Why Clay?

Why Clay?

Michael Ware













Artists statements and bios from “I made this for you: Small Gestures in Clay” Portrait Society Gallery, November 20, 2015

 This is a document of Portrait Society Gallery’s first ceramic-based exhibition, held on November 20, 2015. Figurative and commemorative ceramics as well as functional vessels were combined into a handmade exhibition featuring small-scale works.

Exhibiting artists include: Rory Burke, Adolph Rosenblatt, Colin Matthes, Harvey Opgenorth, Darlene Wesenberg, Gary John Gresl, Rudy Rotter, Debbie Kupinsky, Craig Clifford, Michael Ware and Meghan Sullivan.

In addition, Portrait Society invited twenty artists to participate in a project called “Wisconsin Supper Club.” For this project, artists were prompted to paint, on a handmade plate thrown by Scott Dercks of the Milwaukee Pottery Guild, an artist from Wisconsin (dead or alive) that they admire.

IMG_8618IMG_8140Colin Matthes

Bio: Colin Matthes makes work about engineering the absurd, which allows him to address economic and environmental crisis from a funny, critical, and perversely industrious point of view. His work includes painting, drawing, installation, zine and graphic production, ceramics, and public art projects. Matthes has exhibited internationally in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Antwerp, Dublin, Houston, Seville, Ljubljana, Melbourne, and Berlin. He is currently working on the project Almost Now at Het Bos in Antwerp Belgium. Recent solo-projects include Colin Matthes: Instructional and Flood Resistant Work at Bockley Gallery (Minneapolis, MN) and Green Mini Demo Derby, a solar powered remote control car demolition derby at the 2015 Energy Fair (Custer, WI). He has participated in numerous residencies including Hotel Pupik (Austria), Werkkamp (Belgium), and Cow House Studios (Ireland). He won the Mary L. Nohl Fellowship for Individual Artists in 2102 (Established) and 2007 (Emerging). In addition, Matthes works collectively with Justseeds, a network of twenty-six artists living in the United States, Canada, and Mexico that runs a print collective, contributes graphics to social movements, and co-publishes books.

Why Clay?: I decided to go to college half-heartedly and at the last minute. Signing up for classes late and undeclared, Ceramics 1 was among the few courses still open. I never considered making art and was hesitant about school, but learning the craft involved with ceramics was something I could relate to. I obsessively worked in clay for the next five years, learning everything I could, including developing my own glazes and building kilns.

Health problems from living in clay dust and asthma, learning other art skills, and the desire to focus on more mobile and activist ways of making lead to abandoning ceramics within a year of graduation.

This spring I was hired for a sabbatical replacement position at UW-Whitewater. It included teaching ceramics. I was nervous to get started after thirteen years away from clay and was instantly hooked. The feeling of shaping clay with your hands, throwing on the wheel, and the excitement of opening a well-fired kiln leaves me wondering how I ever stopped. All work in this exhibit is from the spring of 2015.

IMG_8464Adolph Rosenblatt (written by Suzanne Rosenblatt and Adolph)
Bio: All my life I’ve been painting or sculpting people, people in relationship to the environment they’re in, people in relation to each other, people in public places and people in their own homes. I’ve sculpted people in restaurants, at lunch counters, in the movie theater, in saunas, swimming pools, and on the beach, children making art in the Milwaukee schools and in an Arab-Jewish school in Israel. I get excited by the everyday living experiences that others may take for granted. I try to inject this excitement into my sculptures. The colors I use are based on the auras I sense when looking at other human beings. My portraiture looks like the person on his emotional level and on my emotional level. I try to capture the wholeness of the situation while keeping the initial impression fresh and spontaneous. Life without complexity cannot be real; life with its complexities makes us see the humor in it. So humor is one of the main ingredients of my art. I enjoy the open attitude towards one another that I find in the Midwest. The joy of my work happens in my interplay with the people I am sculpting. One of the most exciting parts of this experience is getting to know these people on a more intimate basis.

Why Clay?: When I met him on New Years Eve of 1959, Adolph was a painter of vibrant New York City scenes on large canvasses. But his style was changing, his paint becoming thicker and thicker, until finally he was applying it with a palette knife. And that, over time, lead to his next step: he retained his growing three-dimensionality but stopped using the canvas. His medium became wax, which then was cast into bronze, an extremely expensive process. Too expensive. He began to use thin sheets of wax so the final piece required much less bronze. That became too limiting, so he decided to leave the final sculpture in wax and paint it. That worked for awhile, but he was worried about permanence. By then it was 1966, we had moved to Milwaukee, and our children were old enough to play with clay. He saw they were having a great time with it, and he’s had a great time with it ever since. “I love working with clay because it keeps on changing. I look at it and

it becomes something else. The nice thing about clay is it’s immediate, and you have a chance to change things in a second. The wonderful thing about working with clay is that touch became an important thing in my work.


