Our field has many artists who, over the course of long careers, have excelled at developing and advancing their artwork and the discipline simultaneously. They make work that integrates commensurate technical skill; conceptual rigor; specific, well-researched inspiration; knowledge of ceramic history; intense curiosity; individual style and perspective; and an interest in engaging the imaginations of their audiences. Many share a belief that mentors have played key roles in shaping their careers, and are dedicated to taking on that role for other artists. In this issue, we feature several artists who have worked for many years to guide up-and-coming ceramic artists, while also challenging expectations and constantly probing their own studio practices.
Dan Anderson finds inspiration in the relics of industry that dot the Midwestern landscape and recall an earlier time he remembers from childhood. While focusing on these symbolic and weathered forms in his vessels and sculptures, he maintains an understanding of the complex ways in which mechanization altered the fabric of society and changed individual lives, while also meditating on the meanings created and revealed by the passage of time. Through his investment over three decades in teaching and continuing to mentor others, he has helped countless artists find their own voices, including one of the other artists featured in this issue, Jane Shellenbarger.
Shellenbarger’s affinity for clay started during childhood. An aptitude for numerous disciplines led her to briefly explore other fields of study, but guidance from family and early mentors led her back to study and then build a career in clay. In her functional vessel work, she concentrates on pared-down forms, often those that contain or pour, that exude what she calls a “crude elegance.” Her teaching, over the course of more than 20 years, has focused on asking students to work outside their comfort zone, try new techniques, and find their own solutions to the prompts she provides.
David Roberts has spent decades exploring the possibilities for evoking expressive surfaces and detailed patterns using the naked-raku technique. Through his pinch-formed vessels featuring smoke-fired patterns, his teaching, and his numerous workshops, Roberts has helped to expand the range of possibilities with raku techniques and inspired generations of students.
Over the course of his long career, Walter Ostrom has consistently subverted expectations and modeled the same rigor and critical approach to his own work that he expected of his students. His perspective on the importance of accessible art, questioning hierarchies, and participatory engagement in all aspects of life helped to encourage exploration of earthenware techniques during a time when stoneware was more prevalent. His political perspective and deep knowledge of ceramic art history are evident in the vessels he created over the course of his career as well as the way he approached teaching and guiding his students.
Three views of Malcolm Mobutu Smith’s Glad Hand, 17 in. (18 cm) in width, handbuilt stoneware, monoprint image transfer, slip, glaze, 2021–2022. Photos: Osamu James Nakagawa. “Evermore Nevermore,” at the Hunterdon Art Museum (https://hunterdonartmuseum.org) in Clinton, New Jersey, through April 23.
In his Spotlight article, Malcolm Mobutu Smith, whose work is pictured below, discusses the importance of mentors and students, pursuing knowledge, and improvisation in his 40-year career. Recognizing the role that connections and networks play in enriching and sustaining a career as an artist led to intentionality in seeking and fostering these relationships. Along with art history, his varied inspiration for his work—from jazz to comic books and calligraphy to hip hop—has led to his highly individual and experimental sculptures and vessels.
Explore the work made during various points in these pioneering and influential artists’ careers. As mentorship is a key throughline for all of the artists, both in terms of how they built their carers and how they in turn guide others, one takeaway for all of us is to find, foster, and offer these relationships in our own lives.