MN NICE: A New Educational Model


1 McKnight Resident Artist, Claudia Alvarez, demonstrating her quick coil building technique.

I have always loved being an educator. After 10 years teaching at universities, community colleges, and art centers in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, I came to believe that there was a gap in the ceramic education system; many students were eager to develop a body of work and expand their knowledge, but there was no place for rigorous ceramic study outside of the traditional BFA/MFA program. Entering (or reentering) academia is impossible for many people with real-life obligations of family, employment, and financial or time constraints. I began to imagine a model that was rich in experience and information but flexible and responsive. I also wanted to bridge existing resources within the Minnesota arts community, connecting the often separate worlds of community studios, working professionals, and universities. The new model would appeal to art educators, serious hobbyists, post-baccalaureate students, self-taught artists, and recent retirees.


I invited Sarah Millfelt, Director of Northern Clay Center (NCC) in Minneapolis, to collaborate in piloting this alternative educational program. NCC was an ideal partner, with more than 20 years of experience providing educational programming, relationships with local ceramic artists, a well-equipped facility, a good-sized staff, and established residency and exhibition programs that attract artists from all over the world.

Over the next year, we designed an eight-month ceramic intensive—Minnesota New Institute for Ceramic Education (MN NICE)—intended to give students an overview of ceramic history, provide advanced technical and material training, and encourage awareness and debate around larger questions in the field of ceramics. Another major component of the program was an emphasis on critical dialog to help students build a body of work reflecting their own ideas as makers. Upon graduation, students receive a certificate and further mentorship hours with working professionals. Additionally, their work is featured in a group exhibition at NCC.

2 Group critique at Northern Clay Center with Amy Santoferraro (right), McKnight Resident Artist.

The Inagural Class

We launched MN NICE in the fall of 2014. Our inaugural class had eight students: six from Minnesota, one from California, and one from Estonia (who relocated to Minnesota for the duration of the program). Each student had different motivations for enrolling. Some had been working professionally in ceramics for many years—selling and exhibiting their work—but felt that they wanted the recognition a degree provides. Others, because of recent family or employment changes, were ready to shift from hobbyists to professionals. One individual wanted to use the program to prepare a portfolio and apply to graduate school, and was ultimately accepted into an MFA program at Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. Although the group ranged in age from 23 to 61, the intergenerational aspect was rewarding for all involved. Younger students in the group brought technological literacy and an awareness of current trends, while older students brought professional and life skills, and decades of experience in clay.

We organized the program into trimesters, with two months of in-class study and a month off for intensive studio time between the trimesters. The program runs October/November (break in December), January/February (break in March), and April/May (with an exhibition in late September). Tuition for each trimester is $1500 with a one-time $300 materials fee.

Students can elect to rent space at NCC, work from their own off-site studio, or access shared classroom space. There are additional costs for those who choose to rent space at NCC or use the kilns and equipment. Students who have common studio space at NCC have access the facilities 24 hours per day but do not have access to storage or private work space. Participants in the program are expected to work a minimum of 15 hours in the studio outside of class meetings.

3 MN NICE student mixing glazes for material science project.

4 Victoria Christen discussing her work with students in the NCC gallery.

Academically, the program includes both group and independent instruction to accommodate varying student goals and levels of proficiency. The group meets each week for a five-hour classroom seminar covering ceramic history, material science, and professional practice. There is also a weekly activity outside of class—a studio visit, artist lecture, demonstration, museum trip, or private gallery talk with a curator.

Additionally, students have individual, bi-weekly studio critiques. Because Minnesota is rich with ceramic artists, many with long-standing ties to NCC, we are able to invite nationally recognized artists and professors for studio visits. This builds bridges with artists working both in and outside of academia, and all guest presenters are paid for their time. It also takes advantage of the many ceramic artists visiting Northern Clay through the exhibitions program and the McKnight Ceramic Artist Residency.

Contact with visiting artists has been a delightfully successful aspect of the program. This year’s McKnight Resident Artists—Claudia Alvarez, Jae Won Lee, and Amy Santoferraro—each brought different processes, concepts, and energy to the group. They met individually with students and were invited to present a workshop, highlighting their approach to material. Alvarez taught a hands-on session on quick coil building. After demonstrating, she gave each student 25 pounds of clay, set a timer, and had them make fast, three-dimensional gestural sculptures of common objects. The students worked with focused attention and laughed as they went from frustration to elation within five minutes time. During each artist’s three-month residency, students interacted with them  professionally and socially, discussing work in the studio, attending openings, and socializing after hours.

