by Lindsay Oesterritter and Jen Allen
With so many new ways to access information and current sharing platforms (podcasts, N.I.C.E., online classes, social media, etc.), we were curious how two of our communities most long standing, respected and recognized organizations are shifting with the times. We reached out to Joshua Green, Executive Director of NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) and Sherman Hall, Director of Ceramic Publications Company. They both graciously shared information about themselves, the institutions they lead, and how they see their organization's future roles in the ceramics community.
This is the first of an ongoing series of interviews and investigations about contemporary ceramics education and the shifts in learning. If you have specific questions or ideas that you would like answered as part of this new series of articles published on the Objective Clay Blog, please feel free to email Objective Clay, directing your questions and ideas to Jen Allen and Lindsay Oesterritter.
-Jen Allen and Lindsay Oesterritter
Side by Side with Joshua Green and Sherman Hall
What is your background/education?
JG: I studied ceramics at Bennington College, where I worked with Stanley Rosen and Jane Ford Aebersold. I graduated with a major in visual art but only after spending a lot of time working towards a writing major. I did graduate work at the Cranbrook Academy of Art where I earned my MFA under Jun Kaneko and met my wife Denise Suska Green.
SH: I have a BFA in ceramics from The Ohio State University. I took the six year undergraduate plan from 1990 through 1996, starting with the Columbus College of Art and Design, then Ohio State (for cheap academics), then New York University (followed a girl there—but there are way worse reasons to do a lot of things), and back to The Ohio State University where, as it turns out, I wish I had more time. I also like to say that I have received an on-the-job advanced degree in publishing over the past 16 years that I’ve worked at the American Ceramic Society.
How were you first introduced to clay/ceramics?
JG: My interest in ceramics began during my teens under the guidance of my brother Bob Green who continues to work as a full time studio potter. Bob has been extremely influential passing on my first glimpses of what it meant to make a life in the field. During my teens I was also fortunate to have a very student centered art teacher named Dennis Piuno who had studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. We had a classroom dedicated to ceramics with kick wheels, an electric kiln and glaze materials. We mixed clay in a Walker pugmill. During my teens I spent a couple of summers at the Hinckley School in Maine, which was a boarding school during the academic year and in the summer, had an affiliation with Haystack at the time. One summer, my teacher was Michael Frimkess who was there with his wife Magdalena. One of the teaching assistants, Ken Bell, later set up a studio in Long Island not far from where I lived at the time. I worked for him over the next school year and took a glaze chemistry course at Greenwich House Pottery. Before I started college, I was able to leave high school a semester early and was a special student at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville where my brother was pursuing his MFA.
SH: I had the incredible good fortune to go to a high school that had a dedicated ceramics room staffed by a professional potter (Mr. Fender). He could throw a pitcher in two pulls, pull the spout without wiping his hands, pull a handle and attach it from rim to belly, all in about 5 minutes. It wasn’t his speed so much as his facility with the material that convinced me that both he and the material were a little bit magic, and I wanted to know more. I had always leaned toward art, and my high-school experience with ceramics was the thing that convinced me to pursue it in college.
What was your career path to get where you are now?
JG: After completing my MFA I was initially unsuccessful in applying for teaching positions. We were about to have our first child and decided to move to Vermont where I had been living prior to grad school. I knew a studio we could rent and a restaurant I could work in. My brother had a house we could rent a share of. Denise was hired as a tech for the printmaking studio at Bennington College as she had a good background from her undergrad years at Carnegie Mellon University. We made work, sold some and were spread very thin. After a few years of making and showing as best we could, we decided to move on. Subsequently, I had a residency in a campus life program at Stony Brook University in New York. Then Denise and I were asked to fill in as artists-in-residence at Spirit Square Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina where I helped launch a cooperative studio that I was asked to stay on and manage. By then, both Denise and I were teaching at several colleges and community centers in the area on an adjunct basis. In 1989, I was offered a full time position directing the ceramics program at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh. Bill Strickland was the next important mentor in my career. I continued there for more than 20 years gaining new skills and taking on more administrative capacities. I served as Director of Arts and Education Strategies for eight of those years and Vice President of Operations for six. It was a rich and challenging experience. My teaching artist colleagues and students were inspiring, perseverant and creative. We worked very hard and were able to pursue some great opportunities with visiting artists, exhibitions and special projects including a series of residencies at Penland over spring breaks.
