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John Lamb, Published April 06 2014

Plains rolls up its sleeves for ceramics

FARGO – Museums aren’t often big on letting visitors touch the art, but the Plains Art Museum is making a concession.

Placed next to the door, just inside the second floor gallery, rests Meg Roberts’ sculpture, “Allister.”

A placard next to the piece explains that “Allister,” a furry, stoneware creature, is not only meant to be touched, but picked up from the purple pillow where he rests.

The note explains that Roberts’ piece is the only one in the show, “Red River Reciprocity: Contemporary Ceramics in Minnesota and North Dakota,” to be touched.

“Ceramic objects are very fragile,” the note warns.

While the Plains may not want guests to touch the art, the organization is hoping the community will roll up their sleeves and try their own hand at ceramics.

The show signals an emphasis the Plains will put on clay work, from the galleries down to the Center for Creativity’s ceramics studio.

“With this huge ceramics wing, we thought it was important to showcase the ceramics being made in the region and the range being made,” says Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the museum.

To her knowledge, this is the first survey show of contemporary ceramic work in North Dakota and Minnesota.

“It’s a landmark exhibition,” Sheehy says.

The show is a joint effort by the Plains and Northern Clay center in Minneapolis, which picked most of the Minnesota artists while the Plains picked those in North Dakota and nearby Minnesota.

The exhibit includes work from 79 very different artists who share a medium but not the same way they work with it.

“We really wanted to bring to the foreground that you can do anything with clay. You can shape it and make it any different style and size and shape,” says Becky Dunham, the Plains’ curator. “Ceramics is so much more than a cup you keep in the cupboard.”

Proof is Roberts’ piece and the other hanging opposite, Maren Kloppmann’s series of rounded shapes protruding from the wall like the ends of pillows. The way the light shines off of them and the shadows are formed illustrates how ceramics are largely a sculptural medium.

“We really wanted to jolt people when they walked in,” Dunham says.

The show is an eye-opener, sometimes visually, like Guillermo Guardia’s “Mochica,” a heavily armed and ominously painted cherub – a commentary on militarization – to Casey Hochalter’s rolling, almost wind-swept sculpture, textured by layers of sprayed blue paint.

All of the artists selected were viewed as specialists who push boundaries of ceramic art, Dunham says. So, in addition to master potters like 90-year-old Warren MacKenzie, who developed the ceramics program at the University of Minnesota and elevated functional pottery to a coveted collectible, you have emerging artists like Fargo’s Chelsea Lee whose collection of cat faces hang across the room.

Along with some more traditional forms, like cups from Moorhead artist David Swenson or a tea set from Burlington, N.D.-based Susan Davy, are totally different forms, or rather formless pieces. Minneapolis-based Tetsya Yamada scratches into the surface of a clay slab creating a linear drawn design, a 2-dimensional piece that challenges Sheehy’s statement that ceramics is “a sculptural medium.”

Some use functional pottery but in purely aesthetic ways. Monica Rudquist’s large assemblage contains 350 individual porcelain bowls and plates, cut and turned in on themselves, so many that a map was used to hang each in the right spot to create the mesmerizing flow the Minneapolis artist intended.

While there are a number of artists from the Twin Cities, the local scene is well-displayed, particularly the colleges, with North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia all represented.

“The upper Midwest is a region known for having great ceramic artists,” Dunham says. “People here are very connected to nature and land, and clay as a material from the earth would appeal to people here.”

That tactile sense is something Sheehy thinks makes working with clay so appealing for young students and adults alike.

“There’s an accessibility to ceramic work,” she says. “It’s a sensual medium. We spend so much time on computers and with technology, there’s something very fulfilling connecting to that sensuousness.”

Sheehy says the Plains will aim for a major ceramics show every two years as well as program classes for all ages in the Center for Creativity.

She hopes the emphasis will create a stronger market to support artists and their work. Part of that financial support will come from the Plains, as Sheehy says the museum’s ceramics collection is lacking. She says proceeds from May’s annual Spring Gala will go toward buying new art.

“There are so many things we can do,” Sheehy says.

If you go

WHAT: “Red River Reciprocity: Contemporary Ceramics in Minnesota and North Dakota”

WHEN: Through May 11

where: The Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo

info: (701) 232-3821; www.plainsart.org

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533