artbeat (2007-47)

Connecting the Dots


Ceramicists explore the influence of their mentors in Lineages

by Chris Buckner

Few would disagree that the indelible marks left by a masterful instructor on a budding artist last a lifetime, but is this relationship even stronger in the craft world? An intimate studio setting, coupled with years spent honing techniques with an esteemed mentor, certainly leads to a lasting impact on the young protégé. Lineages, a new exhibit at the University of Tennesseeâ’s Downtown Gallery, sheds some light on the affinities of artists and their mentors and brings together the works of seven ceramicists, including UT art professors Sally Brogden and Frank Martin.

The showâ’s title suggests a shared history between the artists, and itâ’s no misnomer. Brogden met her husband Todd Johnson (an art teacher at Webb School) at the University of Michiganâ’s ceramics program in the mid-1980s. There the two studied under John Stephenson in a traditional apprenticeship setting. Stephenson and his wife, Susanne, both studied ceramics at the esteemed Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan and have enjoyed prolific careers as artists and educators. (Susanne taught ceramics at Eastern Michigan University.) Brogden and Johnson chose the Stephensons as their mentors, and you can see works from all of these artists at the gallery.

Martin also met his wife, Polly Ann, a ceramics instructor at Maryville College, in a ceramics class while attending Wichita State University. After getting married, the couple transferred to the Kansas City Art Institute to study with the late Ken Ferguson, the head of the ceramics department there for 35 years.

If this all seems a bit cute, it actually makes for a more compelling experience in the gallery. Lineages splits the artists into two distinct schools, with Ferguson and company representing the more traditional approach to Arts and Crafts-based pottery. Throughout his 40-year career, Ferguson evolved from making strictly utilitarian vessels to exploring figurative elements with a more whimsical approach. Here youâ’ll find works from late in his career, including â“Rabbit Platter,â” which illustrate his lyrical perspective on objects that function as more than just an everyday necessity. Ferguson taught some of the most successful contemporary ceramicists around today, and itâ’s easy to see his influence at play. While Polly Ann Martinâ’s work is steeped in functional forms, Frank Martin nods to Ferguson by questioning the usual perceptions of a vessel through inventive use of color and bold pattern. He forces the viewer to reconsider the usefulness of a beautifully designed teapot or plate.

Although they were contemporaries of Ferguson, John and Susanne Stephenson are best known for their more aesthetic approach to ceramics; they employed clay as a painter would a canvas. Their organic forms and abstract landscapes owe a lot to nature, and in their bios they cite travel as a source of great inspiration. John Stephensonâ’s large-scale works, including his Marinerâ’s Tool series, effectively convey the mysteries of water and waves, and yet he seems to acknowledge the futility of using clay as a material to produce these forms. Susanne Stephenson also explores abstract landscapesâ"she cites volcanic craters as inspirationâ"by using clayâ’s three-dimensional quality as a means to express natureâ’s volatile gestures.

Itâ’s a bit more difficult to connect the works of Brogden and Johnson to their mentors, but thatâ’s what makes the exhibit compelling. Brogdenâ’s austere pod-like formations are minimal and otherworldly, yet somehow familiar, while Johnson provides the showâ’s only mixed media pieces, combining wood and clay with a nod to Jasper Johns.

As important as the mentor/apprentice relationships at work in this exhibit are, those links arenâ’t the whole experience. Donâ’t get bogged down connecting the dots. Lineages succeeds in providing a good survey of well-crafted recent works by divergent artists in ceramics. Although the small number of pieces by each artist does limit the showâ’s grasp of its theme, itâ’s still a stirring testament to the beauty of teaching and learning.

What: Lineages

Where: The University of Tennessee Downtown Gallery (106 S. Gay St.)

When: Wednesdays though Saturdays through Dec. 20, with a First Friday reception on Dec. 7 from 5-9 p.m.

How Much: Free


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