SH: Well, I can tell you what happened, but I can’t really describe any plan I had, because I couldn’t have planned it if I tried. That said, I think I was prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves (luck favors the prepared mind, as they say). As a subscriber to Ceramics Monthly in 1999 I received a form letter from the editor of the magazine telling me that they were looking for editorial help from someone with studio ceramics knowledge, and I happened to live in the right zip code (I learned that day that CM was published in my home town). I was at their offices the next day with my résumé.
Four years after starting as assistant editor checking technical facts, the editor retired and I applied for the job and got it (I figured I knew enough after four years to give it a go). Because of some internal restructuring, I spent the next three years getting crash courses from four different publishers in the various ways to approach magazine publishing (turns out there are about as many ways to make magazines as there are ways to make pots for a living).
After the Ceramic Publications Company (CPC) was officially formed in 2006, we expanded from publishing Ceramics Monthly and Pottery Making Illustrated and some books to operating the Ceramic Arts Daily website and I accepted the role of Editorial Director, coordinating all of our editorial efforts across all platforms.
Everything up to this point was a fairly natural (if sometimes tumultuous) progression and felt a lot like building something in the studio; one creative effort leads to another. But when the publisher and president of CPC moved into the role of Executive Director of our parent organization, The American Ceramic Society, I accepted the role of Managing Director of CPC. At this point, I stepped away from being editor of Ceramics Monthly, and really am now focused on staff and product development.
What made you decide to take on the role of Executive Director, NCECA?
JG: I had been a conference attendee and member of NCECA on and off since around 1984. Aurore Chabot had an exhibition and residency at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, and I had written something for her show. She saw some promise in it and asked me to consider writing for the NCECA Journal. This motivated me to get more deeply involved in the organization and also encouraged me to attend the conference and visit exhibitions with greater focus. When the NCECA board had to make a quick pivot away from New Orleans for the 2008 conference due to damage to one of the hotels, they selected Pittsburgh as the alternate site. I was approached to become the Onsite Conference Liaison. We had less than one year to plan the conference, so I joined the board and experienced a crash course in NCECA governance. When the executive director position opened in 2010, it was a time at which I really had to consider how I envisioned the part of my life and career that was remaining before me. I was familiar with some of the then board and staff and a few encouraged me to apply. I felt that I had accomplished a lot at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. My role there was evolving in a way that I felt was less connected to my interests in art and artists. The extent to which I had been pushed outside of my comfort zone in my role at the Guild is also what really made me sense that I could accomplish something with the NCECA position. I saw the opportunity with NCECA as a way to re-engage my interests in the arts and artists at a higher level and make them more a part of my daily focus.
What made you decide to take on the role of Managing Director, Ceramics Publication Company?
SH: Honestly, after 11 years as editor, being immersed in the editorial pursuit of ever-more-excellent content, and being the cheerleader for the field (that seriously is how I defined my job) I was getting a little tired of chasing deadlines and getting authors and artists to stick to their deadlines. I spent a lot of time and energy building a competent editorial team, and though I really hadn’t planned it this way, I found that I had actually been the architect of my own exit strategy from editorial. While the notion of leaving hands-on interaction with content was daunting, it has been made clear to me over the past two years that the magazines and website could not be in better hands.
Now, as I mentioned, I get to focus on new things like developing online recipe databases, putting the full magazine archive of CM and PMI online, and I spend time thinking about what would have helped me when I was learning—then we see if we can make it happen. It’s actually pretty exciting to think that I can play a fairly significant role in deciding what
Goals in Position & Impact of Organization:
What educational impact do you want to leave and or foster on place/community (thinking locally and globally)?
