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Culture, Community and Clay

Culture, Community and Clay

Assistant Professor of Ceramics David Katz revels in the resources, community and mix of disciplines he’s discovering at RISD.

Katz showed his new piece HOLDING ON, LETTING GO at the 2016 NCECA conference in St. Louis. | photo by Kelly Tate

Ceramist and Assistant Professor David Katz proudly represented RISD at last month’s National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference, an annual opportunity for leading ceramics artists and educators to exchange ideas. In addition to contributing to multiple panel discussions, he built preternatural on-site installations using unfired clay—work that expresses notions of loss and impermanence.

“Unfired clay is inherently about time,” Katz says. “It very quickly begins to dry and crack, keeping a record of the passage of time.” As he often does with his ephemeral work, he showed up at NCECA with a car full of clay and armatures, built room-sized pieces on site and then readily destroyed them a few days later.

Not everyone is quite so happy to put as much into a temporary installation. But Katz welcomes the opportunity to present his ideas and talk shop with fellow practitioners. “NCECA is the largest art conference in the world,” the artist points out. “Ceramics is really hot right now, and painters, sculptors and makers of all sorts are bringing clay into their practices. I think people are starved for physical engagement, for the immediacy and tactility of clay.”

“Ceramics is really hot right now, and painters, sculptors and makers of all sorts are bringing clay into their practices. I think people are starved for physical engagement, for the immediacy and tactility of clay.”Assistant Professor of Ceramics David Katz

RISD’s Ceramics program provides students with a strong grasp of the medium, helping them understand the science of clays and glazes and how to use molds and fire kilns, Katz says. But in addition to exploring the traditions and critical language specific to clay, Ceramics majors at RISD also engage with the larger art world, cross into other disciplines and investigate curatorial practice.

Katz, who joined the Ceramics faculty last year and is serving as interim head of the department this spring, is still floored by the resources and creative opportunities available here. “The RISD scene is spectacular,” he says. “If I wanted to take advantage of all the resources here – the museum, the Material Resource Center, the Nature Lab, the research opportunities—I would never be able to sleep.”

Sleep doesn’t actually seem to be high on the priority list for the energetic artist, who gets up early many mornings to mix hundreds of pounds of clay for students. He appreciates the diversity of the student body at RISD and notes that “ceramics has a rich history and unique tradition in every culture,” playing interesting roles in China, Japan and Korea, for example. Many international students actually search out colleges like RISD, he says, “because we’re willing to challenge clay’s history—to open it up and push the medium in different directions.”

At RISD Katz is especially drawn to interdisciplinary collaboration. He’s currently teaching a ceramics studio made up almost entirely of Industrial Design majors and co-teaching another that combines ceramics and architecture. “We’re talking about future technologies, buildings, walls, cooling systems and sustainability,” he explains. “Ceramics are turning up everywhere—there are even ceramic components in the Space Shuttle!”

"The RISD scene is spectacular. If I wanted to take advantage of all the resources here I would never be able to sleep."

When he’s not teaching, Katz maintains an active practice out of his studio in downtown Providence. He’s currently preparing for a solo exhibition at the University of New Hampshire this fall and creating a series of commissioned wall pieces for the lobby of an international hotel.

Katz says he loves the physicality of working with clay and notes that the space and energy it requires has brought people together for thousands of years. “Ceramics is inherently about community,” he explains. “You have to work with other artists to get things done. And the community of artists here in Providence is really great.”

This summer Katz looks forward to connecting with another creative community when he teaches a two-week workshop at Domaine de Boisbuchet in Lessac, France that will intersect with concurrent workshops offered by fellow RISD faculty members Damian White, Bruce Chao 73 SC/MFA 75 GL, Suzanne Mathew and Daniel Heyman. “I’m really excited about it,” he says. “Workshops and residencies allow you to put the rest of life on hold and get inspired by the change in environment, the people, the conversations. That intensive experience almost always spurs new ideas.”

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