Shaping the future |

Shaping the future

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

There is a lot about the Carbondale Clay Center that has impressed Laura Kearns in the year and a half that she has served as director of the organization. She is knocked out by the overall level of artistry demonstrated by the ceramists who use the place. She speaks favorably of the facilities available at the downtown Carbondale institution – seven kilns, of four different varieties (electric, down draft reduction, soda/salt and raku). And having last lived in Santa Barbara, Calif. – a picturesque, generally well-off city of 95,000 that lacks a notable fine arts center – Kearns is impressed that the Clay Center exists at all in Carbondale, with its population of some 5,600.Kearns is disheartened, however, that the equipment and the expertise at the 9-year-old Clay Center has not translated into a bustle of activity. It was a Tuesday morning in mid-May when I met with Kearns at the Center, and there was one woman working in the main building, while artist-in-residence Lea Tyler was in her adjacent studio. While we spoke, another woman came into Kearns’ office; she was just looking for a phone to use. Over the next 45 minutes, a small handful of visitors – a volunteer, and a few ceramists – entered the premises.This represented a relatively busy state of affairs at the Clay Center.”Many of the people I consider the regulars are intermittent users – they come and drop in; they use the center to make some pottery,” said Kearns, a ceramic artist and teacher who spent many years working in a small town at the base of Mt. Rainier, in Washington, before her time in Santa Barbara. “What we don’t have are people in here working all the time. Ninety percent of the time the building sits empty – especially fall to winter.”Diane Kenney says that the activity level has been up and down at the Clay Center since she founded it in 1997.”It’s changed over the years. It was always a work in progress,” said Kenney, who directed the Center till Kearns took over. “It seemed like there were more adult students for a while, and that fell off. It’s waxed and waned.”Tomorrow, the place will come alive. Though the Clay Center is not a hub of Carbondale life, Cajun Clay Night, the center’s annual summer fundraising event, is. Kearns hopes to have 400 people come through the doors – a not unreasonable bump up from recent years – for the bash. If the eighth annual Clay Night follows form, participants will line up early to grab their bowl of choice (clay, naturally, and made at the Center, of course), fill it with gumbo, dance to a special Louisiana-spawned set of music by Acoustic Mayhem, compete in a costume contest and cap it off with Gatorlicious Cake. The party also includes silent and live auctions, and activities for kids. Kearns, who is new to the administrative end of the arts, got a piece of advice from a friend when she took the director’s job at the Clay Center.

“She said, ‘Don’t make any changes your first year,'” said Kearns. “So I didn’t. I spent my whole first year listening.”And observing, and thinking up what she would change when those first 12 months were done. Kearns may not have changed much, but she took notice of much that could be changed. The front of the building, including a shaggy, overgrown lawn, could use sprucing up. She’d love to add another building out in front of the existing one; the new space could be used to house a gallery, so that all of the original building could be devoted to making art.Most of the adjustments Kearns has made since her self-imposed hands-off period ended have to do with raising the level of art-making, rather than construction projects. One of the most immediately noticeable changes will be an expanded summer program. Last summer, she said, she received numerous phone calls inquiring about activities. She was determined to have a place for all those people at the Clay Center this summer. There are Clay Camps for Kids through June and July, drop-in hours for all ages every weekday, and a series of workshops for more advanced ceramists through the summer. In addition, there are three exhibits scheduled for the Clay Center gallery, and artist-in-residence Tyler has a show of her work at the Thunder River Theatre, opening June 2. “Last summer, we offered a little bit, but not enough,” said Kearns. “I want to change that, make it more flexible, much more open to more people. More mediums.”

Kearns is realistic about people’s reception to fine art generally, and clay in particular. “Our ceramic world is pretty small,” she said. “People who like and appreciate art is this much” – and she holds her hands at shoulder’s width. “You take it down to ceramics and it’s a tiny section of that pie. Many people don’t see pottery as art work.”The Roaring Fork Valley, then, has a heightened presence for ceramic work. Paul Soldner, a pioneer in ceramic art, has lived in Aspen for decades, and Snowmass Village’s Anderson Ranch Art Center has been a hot spot for ceramists. Last year, the Harvey/Meadows Gallery was opened at Aspen Highlands by ceramists Sam Harvey and Alleghany Meadows. The gallery features some two-dimensional work, but focuses primarily on pottery. Kearns is optimistic that the Carbondale Clay Center can make its own contribution to the clay happenings in the valley. A key may be the planned expansion of the resident program. In the past, the Clay Center has often had two residents; come September, Kearns expects to have three or four, plus one studio technician who has greater responsibilities. The residents, usually just out of art school and, presumably full of ideas, are not only expected to create and show their work, but to bring clay into the schools and the community while maintaining touch with the outside art world.”The residents bring a lot of energy to the place,” said Kenney. “They’re the life-line to the bigger arts community.”Both Kearns and Kenney see the Clay Center potentially creating a niche for young ceramists just out of school, who are simply looking for a place to work. Two ceramists, Nancy Barbour and Steven Colby, settled in the valley following their residencies at the Clay Center.Kearns is also making changes to Cajun Clay Night. She has brought in Mark Fischer, chef-owner of Carbondale’s top-notch restaurants SIX89 and Phat Thai, to make the gumbo. The winner of the costume contest will receive a sculpture from Lea Tyler. For the first time, there will be seating for the diners, and the street will be closed off to accommodate the tables and chairs.

When the topic shifts to the creativity and skill shown around the Clay Center, Kearns’ attitude becomes elevated. She calls the level of artistry “very high.””I credit that to a lot of very educated artists, people with degrees in art,” she said. “That gives a whole different level of aesthetic ability and appreciation. There’s a division, I think, between people who are potters and people who are artists, and use clay as their medium. We have a lot of artists, people with degrees, and it’s amazing to me.” Kearns mentions such local ceramists as Bayard Hollins (“It’s hard to knock me out, but he’s amazing. AMAZING!” said Kearns of Hollins); K Cesark, who has turned her attention from art to raising children; and Peg Malloy, who gives a workshop, Creating Functional Forms, in July.For the foreseeable future, the Carbondale Clay Center will be as good as its name. Kearns floated an idea to the board to expand the institution’s mission, to further embrace other mediums besides clay. A recent board meeting resulted in a new mission statement – but still with an emphasis largely on clay, a decision Kearns seems to have accepted.”I’ve felt I wanted artists to come in here and offer whatever they have to offer,” she said. “But we’re not going to be the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts; we’re not going to offer dance. We’ve kept the focus on ceramics.”Kenney, who is no longer officially affiliated with the Clay Center, but calls herself “a cheerleader, on the sidelines,” seems to agree with the board that drastic measures aren’t called for. She finds something agreeable about the low-key pace at the Clay Center.”I love the idea that people take it for granted: ‘Oh, it’s there,'” she said. “They’ve really established themselves as a viable fixture in the firmament of the arts in the valley.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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