JG: I was never the kind of artist that could be fully satisfied with immersion in my studio alone. The times that I have felt most challenged, impacted and accomplished have all involved a shared experience with others. NCECA was launched with the aspirational vision to create a sense of connectedness and meaning among a group of people involved in teaching and creating ceramic art. Almost from the start, NCECA was grappling with divergent interests and backgrounds among its members. This has only further developed over time. My experiences in community arts, early childhood, and at the collegiate level bore out an appreciation that there was tremendous rigor and creativity occurring in all these sectors of the continuum that NCECA embodies. I hope that the impact we are making demonstrates our efforts to curate, amplify and reflect the diverse rigor and creativity taking place throughout the field. We are also looking and listening for important and emergent ideas and people we are not yet aware of to further expand this vision.
SH: Mostly I think globally when it comes to what we do here, but the impact is always local. We do want to make our mud pie bigger. We want to make ceramic art something more people know about and have access to, and that begins with accessible information, from how to make ceramics to how to make a living to how folks might set up a ceramics center.
How do you keep younger generations engaged and continuing to buy memberships and to attend the annual conferences? Especially with so much free information that is available nowadays.
JG: Our members teaching ceramics across the country play a critical role in strategies that NCECA pursues to attract new audiences. When creating programs and opportunities that are relevant to people in teaching situations, they reflect enthusiasm to their students and encourage them to come to the conference. Student Perspectives programming was initiated with the idea of attracting students and engaging them more deeply by providing roles for them as creators and presenters of content. The National Student Juried Exhibition is another way that NCECA accomplishes this. Even in the information age when so much content is available for free, young people today remain motivated to seek out authenticity and real connection to others. Artists working within the field of ceramics tend to make themselves accessible to students. Participation in the conference can facilitate direct connections between students and the artists that are influencing and inspiring them.
How do you keep younger generations engaged and continuing to buy subscriptions? Especially with so much free information that is available nowadays.
SH: Free is fine; in fact, we love free content. We give away tons of free content, because that is how people find us. When someone gets to the point where they find it worth paying for high-quality, curated, edited media (and everybody gets there sooner or later if they stick with anything for very long), we would like to be who they turn to for ceramic-art information. Students have never really subscribed to magazines—but they don’t stay students. Hobbyists don’t pay for much until they know if they are going to stick with it—and quite a few stick with it. So, our approach to free content is that it’s necessary to make ourselves visible and to prove our worth to those looking for the information we produce. So far, it has paid off, and is the very reason we are able to upgrade and expand into new technologies and new platforms.
How do you successfully incorporate technology and social network platforms?
JG: NCECA’s integration of technology and social media have been hugely advanced over the past several years by the work of Communications Director Cindy Bracker, staff member Candice Finn, and members who have been recruited to help us moderate social media platforms with greater consistency, focus and thoughtfulness. Through some of our 50 Friends meetings that take place at conference, we have uncovered ideas and made connections with people like Ben Carter who is helping NCECA to reinvigorate its podcast. With Bobby Silverman of 92Y, we are partnering to identify presenters and promote the Virtual Clay lecture series. Our goal is to forge relationships that help us leverage our content and touch our membership throughout the year, while not having substantially more revenue to hire additional staff. It’s not unlike working through new problems in the studio. We are trying different variations and strategies. We expect that we will have to do some things that are not entirely successful before we get to other things that are. Doing a few things well, will build audience and response. The hope is to extend the sense of community beyond the few short days of the conference.
Across the Table, the project NCECA is undertaking right now under the leadership of Michael Strand and Namita Wiggers is employing technology in innovative ways. An app has been created to gather and share the many engaging ways that people are making and using ceramics and food to impact senses of connection within their communities. It’s a vehicle to tell and share stories about how clay work connects to real life in artful ways. It is also gathering information and images that will be valuable to Michael and Namita’s curatorial process to put together an exhibition. Ultimately it will also serve as a resource where people interested in this kind of work can learn from one another.
