Clay Culture: Phoenix City Guide

Whether you’re planning to visit (or move to) the Southwest to avoid the winter in colder climes or you’re looking for a ceramics-focused travel adventure, Phoenix, Arizona, should be at the top of your list.

Top Attractions

1 Your visit will likely start at Sky Harbor Airport (3400 E. Sky Harbor Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85034, www.skyharbor.com), which is one of the busiest airports in the country. The airport is home to an accredited museum with nearly 1000 pieces in its permanent collection, which is on view throughout the terminals. The rental car terminal also boasts an impressive collection of Dangos by Jun Kaneko.

For over 1000 years, ceramics has been a prominent part of culture in the Valley of the Sun. From early Ho’Hokum settlements to the proliferation of potters in present-day Phoenix, ceramics has been central to daily life. The Phoenix area is filled with inspiration for ceramic artists.

2 Chief among them is the Arizona State University (ASU) Art Museum Ceramics Research Center in Tempe (Brickyard Engineering, 699 S. Mill Ave. #108, Tempe, AZ 85281, https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu/visit/ceramics-research-center). With a collection of close to 4000 masterpieces (with nearly 700 on view) by artists like Robert Arneson, Lucie Rie, and Toshiko Takaezu, ASU has one of the most comprehensive contemporary ceramics collections in the US. The center’s extensive research archives lure researchers from around the world.

3 The Heard Museum in Phoenix (2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85004, https://heard.org) has one of the best collections of pottery and material culture from the Southwestern pueblos. They also feature a wide range of works by contemporary Native American artists.

4 The Desert Botanical Garden (1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Phoenix, AZ 85008, www.dbg.org) provides endless visual inspiration for artists of all stripes. They have over 21,000 plants, including over 1300 varieties of cactus alone. The work of Jun Kaneko is featured during the Garden’s 2017–18 season.

1 Outside view of the Lisa Sette Gallery. Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery, Phoenix.

Favorite Places to Visit

5 Cosanti (6433 E. Doubletree Ranch Rd., Paradise Valley, AZ, 85253, www.cosanti.com) was the home studio of architect and visionary Paolo Soleri, who also founded Arcosanti, an experimental community 80 miles north of Phoenix. Cosanti, which is located in Paradise Valley, consists mainly of concrete structures created through building and carving mounds of earth, then covering them with concrete shells. When the structures hardened, the earth was removed, leaving low-profile buildings that are energy-efficient in the brutal Arizona summers. Although Paolo Soleri passed away in 2013, his acolytes still continue his work, and continue to produce a line of ceramic and bronze bells that Soleri began producing in 1956.

Speaking of architecture, Scottsdale was home to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Talisen West studio. Major Wright buildings dot the valley, 6a including  the Biltmore Hotel (2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85016, www.arizonabiltmore.com),  6b ASU’s Gammage Auditorium (1200 S. Forest Ave., Tempe, AZ 85281, www.asugammage.com), and perhaps best of all,  6c the David and Gladys Wright House (4505 N. Rubicon Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85018, http://davidwrighthouse.org), a masterpiece built for his son out of cinder blocks, which were the specialty of David Wright’s business.

Arizona is also home to artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater, 7a (Coconino County, Arizona, http://rodencrater.com) which is located 180 miles north of Phoenix. Although Roden Crater is not yet open to the public, Phoenix has several major Turrell Sky Spaces, including one at 7b the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (7374 E. 2nd St., Scottsdale, AZ 85251, https://smoca.org/architecture/turrell-skyspace). Another, Air Apparent, 7c at ASU (Rural and Terrace Rds., Tempe, AZ 85287, https://skyspace.asu.edu), is best viewed at sunrise and sunset.

2 Heard Museum entrance with Allan Houser sculpture, Earth Song, 1978. Photo: Craig Smith.

3 Tony Jojola and Rosemary Lonewolf’s Artfence, 30 ft. (9 m) in length, glass, clay. Photo: Craig Smith, Heard Museum.

Artist Studios

For better or worse, Phoenix is a sprawling, thriving metropolis. The area rates as one of the most affordable areas for artists to live in. The cost of living here is relatively low, and the community of artists is well-developed. Young artists can afford to experiment and develop their portfolios with relatively little pressure. There are countless opportunities for shared studios and affordable industrial space.

Consequently, there are thousands of ceramic artists spread throughout the valley, taking and teaching classes at arts centers, community colleges, commercial studios, and universities. Their studios range from elaborate setups in the retirement community of Sun City to those in the historical districts of Phoenix to the rapidly-growing East Valley cities of Mesa and Gilbert.

Galleries and Museums

8 The ASU Art Museum (51 E. 10th St., Tempe, AZ 85281, https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu) is housed in an impressive 1991 building by architect Antoine Predock. The museum shows contemporary work and often highlights Latin American and Southwestern artists who interact with the university community through its extensive residency program.

9 The Phoenix Art Museum (1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85004, www.phxart.org) has a massive reclining Viola Frey sculpture on permanent display.

Locations 10–13 are all craft-positive community art centers and frequently host ceramic exhibitions.