IMG_8629Meghan Sullivan

 Bio: Meghan Sullivan is originally from Boston, Massachusetts. She received her MFA from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, a post-baccalaureate from the University of Florida – Gainesville and her BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art. She has been a resident artist at the Skopelos Foundation for the Arts, the Women’s Studio Workshop, Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts and Mudflat Studio. From 2014-15, she was the Visiting Artist in Residence at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Florida. She is currently the 2015-2016 Uihlein Fellow of the Studio Arts for Lawrence University in Appleton, WI.

Why Clay?: Clay is my medium of choice because it offers me the immediacy of touch, the parameters of process and the permanency of stone. The malleability of clay allows me to work quickly and directly in my studio. The marks made by my hand can be left evident for the viewer. This creates a sense of vitality in the sculptures that I find rewarding. The parameters of clay, with its drying time and kiln firing techniques, provide me with a structure and a rhythm in my studio practice. The ability of clay to transform from a soft material into a hard, permanent material also appeals to me. The strength and fragility of clay in its final stage is similar to our own.

rory burke, gold skullsRory Burke

Bio: Rory Burke earned her BFA in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1999, and her MFA from University Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008.  In 2010 (and another abbreviated stint in 2011). She was a resident artist in the Kohler Company’s ARTS/INDUSTRY program in clay. Rory lives in Milwaukee with her husband and two sons Jack, age 3 and Fletch, age 1.

Why Clay?: Clay was simply another material that I could cast—one that I never had worked with before.  The ARTS/INDUSTRY residency at the Kohler Company taught me tons.  Casting clay offered me a unique and IMMEDIATE way to manipulate my objects before I sent them to the kiln and rendered them immoveable and immortal.

Harvey Opgenorth

Harvey Opgenorth - Lil Volcanoes 2015

 Bio: Harvey Opgenorth makes paintings, sculptures, and interventions that coyly question attention in order to reveal and critically comment upon perception, material/immaterial labor, and modes of display. Encouraging heuristic approaches to unpack the ideas, the work attempts to ameliorate the binaries of modernism by queering assumptions imposed by vision.

Opgenorth has exhibited artwork internationally, including La Casa Encendida (Madrid),  Caja Madrid (Zaragoza, Spain), Espai Cultural Caja Madrid (Barcelona), Museo del Patrimonio Municipal – MUPAM (Málaga, Spain), Milwaukee Art Museum (Milwaukee), The Krannert Art Museum (Champaign, IL), The Renaissance Society (Chicago), The Soap Factory (Minneapolis), Woodbury University Hollywood Exhibitions (Los Angeles), Vanity Projects (NYC & Miami), Mireille Mosler, Ltd (NYC), Bodybuilder & Sportsman (Chicago), Betty Reimer Gallery (Chicago), Albertine Monroe-Brown Gallery (Kalamazoo), Usable Space (Milwaukee), Hotcakes Gallery (Milwaukee), Luckystar Gallery (Milwaukee), Armoury Gallery (Milwaukee).

Opgenorth’s work has been the subject of articles and reviews in Art Forum International, Art Papers, New Art Examiner, Bridge Magazine, Smithsonian’s Eye Level, Milwaukee Magazine, My Midwest, Disruptive Pattern Material, and Camoupedia.  He has been awarded the Mary L. Nohl Established Artist Fellowship, MAK Center proposal invitation and has lectured at Northwestern University (Illinois), University of Northern Iowa (Cedar Rapids), Figure One Gallery (Illinois), Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (Wisconsin), and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Opgenorth lives and works in Los Angeles.

Why Clay?: Ceramics is a versatile material, characterized by its history, process, and functionality. These qualities often limit our interpretation of objects made in the material as a form of “craft” and not “Art”.

I find clay to be fruitful because of these connotations.  By developing works that question these stereotypes it affords me the ability to blur binaries and undermine expectations of intent through display and material.

Craig Clifford

Bio: Craig Clifford received his BFA from California State University Long Beach in 2000 and his MFA from Louisiana State University in 2003. He exhibits his work nationally and internationally and has been included in the 2007 and 2009 World Ceramic Biennial in South Korea as well as Ceramic Top 40, and is a past artist in residence at The Archie Bray Foundation in Helena Montana. He is in the studio working for upcoming solo exhibitions The James May Gallery in Algoma Wisconsin and currently has a solo exhibition at The Clay Studio of Missoula in Montana. He has taught ceramics and art at California State University Long Beach, USC, Mississippi Valley State University and is currently the head of the ceramics program at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

Why Clay?: Clay works the same way that my mind does. I am not a very precise person, when I work with wood my measurements are always off and the pieces wobble. But with clay I can just slip and score more clay on and the wobble is gone. Pieces can easily be changed midway through the building process, and I can simply cut a section off a piece and add something new. The material is malleable, plastic, soft, and once fired in the kiln becomes hard and permanent, capturing the process and the moment.

Debbie Kupinsky

debbie kupinsky

Bio: Debbie Kupinsky received her BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and her MFA from Louisiana State University. Her creative work often explores the way we mediate experience through objects and the intersection between the human and natural world. She has been a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, The Appalachian Center for Crafts in Smithville, TN and the Arts in Industry program at Kohler in Sheboygan, WI. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Long Beach Museum of Art and The Archie Bray Foundation among others. She shows her work nationally, internationally and regionally and is currently an Assistant Professor in sculpture at St Norbert College in De Pere, WI and maintains a studio in Appleton, WI.