SH: It’s like you’re reading my mind (or I’m reading yours). At this stage of the game, there is no longer a question of whether or not any given niche market does or does not embrace social media or the digital realm. If you make and sell things, you are in direct competition (read partnership) with social media for your customer’s attention. Our approach to social media is that we need to meet our customers where they are, within reason. We crunch a ton of data, and it tells us that, while we need to be on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, but we perhaps don’t need a tumblr or snapchat account. And honestly, we can’t chase every new meerkat or periscope platform that pops its head up—our analytics tell us where our traffic is coming from, and we go meet them there.
How do you ideally imagine someone utilizing NCECA as an educational tool? What is your target audience?
JG: I expect to be surprised by creative people and their use of the information rich collateral that NCECA makes available. During my years with Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild when we brought high school students to conferences, I felt that the richest educational experiences sometimes came out of guided informal interactions. For instance, we created a career exploration project and set an assignment for students to visit with people in the Resource Hall with a set of questions about different study and work paths that they were taking in the field. There is now a good deal of conference content that Cindy and others have worked so hard to make accessible via our blog and YouTube channel to be consumed in homes, dorm rooms, classrooms and studios. I’d like to see more discourse continuing online after the conference about some of the provocative ideas and people that have presented there. While I see this occasionally, it’s not always apparent. Examples of this include Theaster Gates’s inspired performative keynote presentation in 2014 and Roberto Lugo’s Emerging Artist talk in 2015. The videos released of these have garnered followings online as have closing lectures by Malcolm Davis (2011) and Jack Troy (2015). Another less apparent example is the blog bothartistandmother.com, which grew out of a topical discussion and exhibition that took place through recent conferences. The work we are doing with Mark Shapiro on apprenticeships also has this potential. The nature of the digital age is that NCECA can provide a platform that helps to connect people and further develop ideas. Our target audience is shaped by the fact that we are a large conference with a diverse array of programs and exhibitions. It will continue to evolve out of the ideas that are important to members and the extent to which they are meaningful to others.
How do you ideally imagine someone using Ceramics Arts Daily and ceramics publications as an educational tool? What is your target audience?
SH: We didn’t quite envision this as much more than an extension of our existing brands at first, so we thought the existing educational value in the magazines and books is what we would be disseminating. What we learned in very short order was that instructors were telling (sometimes requiring) their students to sign up for Ceramic Arts Daily, and they were using it in the classroom on a regular basis. We see our site registrations, traffic, and time on site jump every year at the end of August for this reason.
Past and Future:
What would be an ideal future project or collaboration?
JG: In collaboration one is always hoping for a relationship and experience that involves shared vision and enables the partners to reach beyond their own capacities. I don't have a concrete image of what content this will be focused on, in part because there are so many areas where one could focus at this point in time. I am interested in the way that ceramics is emerging in the contemporary art scene and the gulf in perception that still exists between the world of NCECA and society at large. What does it mean for people working with clay and students pursuing creative careers? What can we do to make the creative possibilities and pedagogical concerns of new technologies more accessible to people working across the ceramics continuum? How can we encourage more communities of practice to work through similar ideas in different contexts?
SH: It would be really cool to explore setting up a Potters Council facility for residencies, classes, and exhibitions. This has always been a sort of “pie in the sky” project that is somewhat out of scope right now—but it’s fun to think about.
Where do you see NCECA in 5-10 years, what changes are underfoot?
JG: We are looking to reform NCECA policies surrounding student status. It appears that more students are going to school part time and over longer periods of time. We need to consider how we can accommodate these shifting norms into our systems, programs and opportunities. We’d like to develop more programs that explore the impact and influence of new technologies, but in a manner that goes beyond what can be addressed in a traditional panel format. We are always on the lookout for inspiring presenters who can connect with genuine passion about ceramics and the world at large—people that can make our work feel even more relevant and impactful to help us envision the future. Concerns about sustainability and changes taking place in education are becoming ever more critical. We are looking for opportunities to engage with these concerns in more meaningful ways. Doing some of these things will require more staff and resources. We need to find ways to make that possible.
Where do you see Ceramics Monthly in 5-10 years, what changes are underfoot?
