The Potters Guild of Ann Arbor celebrated a milestone anniversary by organizing a collaborative project between members and specific sites in a botanical garden.
In September 2018, the Potters Guild of Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the oldest cooperative ceramics studios in the US, formed a planning committee to consider the best way to commemorate the guild’s 70th anniversary. Having marked previous guild anniversaries with exhibitions, workshops, and special publications, planners were challenged to come up with something that was both original and representative of the guild’s values. With the planning committee leading the way, the membership decided that the unifying theme for this milestone should be collaboration, and that the project they undertook should demonstrate both creative collaboration among members and external collaboration reflecting the guild’s place in the community.
What emerged was an anniversary exhibition that would not only showcase members’ creative output, but also express the relationship between artistic expression and respect for the preservation of nature, a core value of the guild’s membership. It would be an interactive public event demonstrating the transformation of clay into freestanding sculptures that reflected and were reflected upon by the beauty and complexity of nature.
The next question was what setting could accommodate and do justice to such an ambitious goal? The most obvious answer was another long-established Ann Arbor institution, the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Guild planning chair Jeri Hollister approached Matthaei administrators with the idea of an art-and-nature collaboration, and they responded enthusiastically, offering the Great Lakes Gardens section of their property as the installation site of the planned sculpture towers exhibit, jointly named “Garden of Earthy Delights.”
History and Collaboration
Before unpacking the details of the project, here’s some background on the two organizations involved.
The Potters Guild was founded in 1949 by a group of nine professional and amateur potters, beginning operations in leased facilities near the University of Michigan campus. The new co-op studio was incorporated as a non-profit and established on core values of cooperation, self-sufficiency, and non-discrimination. In 1963, having outgrown its leased facilities, the guild purchased its current building where 45–50 members operating within a carefully evolved set of rules and procedures perform all necessary day-to-day work and maintain the full inventory of supplies and equipment necessary to a working studio. The guild also offers two semesters per year of classes for up to 20 non-member adult students, as well as two seasonal tent sales at which both members and students have an opportunity to sell their work. The classes and the sales have been especially important in fulfilling the guild’s public-service mission, establishing its valued place in the Ann Arbor community, and ensuring its financial security.
The University of Michigan Botanical Gardens and Arboretum were established in 1907, and in 1962, the Botanical Gardens were relocated to their present site on 200 acres donated by Frederick C. and Mildred H. Matthaei plus adjoining acreage purchased by the university. The renamed Matthaei Botanical Gardens are a teaching and research arm of the university with a mission of “promoting environmental enjoyment, stewardship, and sustainability through education, research, and interaction with the natural world.” In addition to its higher-education function, Matthaei is a thriving community resource, open to the public for its enjoyment of and communion with nature. Finally, and specific to the Garden of Earthy Delights collaboration, as part of a major university. Matthaei Botanical Gardens gives local and national artists as well as University of Michigan student and faculty artists a place to display their work for the public to enjoy and comment on it.
As guild members began the implementation phase of the project, it was decided that a guide and mentor with relevant experience would be necessary to ensure its effective and efficient momentum. To that end, project planners persuaded Tom Phardel, a well-known area artist and art educator, to join the project. In that role, he would provide participating guild members with a six-month master class, advice on logistics, and the fabrication of the infrastructures on which the ceramic elements of the sculpture towers would be mounted.
Eight separate teams of three to seven members soon formed, and team members made exploratory visits to Matthaei to see which of the separate biomes within Great Lakes Gardens best suited their preliminary ideas. Two teams chose the Woodlands area for their installations, two chose Open Dunes, and the other four teams, respectively, chose Cobble Beach, Wet Woodlands, Prairie, and Grassland Alvar.
As their sculptural designs developed, team members started to get their hands dirty in earnest, and project implementation began to pick up speed, or at least as much speed as drying times, firing schedules, and the novel, group-oriented creative process would allow. Project teams employed the full range of traditional ceramic methods and tools—the potter’s wheel, press molds, coil building, slab construction, and sculpting—often in combination, to create the elements that comprise each sculpture. Stoneware clay was the predominant material, and elements were fired between 2200–2400°F (1204–1316°C) in either an oxidation or reduction environment, depending on the desired outcome. With clay work and firings moving along well and the sculpture towers nearing completion, drafts of all exhibit materials (signs, a self-guide to the exhibit, website materials, etc.) were scheduled for completion on March 1, 2020. The Potters Guild paid for the clay and all production costs of the sculpture tower exhibit; Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the guild shared the cost of the marketing related materials. The guild owns all but one of the sculptures and has prepared an outdoor sculpture garden adjacent to the studio building in which they are installed. One sculpture was donated by the creating team to one of its members who has installed it at her house.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened! Needless to say, the exhibit installation and opening schedule went out the window, and the project was put on hold for the next 12 months pending much improved circumstances in the pandemic crisis.
Flash forward to early 2021. With a mixture of prudence and optimism, the Potters Guild and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens agreed to a new Garden of Earthy Delights exhibition opening in June, with the public reception scheduled toward the end of the exhibit on September 26. After months of planning, of uncommon agreement and cooperation among artists and organizations, and an unprecedented quantity and quality of sculptural output by the guild members, visitors were able to see a wide variety of approaches and the imaginations of dozens of individual artists working in unison. The resulting sculptures reflect the characteristics of the biomes in which they were installed, with the artists’ interpretations ranging from naturalistic and representational to abstract. There is even a whimsical nod to the timeless role of fantasy and myth in humankind’s communion with nature.
For the guild, this collaboration fittingly commemorates those clay artisans who have come before us, not only in the preceding 70 years of our studio, but in the preceding 70 centuries of humans shaping earth into enduring forms and husbanding the natural environment that makes that possible.
the author Joe Szutz has been a ceramic and mixed-media sculptor since 1995 and a member of the Potters Guild since 2015. Prior to 2015, he was a ceramics student at the Roswell Visual Arts Center, Penland School of Crafts, and Oakland Community College. He was a member of the Clay Gallery in Ann Arbor from 2007–2014.