Why clay?: As a plastic material, clay lends itself to recording the time and movements of the hand and body, drawing objects in porcelain clay is a way of transforming the ordinary. The teacups, bottles and cheap toys become meditative objects that retain the tactile marks of the time and process of making. Rather than finish the pieces with every detail, they remain unfinished and sketched while retaining their specific reference. For me the objects also act as metaphors for the nature memory and the ways in which we reform events and emotions across time and space.

Rudy Rotter (written by Randy Rotter):

Untitled (Mound of men and women), 11 x 11", ceramic, nd. $950.

Untitled (Mound of men and women), 11 x 11″, ceramic, nd.

 Bio: Rudy Rotter (1913-2001) began carving wood sculptures while still operating his full-time dental practice in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It was 1956 and Rotter was 43 years old. For the next 25 years, this devoted dentist spent all of his spare time making art. Rotter’s art has been shown at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee, the Lawton Art Gallery at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the Rahr West Art Museum in Manitowoc, WI, the Intuit Art Fair, the Outsider Art Fair in New York City as well as the now closed Museum of Sculpture in Manitowoc, WI. A body of his work was acquired by the Kohler Foundation for preservation. His estate is represented by Portrait Society Gallery.

Why clay?: As Rudy Rotter’s oldest son, I now look back 60 years to the beginning of my father’s genesis as an artist. Early on he was using fluid and malleable materials to both learn his craft and to begin crafting objects to fulfill his immense drive to express his vision.

As a young dentist in the 1950’s Rudy made his own crowns and dentures for his patients. This involved soft wax and plaster. A minor aside, during that period, in lieu of candy he would at night cast Disney figures in plaster to present to kids who survived the era’s pre-painless dentistry.

As an athlete at the University of Wisconsin during the Depression in the 1930’s, Rudy would periodically model for his sister’s art classes. Their medium was clay and Rudy’s early works seem to hearken back to the imagery and style of that period.

By using processes and materials of which he was already familiar, Rudy quickly gained proficiency in the making of art. Soon his own unique expressive style appeared, leading to decades of the profuse creation of ambitious works of art.

Until in later age when Rudy began making assemblages with found art, he primarily used hard, dense and heavy materials which he likely considered the mediums of the serious art of his day. However it’s easy to observe the lessons learned from his earlier experiences working in clay.

The glazed ceramic pieces Rudy created in mid-career display strong elements of his personal style, which by then had come into full fruition.

Darlene Wesenberg:

mary nohl



Bio: In 1982 my daughter took a class at the UWM Craft Centre and I was a parent assistant. Given a slab of clay, I made a small coil pot in the form of a snake and inscribed inside “Hiss-story.” Since that day, I have never been without clay. Perceiving myself as a writer, teacher, and storyteller since childhood, clay took me by surprise as the unifying element that connects and focuses my affinities and abilities.

Ongoing narratives pepper my work. I generally create in series, sometimes going back and forth as my interest is piqued by a particular encounter. When I was teaching full-time and fitting in clay around the edges of my life, I learned to begin a work in my head, so when I got to my studio, I could simply delve in. Words are important to me, often leading the way to the sculpture. At other times, I simply spontaneously create what I call “clay doodles” and just see what the clay is saying. Like any relationship, it is give-and-take.

I love Milwaukee, our shared local history, my MPS students, my old Queen Anne house on Newhall Street that I had to leave, my friends, my personal long memories. Every street corner has stories to reveal; most of them we will never know. This love shapes my work.

Seven years ago I began my “Lost Milwaukee Series.” I wanted to celebrate site-specific historic events, creating a narrative frame for participation with viewers. I chose events and people that are important to me (not necessarily the history textbook stars) such as Mrs. Simon Kander of the Settlement Cookbook, Heinrich Boulder who spearheaded the campaign to get an elephant for the Washington Park Zoo, and Mathilde Anneke, free thinker and suffragist. This series has morphed into “Legendary Milwaukee: Angels, Ghosts, and Other High Flyers.” It now includes contemporaries.

The pieces in this show are shaped over several days, then fired to around 1915 F. Then they undergo two or three glaze firings. I prefer the challenge of glaze, which has a mind of its own, adding the element of surprise to every firing. Since learning to write icons, I have found that many of my egg tempera methods have taken over in the way I apply glaze in layers, with little pots for mixing. (My studio is always a mess.)

All true art is collaboration—with the landscape, with the past, with the maker and the viewer of the art. We all have stories and we all approach art from our unique perspectives. Narratives continue as memory, implode, and are recast as archetypal nuggets.

Why clay?:

Debra asks, “Why Clay?”

“Ask the clay,” I say:

“Why, Clay?”

 (Clay Responds:)

 “You took me firmly in your hand

Yet I held you as contraband.

You saw in me a face, a snake, a vase;

Spirit uncaged,

Hands, eyes, and brain engaged.

I am your metaphor, your golden door,

Your silent prayers, your primal roar.

Earth, water, wind of spirit echo in the flame

And give expression to my hidden name.”