SH: I wouldn’t even venture a guess on this, except to say that all of our publications will likely remain in print for a very long time, and that we will continue to tweak the focus and format to be relevant and timely. Very soon (perhaps by the time this goes up) we will have the entire archive of Ceramics Monthly online (as well as Pottery Making Illustrated). This is the kind of thing we will continue to explore and implement as technology and demand warrants it.
How has your mission changed over the years? And what has influenced its development and change?
JG: My sense is that while NCECA’s mission may have been revised a few times through strategic plans and board retreats, the organization’s vision has been quite consistent. It’s always been about clay, creation and connection. I don’t imagine those three primary strands of inquiry changing, but perhaps the means through which we will affect them will. Even in the first NCECA Journal published in 1980, we find indications that NCECA aspired to be more than a conference. Some of the changes we have been working on over the past five years have been focused on this aspiration and I expect that to continue.
SH: Honestly, the core mission of making and distributing very high quality content on ceramic art has never changed, but my own personal involvement with that mission has changed several times, primarily having to do with accepting increasingly more strategic roles related to that content. I became more responsible for the formats and platforms for the content—often times for the very same readers; sometimes you’re on your couch with print, sometimes in the classroom with a laptop and projector, sometimes at the clay supplier with just your phone, sometimes at the office on your desktop or laptop.
Just because we are all engaged in the pursuit of a very well-established tradition does not mean we don’t live in the contemporary world, where we expect to get our information where and how we want at any given moment.
At this point, my mission is to look forward and make sure we do the right “next thing,” and I trust the day-to-day nuts and bolts of publishing to the very competent editorial, advertising, and production staff.
What is a memorable conference presentation and why?
JG: The most memorable conference presentations include compelling ideas and people that are passionate and informed on the matters on which they are speaking. This does not always make them popular when they are being delivered. I think that some of the best and most memorable presentations in NCECA’s history include some that made for discomfort. Over time, NCECA has consistently sought out and welcomed presenters like John Waters, James Elkins, Ron Nagle, Roberta Smith and Theaster Gates who looked at the field critically and challenged our notions about clay, community and the broader culture. From feedback via emails, comments in social media and responses to surveys, we learn that some people want information that they can apply in their daily studio and teaching practice. I think that’s a relevant response to what we are doing within our conferences. That said, I think there are others like me who attend the conference seeking experiences that may be less immediately pragmatic. We are hoping to encounter people and ideas that extend our comfort zones and compel us to look at our practices with fresh viewpoints. NCECA does well when it strikes a balance to address both of these perspectives.
What is a memorable article and why?
SH: This is a completely impossible question—but I have two, and they center around a bit of small controversy as well as professional ethics (the parts that makes them professionally memorable, anyway). One isn’t even an article, really, but an item we published as part of “Exposure,” where we cover current exhibitions. We printed several images from a Beth Cavener exhibition, and one of them was A Rush of Blood to the Head, which depicts two goats with erect human penises kissing each other. I honestly hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, but we had people cancel subscriptions over that. We had letters asking how we could publish this when we know that this magazine is put in front of children. It actually hadn’t dawned on me that someone would show Ceramics Monthly to a child without looking through it first, but I learned a very important lesson about considering our entire audience. I don’t think I would have done anything differently, but I would not have been so surprised at the response.
The other is a review we published about an exhibition at a gallery who was also an advertiser. I’m not going to mention the show or gallery, because those particulars are not really the point. This was at the start of an internal project to get our reviewers to be more conscientious about balance and accuracy in their reviews (not just mentioning the positives). Well, of course, the gallery did not like the review, and as a result, pulled all of their advertising (it was quite a bit). That advertiser has not returned since. It was not a bad review, but it was balanced and had a few actual criticisms. Editorially speaking, we were actually very excited about it; we thought the review was useful and insightful. We just hadn’t considered that there would be this reaction. My takeaway has actually been a very positive one: that we have set up an editorially free staff who are planning and acquiring content in the way they should—for the benefit of the reader first. So I guess part of the reason this sticks with me is because the staff now running the editorial has a good thick skin, and a solid editorial foundation, and they are making better magazines than when I was editor. And that is encouraging.
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