10 Mesa Arts Center, (1 E. Main St., Mesa, AZ 85201, www.mesaartscenter.com)

11 The Tempe Arts Center, (700 W. Rio Salado, Tempe, AZ 85281, www.tempecenterforthearts.com)

12 The Shemer Art Center (5005 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85018, https://shemerartcenter.org)

4 View of the Tempe Center for the Arts at dusk. Photo: Grant Brummett Photography.

5 Garth Johnson and his daughter enjoying the Tempe Center for the Arts ceramics exhibition.

Locations 13–15 are all contemporary galleries that have ceramic artists in their stables.

13 Bentley Gallery, (215 E. Grant St., Phoenix, AZ 85004, https://bentleygallery.com)

14 Lisa Sette Gallery (210 E. Catalina Dr., Phoenix, AZ 85012, https://lisasettegallery.com)

15 Gebert Contemporary (7160 Main St., Scottsdale, AZ 85251, https://gebertartaz.com)

16 One of the most spectacular museums in the valley is Scottsdale’s Musical Instrument Museum (4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85050, https://mim.org), which was founded by Robert J. Ulrich, a former CEO of Target. A truly interactive experience, the museum provides visitors with wireless headphones that play streaming audio from instruments and exhibits as they view them.

Arts Funding

Arizona’s state arts funding is lean. That said, the Arizona Commission on the Arts has an excellent track record of providing modest grants to artists to help provide seed money for projects and professional development. Phoenix public art is some of the most robust in the nation, connecting local artists with immense opportunities. The cities of Tempe, Scottsdale, and Mesa all have solid public art programs that link artists with economic development as well.

6 Patricia Sannit walking through the clay at her exhibition, Time Stands Still, at Gerbert Contemporary Gallery, February 2016.

7 At the Bentley Gallery, works by Chris Gustin and Udo Noger. Photo: Bentley Gallery and Clutch Photos.

Ceramic Events and Suppliers

17 The biannual Tempe Arts Festival (310 S. Mill Ave., Suite A-201, Tempe, AZ 85281, www.tempefestivalofthearts.com) draws nearly 225,000 visitors each December and April.

Every February, the ASU Art Museum (see 2) hosts the ASU Art Museum Ceramic Studio Tour (https://asuartmuseum.asu.edu). Each year, more than fifteen artists throughout the valley open their studios and host dozens of other artists from across the state.

18 Marjon Ceramics (3434 W. Earll Dr., Phoenix, AZ 85017, www.marjonceramics.com), the area’s largest ceramic supply company, hosts an annual “Clay Olympics” that draws artists from across the valley to participate in events that balance education and tomfoolery in equal measures.

There are also multiple Empty Bowls events throughout the area that provide an important connection between artists and food activism.

Collector Base and Support Network

There is a long history of support for ceramics in the valley with both affluent and modest homeowners decorating their homes with handmade ceramics, as well as a network of ambitious art collectors across all media. In the 1950s and 60s, Scottsdale, along with Santa Fe, was one of the nation’s leading hubs for craft galleries. Major galleries like the Hand and the Spirit/Joanne Rapp Gallery drew a national audience of collectors.

Educational Opportunities

Arizona State University (see 2) has competitive undergraduate and graduate programs that are run by three full-time faculty members, Kurt Weiser, Susan Beiner, and Sam Chung. In 2016, US News and World Report ranked ASU’s graduate program 7th in the nation. The ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center also provides students with an incomparable resource when it comes to research, exhibitions, and internships.

Most community colleges in the Phoenix area have strong ceramics programs.

19 Phoenix College (1202 W. Thomas Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85013, www.phoenixcollege.edu)

20 Mesa Community College (1833 W. Southern Ave., Mesa, AZ 85202, www.mesacc.edu)

21 South Mountain Community College (7050 S. 24th St., Phoenix, AZ 85042, www.southmountaincc.edu)

22 Paradise Valley Community College (18401 N. 32nd St., Phoenix, AZ 85032, www.paradisevalley.edu)

8 Outside view of the Mesa Arts Center campus studios.

9 Sergei Isupov’s sculptures on view in the Mesa Arts Center Gallery. Photos: Mesa Arts Center.

Shared Wood-kiln Space

There are productive connections between the Phoenix area and northern Arizona, which is home to most of the state’s wood-firing community.

23 For decades, Don Reitz’ studio in Clarkdale (2724 Sullivan Ranch Rd., Clarkdale, AZ 86324, https://reitzranch.org) served the wood-firing community. His ranch was recently purchased by artist Sheryl Leigh-Davault, who is reviving the kilns and keeping Don Reitz’ legacy alive.

24 Northern Arizona University (S. San Francisco St., Flagstaff, AZ 86011, https://nau.edu) in Flagstaff remains a major hub for wood firing in Arizona.

Industrial Ceramic Companies

25 Mission Building Products (4850 W. Buckeye Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85043, http://missionclay.com) is a Phoenix company that produces over 15,000 tons of vitrified clay pipe (VCP) annually that is used mainly in the sewage industry. Since 1979, Mission Clay has been opening its factory to a diverse range of artists like Don Reitz, Jun Kaneko, Lauren Mabry, and John Toki. Mission Clay’s owner, Bryan Vansell, is an unflagging supporter of the field. Recently, the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center exhibited clay pipes decorated by Bay Area artist Tom Franco, and his brother, actor James Franco.

the author Garth Johnson, is the Paul Phillips and Sharon Sullivan Curator of Ceramics at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. He was formerly the curator at the Arizona State University Ceramics Research Center. He also served as the artistic director at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, and was an associate professor at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California.

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