SPOTLIGHT: Kansas City

by neil thrun

NASA Chawan, 2012, Tom Sachs
Porcelain with engine inlay, 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ x 3 1/2″
Photo: courtesy of Baldwin Gallery

Whether it’s high art sculpture, cups and plates, or hipster bongs, Kansas City is about to become the national destination for ceramic art of any variety. The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) is hosting its 50th Anniversary Conference in KC this March, and with it dozens of events and thousands of artists, educators, collectors and enthusiasts. In addition to four days of conference events at Bartle Hall Convention Center, from March 16-19, there are about 40 galleries, museums, colleges, non-profits and other groups hosting over 60 different exhibitions of ceramic art and there are another 11 exhibitions in the nearby city of Lawrence, Kansas. But that’s just the NCECA approved programming. Plenty of other galleries, studios and groups will be jumping on board with their own unsanctioned events.

Liz Lerman will give the conference’s keynote address. An unusual choice, Lerman is not a ceramicist, but instead a dancer, choreographer, educator and writer. Lerman’s address will explain her educational theory called “Critical Response Process,” followed by a participatory event where attendees will try out her ideas. Building on the keynote address, there will be dozens of other lectures with titles like “Digital Applications in Ceramic Pedagogy,” “Mini-Heat: a small-scale, fast fire wood kiln,” and “Who Am I?”

The conference itself will take place at Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. A KC landmark, Bartle Hall is an unusual modernist building, roughly eight football fields in length, it spans north to south and over a sunken highway interchange. On top of the convention center are four giant metal and concrete pylons, each adorned with modernist aluminum sculptures by R.M. Fischer, titled “Sky Stations.” In the 20 years since the sculptures were installed, KC has recast itself as an art city. Looking at these enormous and unnecessary spires jutting out of Bartle Hall, you immediately get the message: Kansas City is a modern metropolis and it has the art to prove it.

NCECA would seem to agree. When asked about why they picked Kansas City, conference organizers explained, “NCECA chose Kansas City because of its important place in the American studio ceramics movement especially since the end of WWII,” and that “The region remains rich with some of the best public and private collections of ceramic art and high caliber educational programs that continue to draw talent and encourage it to establish a base of creative production.”

White Cut Charger, 2015, Jeremy Briddell, Ceramic, 27″ diameter
Photo: Courtesy Haw Contemporary

Most of those collections, studios, schools and galleries are just south of the Bartle Hall in the Crossroads Arts District, and almost all of them are getting involved in the NCECA conference. At the Belger Arts Center and Belger Crane Yard Studios, there will be numerous exhibitions of artwork by resident artists and alumni. The Crane Yard will have an exhibition by renowned local painter, sculptor and entrepreneur Peregrine Honig, along with Beth Cavener, Jenny Kindler and Lindsay Pichaske. Called “Objectify,” the exhibition features sculptures that use animals as social, political and environmental metaphors.

Some of KC’s biggest and oldest galleries will be hosting official NCECA events. The Charlotte Street Foundation’s La Esquina will have “Across the Table, Across the Land,” featuring artists engaging in socially oriented art projects on the topics of food, community and activism. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Kansas City Artists Coalition will host “Aesthetic Influence: The Art of Chinese Scholar Rocks” with a ceramic interpretation of the ornamental rocks’ thousand-plus-year legacy.

The Leedy-Voulkos Art Center will host three official NCECA exhibitions: the “NCECA 2016 Emerging Artist Exhibition,” the “National Student Juried Exhibition,” and the “Shapers of the Field: NCECA Honors and Fellows” which will include artwork by the venerable 85-year-old ceramic artist Jim Leedy himself. “He’s the last of a generation of abstract sculptors who really pushed the boundaries of clay,” says his daughter and gallery director, Stephanie Leedy. “He and his generation really laid the groundwork for ceramics studio art in America.”

As a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) for over 40 years, and a one-time honorary NCECA member, it makes sense to host exhibitions of both veteran and student artwork at the space Leedy founded. Though, having the largest floor plan of any KC gallery also helps. Founded 31 years ago in the old Folgers Coffee factory, the gallery was named after Leedy’s friend and fellow ceramics pioneer Peter Voulkos. The space contains both galleries and private live/work spaces on the top floor, studios coveted by emerging and veteran KC artists.

“They call him the godfather of the Crossroads,” says the artist’s granddaughter and Leedy-Voulkos gallery manager Erin Woodworth. “Before my grandfather created this gallery, so many of his students would graduate and leave for New York or LA. Before the city officially renamed this neighborhood the Crossroads, everyone just called it Leedyville.”

