Ceramics Monthly: After retiring from your administrative roles, first as department chair and then as dean of the University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts, how did you reorient yourself to full-time studio work?
Bob Shay: There are two answers to that question. Reorienting myself to the studio was incredibly easy. When I was initially appointed department chair back in 1986, I promised myself I’d remain active in the studio, acknowledging that it would have to be on a significantly abbreviated basis. I intuitively knew that it was going to be important for my own equilibrium and as a means to establish (and maintain) credibility within the context of my leadership role. Over the years, that commitment became more and more difficult to honor but I don’t think there was ever a protracted period when I completely abandoned the studio.
Secondly, even when I was barely active in the studio, I was constantly imagining pieces I was going to somehow miraculously make. By the time I left administration, I was like a kid in a candy store in terms of the huge backlog and variety of pieces floating around in my head. In any event, the bounce back was natural and long overdue.
CM: How has your work changed after the time spent away from making?
BS: It’s difficult to say how the work changed. I spent that first year out of the office at various residencies regaining my “studio legs.” Probably the best of the residencies was the three months at the Red Lodge Clay Center in Red Lodge, Montana, where I vividly remember blowing up several weeks worth of work in my first bisque firing. I was so disheartened I began to wonder if 25 years of maneuvering my way around people instead of clay were just too many to overcome.
In retrospect, the single most significant obstacle was a lack of focus, probably the result of the backlog of too many creative and often unrelated ideas. It didn’t bother me at first because I felt that I had the unusual and enviable luxury of having established my identity in administration and could now afford to make work more or less unimpeded by such constraints as the need to establish a single, identifiable body of work and the need to assertively promote that work. I believed, perhaps incorrectly, that I was largely exempt from having to re-establish a studio career. However, after what amounted to several frustrating years, it became clear that focusing my studio efforts was overdue and for better or for worse it was important to work within the limitations of what has become known as signature work.
Since being back in the studio, I’ve only half-sarcastically referred to myself as a re-emerging artist. Perhaps now that the common denominators are falling into place and the work has some coherency, I’ll be able to drop the “re” from emerged.