LSU’s football team isn’t the only university program consistently ranked in the top ten.
Just out of sight of walkways students and faculty tread daily; tucked away in a nearly ninety-year-old building, the LSU Ceramics program has quietly developed a reputation as one of the best in the nation.
Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report ranked the ceramics graduate program ninth best in the country, behind such arts powerhouses as the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University and the Rhode Island School of Design. It is a top-ten ranking the program has enjoyed for more than a decade.
Ceramics is one of five fine arts concentrations offered in the LSU School of Art. Compared with most programs on campus, ceramics is tiny. Currently it has about two dozen undergraduate majors and a half-dozen master’s students, although the number of students taking courses is actually higher when non-majors are included. The program offers a four-year bachelor of fine arts degree for undergraduates and a three-year master of fine arts degree for graduate students.
Faculty members Andy Shaw and Michaelene Walsh oversee the program. Both are graduates of the top-ranked New York State College of Ceramics. Walsh has been at LSU for thirteen years, while Shaw arrived six years ago.
Shaw said one of the reasons he accepted the job was the graduate program’s top-ten ranking. “That was appealing to me,” he said. Another attraction was the quality of the students. “The students who come to our graduate program are pretty amazing,” Shaw said. “They come really well-prepared.”
They also go on to achieve bigger things after they graduate. For example:
- Kyle Bauer (MFA, 2011) is an artist in residence at Baltimore Clayworks in Maryland.
- Andrew Gilliatt (MFA, 2011) is a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, whose specialized slip-cast process has been publicized in Pottery Making Illustrated and in a soon-to-be-released DVD put together by Ceramic Arts Quarterly.
- Adrienne Lynch (MFA, 2011) is an artist in residence at the Roswell Art Center West in Roswell, Georgia, who also has been published in Ceramics: Art and Perception, a prominent international arts journal.
- Roberta Massuch (MFA, 2013) is an adjunct associate professor at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.
Professional recognition is not limited to the master’s degree graduates. Earlier this year, one of the program’s BFA graduates took part in a prestigious six-week studio residency program in Denmark called Project Network. The program, which is run by the Guldagergaard International Ceramic Research Center, brings together ten to fifteen recent graduates who live and work side by side as they continue their exploration of the medium.
Depending on one’s point of view, achievements such as these have come in spite of—or perhaps because of—a facility that can charitably be described as well-worn. The ceramics program is housed in the Old Engineering Shops building behind Atkinson Hall. Now part of the group of Studio Arts Buildings, the structure dates from the mid-1920s when the LSU campus was moved from downtown Baton Rouge to its present site.
One of the pluses for the venerable building is the ten thousand square feet of available space, including room for an assortment of kilns, classrooms, and studios for faculty and graduate students. The downside is the building’s vulnerability to the elements. Air conditioning is uneven, leaks are common, and peeling paint and dust litter surfaces. At times, stray squirrels, birds, lizards, and other wildlife find their way into the building.
All of this, of course, is the stuff legends are made of; and faculty and students have plenty of tales. Soon, however, they expect to have a new variety of tales to tell because the building is scheduled to undergo a complete renovation beginning next spring.
Plans call for the structure to be gutted and the interior rebuilt. The building will get new windows, a new roof, and a new concrete floor, Walsh said. Other planned changes include the addition of individual studio spaces for bachelor’s students and more studios for master’s students. Shaw said he also would like to increase the number of MFA students studying in the program to nine, with three graduating every year.
At the same time, Shaw said, there likely will have to be some changes in how faculty members teach their classes. “So much of what we do now is governed by the constraints of this building,” he said.
And that seems to work just fine.
Autumn Higgins, a third-year graduate student from Oregon, said she enrolled at LSU because of the school’s reputation. Higgins originally was a photography student, but started making ceramics at the end of her first year. Ceramics was so much fun, she said, she switched her major.
Ceramics also runs in her family. Her grandfather was a potter, and her grandmother was a ceramic sculptor. Higgins described her own work as mostly functional, although she said she recently has begun experimenting with pieces where the functionality is less well defined.
LSU’s ceramics program doesn’t subscribe to a specific style or aesthetic, and that’s by design. “We value a diverse, varied approach to the medium,” Walsh said. “Andy [Shaw] and I both, in terms of our work and teaching, hold to different philosophies. We respect that this creates a ‘balanced-in-diversity-of-approach’ with respect to the program.”
The work of recent MFA graduates reflects this diversity. Some have focused on installation work, which involves using the entire gallery to create a space for viewers to enter. Others have found inspiration for their ceramics in still life and light. And still others have been drawn to utilitarian pottery, creating functional pieces for the table or home.
The goal, of course, is for graduates to find success both artistically and financially. In her ideal world, Higgins said, “it would be really great to be a studio artist and make a lot of money” when she graduates. The more likely eventuality is an artist residency program, at least in the short term, she said.
Walsh said students who graduate with a degree in ceramics go on to do a variety of things, including residency programs, teaching, and working for arts foundations and organizations.
Students who graduate with a BFA in ceramics “have a stronger ability to move into work as opposed to someone with a degree in other arts,” Walsh said, because a strong network exists in the ceramics community, and that helps students find places to work. It is that same sense of support that attracts many students to the field in the first place, she said.
This month, members of the Baton Rouge community will have a chance to purchase some of the students’ work themselves.
Every April and November, the Ceramic Art Student Association (CASA) holds a pottery sale, featuring student and faculty work. “[The sale] is a way for people in the community to see from semester to semester what’s happening with the students,” Walsh said.
The ceramics students are responsible for organizing the sale, doing everything from reserving the space to setting up the items to be sold to handling the advertising and promotion of the event. Proceeds from the sale are divided between the artists and CASA. The artist receives fifty percent of the sale price of the work, and the student association receives the other fifty percent.
In the past, the two sales combined generally have netted $7,000 to $9,000, Walsh said. CASA uses the money to help students attend the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts’ annual conference. The national conference embraces everything from ceramic hobbyists to contemporary, cutting-edge artists, and students have a chance to experience all of that, Walsh said.
The money raised from the pottery sale also is used to help bring visiting artists to campus. Shaw said the students nominate and choose the artists to invite and then negotiate the compensation arrangements with them. The students also set up the visiting artists’ schedules and arrange for their transportation and hotel accommodations, he said. The organizational skills students develop through their work with CASA are another benefit of the ceramics program, Shaw said.
This month’s sale will be November 18–21 from 9 am to 5 pm, with a rain date of November 22. The next spring sale will be April 21–24, 2014, with a rain date of April 25. The sales are held outside the LSU Student Union.