From left: Kept (Variation in Smoke), 2015, Beth Cavener
Resin infused refractory material, paint, rope, wooden base 24″ x 12″ x 28″ Photo: courtesy of the artist

Collective Identity-The Legacy of Apprenticeship Under Toshiko Takaezu at Haw Contemporary. Photo: Geoff Booras

Gone A, 2013, Arlene Shechet
Glazed ceramic, glazed kiln shelf, steel base, 59 1/4″ x 20 1/4″ x 20 1/2″
Photo: Alan Wiener Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, © Arlene Shechet


Further south of the Crossroads and Leedyville is Midtown, home to KC’s oldest art institutions. The Kansas City Art Institute will be holding exhibitions of student and alumni artwork across many of its campuses galleries. The school’s associated gallery, the H&R Block Artspace, will be exhibiting Simone Leigh’s ceramic and video installations in “I ran to the rock to hide my face the rock cried out no hiding place,” addressing topics in African art, ethnography, folk art, and the female body.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, an enormous public collection of ancient, classical, modern and contemporary art, is exhibiting the “NCECA 2016 Invitational: Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change.” Curated collaboratively by NCECA members and museum curators, the show will feature a variety of experimental multimedia artists who use clay, alongside video, installation, 3D modeling and social activism. Nearby, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art will be hosting “A Whisper of Where It Came From,” a six-person exhibition featuring luminaries Sterling Ruby and Arlene Shechet, exploring contemporary multi-media practices that push the medium far beyond traditional associations. Further south, the eccentric National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, will be exhibiting works from the largest collection of finescale, aka very tiny, miniatures, including ceramics and ceramic toys.

In addition to the city’s institutions and nonprofits, a range of the city’s galleries will also hold NCECA-related programming. Garcia Squared, established by Israel Garcia in 2011 to introduce the work of national and international Latino artists to the Kansas City scene, will present “From the Wheel to the Wall,” organized by Robert Lugo, exploring the unlikely intersection of graffiti and ceramics. Down in the West Bottoms, an old industrial railyard district, collaborative venue Plug Projects will be showing Atlanta-based Christina West’s jarring polychromatic figurative works juxtaposed with works by Joey Watson, a graduate of KCAI who incorporates newer technologies into his fabrication strategies. About a block east, Haw Contemporary promotes two shows highlighting the legacy of iconic figures Toshiko Takaezu and Ken Ferguson through the work of their associates and mentees. The work and legacy of Ferguson in particular, a founding member of NCECA who served as chairman of the ceramics department at KCAI for over 30 years, will be a unifying theme throughout the NCECA exhibitions, with works on view at Leedy-Voulkos, Belger, KCAI, Alice C. Sabatini Gallery, Bracker’s Good Earth Clays, and The Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, in Sedalia, MO.

Left to Right: Untitled (Conversation Piece: Lips & Legs), 2015, Dustin Yager, Ceramic
Photo: Peter Lee, courtesy of the artist

Ritual Implements for Two, 2014, Joey Watson
Colored porcelain, 3D printed ABS plastic, cast glass, melamine, seat foam, electro-luminescent wire and prismatic plastic, 30″ x 30″ x 20″
Photo: EG Schempf, courtesy Plug Projects

Noir Buisson, 2015, Rain Harris, Black clay, wood, resin, metal
10 1/2″ x 10 1/2″ x 13 1/2″ Photo: Ross Redmon, courtesy Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art

In addition to these larger, scheduled shows, many of Kansas City’s younger artists will be hosting their own unsanctioned events, showcasing underground counterculture artists and the city’s DIY movement. One such event, “Objet Weed-Craft Pop Up” will feature the work of the Objet collective, including event organizer Dean Roper’s ceramic bongs and pipes in the shape of Cheetos, Pokémon, and other pop symbols. “The NCECA conference itself is not important to me at all,” laughs Roper. “I am really interested in stirring up some ideas about what ceramics can be, and to inform people of some really amazing artists using clay that operate outside of the ceramics community.”

In short, NCECA will be a big mess of contradictions. The conference lectures will attract teachers and theorists debating the future of art education, the galleries and bus tours will gather hundreds of wealthy and casual collectors, events like “Across the Table, Across the Land” will bring in more socially minded activists and organizers and everywhere there will be ceramicists, young and old, traditional and experimental, who want to share their work with the public.

“This will likely be the biggest art event that has ever happened in Kansas City,” says Stephanie Leedy. “Ceramics has always had a foothold in Kansas City, primarily because of the Art Institute and all the prominent artists, teachers and students that have passed through it. We have such venues, so many art spaces, so close together. There isn’t a better place to hold a national meeting of ceramicists.”

Lead Image:
NASA Chawan, 2012, Tom Sachs <br/>
Porcelain with engine inlay, 2 1/2″ x 3 1/2″ x 3 1/2″<br/>
Photo: courtesy of Baldwin Gallery

Preview Image:
Pride Storm, 2015, Shannon Goff
Glazed ceramics, 16″ x 18″ x 15″
Photo: PD Rearick, courtesy: Garcia Squared, Kansas City