We are also able to take advantage of the many working studio artists in the area. On one snowy January morning, we carpooled to Robert Briscoe’s studio in Harris, Minnesota. Through 40 years working as a studio potter, Briscoe’s experience making and selling work is profound. He recounted setting up the annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Studio Tour and Sale, outlining details from designing a mailer to changes the tour had to make to accommodate a growing audience. He showed us the vertical pug mill he designed and his beautiful collection of pots. Many students commented on the privilege of having such a candid experience with Briscoe.

5 Studio visit with S.C. Rolf, a MN NICE mentor and affiliated artist.

I often hear from prospective students and professionals in the field how much people are looking for serious feedback about their work. Focused, one-on-one dialog is hard to find outside of an academic environment, and the studio visits we arrange with affiliated artists have become the backbone of MN NICE. Having someone listen, question, encourage, and challenge is what creates change in the studio and deepens the students’ understanding of the concepts introduced in the group sessions.

As the year progressed, I witnessed students’ vocabulary and perspective evolve—one student observed the way a line in a rim was reintroduced in the body. Another connected the work of a contemporary artist to Tang Dynasty tri-colored ware. Students also became more confident and insightful in discussing work, both in formal critiques and late at night in the studio. These were clearly bright and talented makers, who, through a series of structured experiences and a healthy dose of risk-taking, were able to grow as artists.

Logistics/Starting Up

Establishing this program has been a practical and creative challenge for all involved because it sits outside a formal academic structure. During our planning year, we brought on Dustin Yager, Head of Education and Artist Services Programs at NCC, to help think through logistics, content, and administration. NCC absorbed the costs of staff time during the development of the program, although the current 2015 price per student does factor in all direct and indirect costs. In many instances, MN NICE had access to visiting artists who were brought to NCC through other programs, such as residencies and exhibitions. This allowed us to maximize artists’ visits and subsidize the real cost associated with travel and lodging through the use of other grant monies. NCC’s established infrastructure in terms of promotion, staffing, and physical facilities was critical as we transitioned MN NICE from concept to reality.

6 Juss Heinsalu’s Chirality, 14 in. (36 cm) in length sand-casted porcelain and glaze, glass, wood, 2015.

7 Vered Binyamini’s Eruption and Torment; to 26 in. (66 cm) in height, white earthenware, 2015.

A program like this could have been developed without Northern Clay Center as a partner. However, it would have taken much longer to launch, the cost per participant would have been dramatically higher, and enrollment may have taken longer to secure without NCC’s institutional reputation. Over the year, I have witnessed how it has, in turn, added value to NCC as an organization, strengthening concurrent educational programming, building connections between the Clay Center and the larger Minnesota ceramic community, and providing visiting artists additional opportunities for meaningful engagement during their stay. The collaboration made a lot of sense for both NCC and for me.


The feedback from this first group was overwhelmingly positive. Students felt they gained a number of skills including learning to focus on, articulate, and make their ideas evident in their pieces; growing more expressive and confident discussing both their work and others’ in a critique setting; learning to mix and adjust glazes, giving them control and understanding of materials; and identifying supporting resources and concrete steps necessary to build a viable ceramic business. They also felt that they had rare opportunities to talk frankly with established, working artists about their own artistic development, as well as the business of ceramics. Many students voiced a desire for the support and engagement the program provides to continue, and we are looking at ways to extend critical components of the program through a second year. As we wrap up the first year of MN NICE, all of us invested in the program are excited to see what comes next for each of these participating artists.

Thinking back on my own graduate school experience, I recognize that having a group of peers, whom you know intimately, is a life-long benefit. They become a support network as you move through your professional life. I had hoped to create this sense of community and shared experience for the students, and soon realized that it evolved naturally as they shared meals, carpooled, and fired kilns. Being vulnerable and overcoming challenges together was also critical to the success of the program. That kind of trust requires a leap of faith, and I was lucky to have a group of students in this inaugural class who were willing and ready to take that risk—with each other and with me.

8 Robyn Peterson’s serving dishes, to 16 in. (41 cm) in length, stoneware, fired to cone 10, 2015.

For more information on the MN NICE program, check out and visit the blog at

the author Ursula Hargens is co-founder and Program Head of the Minnesota New Institute for Ceramic Education (MN NICE). She received an MFA from Alfred University and an MA in Art & Art Education from Columbia University, Teachers College. In addition to working as a studio artist, she is a committed educator and a three-time recipient McKnight Artist Fellowship. To learn more visit


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