Clay Culture: Mudflat Challenge

A community of artists explored the same theme, and the resulting work, conversations, and growth surprised and energized everyone.

What does the word attachment really mean? Lynn Gervens, director of Mudflat Studio, was about to find out. It turned out not to be what she expected.

The word attachment had been chosen for the first “Mudflat Challenge,” a new community-building project for Mudflat, a 46-year-old, non-profit ceramics studio and school based in a renovated theater in Somerville, Massachusetts. Certainly such challenges are not uncommon at galleries or museums, which often stage shows based on a theme. What would be unusual about this show is that it would be open to everyone connected to Mudflat: students (beginner to advanced), staff, studio artists, and faculty. All styles were welcome; the only requirement, or challenge, was to explore what attachment meant.

The idea for the challenge came from Mudflat student Lauren Hammer, who was inspired by the BBC reality TV series, The Great Pottery Throw Down. “It got me thinking that we could have community challenges where we could showcase the creativity, diversity, and skill among us,” said Hammer, a preschool teacher who has been at Mudflat for five years. She wanted to see more conversations and relationships among community members: beginners interacting with advanced students, handbuilders engaging with wheel throwers, etc.

Hammer brought the idea to Gervens, and together with Mike Roche, Mudflat artist-in-residence (2015–16), they developed a challenge. Each semester, a word or words would be selected and the entire community would be challenged to interpret those words through clay. This would not be a juried show; everyone would get in. However, all the pieces would be professionally staged in the Mudflat Community Room, where exhibits, lectures, and meetings were held. Participants were asked to include two to three sentences describing how their piece related to the word(s).

1 The first Mudflat Challenge, held in April 2016 in the studio’s community room, explored the implications of the word “Attachment.” Photo: Lynn Gervens.

2 Clockwise from left: Melanie Salisbury’s Dragon teapot, 14 in. (35 cm) in height, white stoneware, fired to cone 10, 2016; Janine Senatore’s bowl with handles, 8 in. (20 cm) in length, brown stoneware, fired to cone 10; Angela Cunningham’s Rock Garden, each 3 in. (8 cm) in length, porcelain, fired to cone 10 oxidation, 2016.

Gervens didn’t know what to expect in the first show, held in April of 2016. “With the theme, I thought maybe there would be a few mugs with handles attached,” she recalled. But the response astonished her—and the rest of the Mudflat community, for that matter. At the opening reception, 51 pieces were displayed.

The range of styles—dream like, emotional, esoteric, functional—surprised even long-time Mudflat artists. The written descriptions accompanying pieces were humorous, poignant, and personal. Susan Bernstein created two massive slabs improbably connected by a tiny thread. “Attachment is both unbreakable and fragile,” she wrote. Mariya Gazumyan created a set of what she described as “tools of attachment.” A mother and daughter did a piece together that explored their connection. Maureen Monahan was inspired by her husband and made a ball and chain with an unlocked shackle; thus it was “attached, but by choice.” Ray Warburton sculpted a friend, who died in a car crash, writing: “The photo I used for the sculpture showed him looking up at his wife coming down the stairs to their outdoor pool where he was bird watching. They were very attached.”

Yes, there were a few mugs. But Gervens said, “what surprised me was the range of the response—the kinds of pieces that people made and the risks that people took to create their ideas of what attachment meant to them. Hammer was enthralled: “It was a brilliant display of the spectrum of possibility in our shared medium.”

Many pieces, particularly those by the studio artists, were of a high technical quality. The pieces that were not as technically refined still expressed strong ideas. While the show wasn’t juried, Roche did give out four prizes (a clay carving tool) for the following categories: juror’s choice, conceptual, well crafted, and experimental. Some of the winners were beginning students, who had never seen their work professionally displayed.

3 Laurie Rubin’s These are not teapots!, each 5 in. (13 cm) in height, mosaic, terra cotta, fired to cone 05, 2016.

4 Susan Bernstein’s Red Threads, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, red sculpture clay, fired to cone 6, string, 2016. Photo: Lynn Gervens.

Roche would do the same for the next challenge, in which the Mudflat community interpreted the words illusion/allusion—a more difficult task, staged in July 2016. “The beautiful, almost tear-jerking descriptions accompanying each work left me torn,” Roche said in his juror’s statement. “I saw so much growth, thought, and considerations within every piece that it was a challenge to balance the strengths of the ideas with the visual impacts they generated.”

The challenge continued in November 2016, with the word play, which generated pieces that referenced games, theater, and musical instruments, such as a three-dimensional checkerboard, a toy box, and a string-operated mechanical chicken.

Marsha Turin, a high-school biology teacher, musician, and Mudflat artist for 24 years, made clay percussion instruments—a xylophone, tongue drum, and bells—that people could play alone or with another person. “When I heard the word play, the first thing that came to my mind was music,” said Turin, who won the conceptual award. “It was tremendously rewarding to be working in the studio and hear people playing my instruments in the nearby exhibit room—although, the sound could be a bit cacophonous at times.”

5 Mariya Gazumyan’s (Useless) Tools of Attachment, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, mixed media, stoneware, fired to cone 10, wood, hair from the artist’s daughter, 2016.

The conversation and collaboration challenge in April 2017 encouraged groups and classes to produce pieces together. Michelle “Mikka” Goldberg and Mike Bauer, both system administrators and long-time Mudflat students, collaborated on a project to make 150 conversation hearts in three sizes. “The initial inscriptions came from sayings on actual candy hearts—current, classic, and from other eras–and spread into hearts that should exist,” they said in their artist statement. “Many of the hearts did not turn out as intended, but much like candy conversation hearts themselves, we left even the misprints in.” The result was a joyous, crazy quilt of phrases and hearts—some broken—that viewers could rearrange at will.

Hammer explained that this challenge had her “work in a technique I’d never done (handbuilding), on a piece I’d never tried (sculpture), with a classmate I’d never met.”

Gervens thinks the Mudflat Challenge may be unique among pottery studios/schools, yet the concept could easily be adopted by other arts-and-crafts communities. “Since the goal here is to bring community members together to go down a road of exploration around a theme, I don’t think that’s unique to just working in clay,” she said.

“I feel like it’s been better than I could have hoped,” Hammer said.

Learn more about Mudflat Studios at http://mudflat.org.

the author Stephanie Schorow is a writer and clay artist living in the Boston area. To learn more, www.stephanieschorow.com.

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