in several juried shows and have even won a prize. My marketing experience has proved useful in sending pitch letters to gallery curators and submitting work to shows. At the annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference last year in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I had the pleasure to be a presenter. My topic? Nostalgia, What’s It Good For? Turns out, a lot. I was so pleased that a few women approached me afterward, eager to learn what it was like going back to school in mid-life. I was only too happy to share my story.
And, there’s an impending trip. To my great surprise, I received one of CIA’s most prestigious prizes, the Second Agnes Gund Traveling Award. It funds my dream trip to Limoges, France, one of Europe’s first porcelain production centers and the city with the world’s largest collection of porcelain objects. There’s even a contemporary consortium of porcelain artists there using clay in new and unexpected ways. I’m hoping to meet every one of them. I’m also tying in trips to Paris and London. I’d die a thousand deaths if I could arrange an audience with autobiographical and narrative English contemporary artist Grayson Perry. His heavily illustrated ceramic vases layered with complex societal messaging fascinate me. I’m also hoping to cross paths with contemporary British potter, artist, and writer Edmund de Waal, whose life ambition revolves around his love of porcelain. Who knows if they will see me, I can only try. I have five years to use the stipend. Either way, it’s going to be one heck of a trip, just like going back to college—I can’t lose.
the author Kimberly Chapman is an Ohio-based ceramic artist who simultaneously received her degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art while becoming a grandmother. Her delicate porcelain work is based on childhood and ancestral nostalgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.