Using Ceramic Sculpture to Start a Dialog


Figures/busts from the “Color Theory” exhibition. From left to right: He’s cool but he doesn’t really act black; The Crossroads; The Blue Wall; I can’t let you in the club with that hat bro; How do I fit into this?; About the best we can do for ya; The Threat. All pieces: various dimensions, earthenware, underglaze, gold luster, acrylic wash, oils, 2016.

At a time when racial tensions dominate the news, Nathan Murray’s ceramic sculptures celebrate the beauty and complexity of diversity. Nathan, who is bi-racial, embeds personal stories into the works, hoping to invite the viewer in and start up a dialog. Ultimately, it is his hope that these conversations will help build the understanding that despite our outward differences, we are all alike on the inside.

In this post, an excerpt from the March 2017 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Lauren Karle explains how the ceramic sculpture of Nathan Murray attempts to unify while celebrating the differences between cultures. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

PS. The focus of theMarch 2017 issue of Ceramics Monthly is Inclusivity in Clay. Check out the full issue to learn more about Nathan Murray’s work and a wide range of artists’ perspectives on topics that range from sexual orientation to socioeconomic status.

A Ceramic Sculptor Hopes to Build Understanding Between Races

Murray uses the human figure to evoke reactions and engage people in a non-confrontational way. Labeling his sculpture as racial or as black art would be to engage in exactly the kind of categorizing that he is working against. Through his work, he asks people to deconstruct categories in order to see things from other perspectives. His work celebrates the positive things that each culture contributes to our world and encourages people to listen, learn, and appreciate rather than employ stereotypes and raise boundaries. Murray’s approach to counteracting racism involves engagement and empathy. While he knows that no one is right or wrong, he finds the best place to start is through acknowledging differences. He welcomes questions and conversations, affirming that, “disagreement is ok. If you offend me, I’ll tell you, but open dialog is critical. Ultimately we are all family in this together.”

One reason stereotypes are so dangerous is that they create expectations. Murray describes how early-childhood experiences affected him. As a second grader, he was blamed for something that he did not do. As the only black student in the classroom he was assumed to be guilty. He was never expected to go to college, let alone earn a graduate degree. Society at large, some of his teachers, and occasionally even family members had low expectations. Part of him turned off in response, and little experiences grew exponentially to the point where he could easily have been one of the people who fell through the cracks. Murray describes how seeking understanding is better than imposing beliefs or setting expectations based on stereotypes.

Equally dangerous is living with color blindness—failing to recognize the implications of racial appearance. Murray explains that his mother’s color blindness impacted him as a child. He knew that he looked different, but he didn’t understand how deeply that would affect his life. He didn’t care how society saw him, but with time he learned that society would treat him in certain ways nonetheless. Color blindness is great, but it’s not reality. White privilege allows some people to be color blind—we can be blissfully ignorant because race doesn’t have to mean anything in our lives. To counteract that ignorance, it is important not to approach all people as if they were the same, but rather to treat them as individuals with whom we can seek understanding.

Studio Shot 2- Nathan Murray

Nathan Murray in his studio surrounded by his work.

While Murray uses his work as a vehicle for conversation and social commentary, he also lives his mission through teaching. He is currently an instructor at the LUX Center for the Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska. While people take his classes to learn ceramics, he also views his work with them as an opportunity for open dialog. Through everyday interactions as well—at the grocery store or gas station, or with colleagues—Murray tries to live with an open heart. He seeks understanding and treats others with the compassion with which he wants to be treated.

In Murray’s MFA thesis is a quote from American social critic Cornell West that embodies key aspects of Murray’s own thoughts:

“We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”


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