Jeff Noska: Pursuing the Challenge

clay bowl
Photo by Jeff Noska

When you’re young, time passes slowly. You wait forever for your parents to finish an errand, a 20-minute drive to a relative’s house feels like an hour, and getting through the afternoon to the next recess is an eternity. There are moments like this as an adult as well, especially when you’re a parent, teacher, or an artist. You wait patiently for your child’s turn at a dance recital, for your semester to end, and for your ideas to come to life by creation of your hands. Time is also sneaky, and somehow, without warning, days, months, and years pass.

With determination, inspiration, and the desire to rise to the occasion, an artist can make art for a living. “Right now I’m a 60-year-old potter and it feels good,” Jeff Noska tells me. “I’ve had a fantastic life so far, and I’m excited about what I do, whether it’s making pots or teaching. I feel invigorated. I’m active. My mind is constantly working to not only create better work myself, but to encourage my students to challenge themselves in ways they haven’t thought about before.

“One of the things I’ve been very fortunate with is when I was young, even going back to high school, I find recollections of having a real broad base of industrial arts. You know, taking welding classes and woodworking classes; I always loved making things and working with my hands. I’ve always found great pleasure in that, and I’ve always found it to be challenging. I love to challenge myself in ways that I find to be unique. My industrial arts background really roughed me out and rounded me when I got to college to start looking at art and the big picture of art, and it was so magical to be able to do that and not have to think about a regular job or a career. It’s part of my programming!” Jeff laughs, “I’ve never been programmed to be on a five-year-plan or, I mean, that’s not necessarily true because when I went to graduate school one of the questions they asked was, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ But as I looked at that, I did perhaps make decisions or set goals for a career, but it was more a career as an artist, not as a teacher or administrator.”

Photo by Jeff Noska

A Minnesota native, Jeff earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin–Superior. His peers and professors were a source of constant inspiration. They swayed him to challenge himself and develop his skills and techniques—to grow as an artist.

“Although there wasn’t a big art community up there [at UW–Superior], I was made very aware of it because we were close to Minneapolis, and there was this fellow, Warren Mackenzie, a very well-known potter at U of M, and I responded very well to his work,” Jeff says. “Perhaps the work was a bit more simplified than where I wanted to go, but the work ethic and ability to make things that encourage other people to use them and invite art into their lives rather than buying expensive sculpture that lies around in precious areas of their home…to celebrate objects every time you sit down to dinner or coffee.

“And then I did my graduate work at the University of Notre Dame with Bill Kremer, who was another fantastic inspiration. He did very large-scale ceramics and continued to push me to develop and said, ‘Learn how to make big things and fire big things.’ He gave me the freedom to pursue things that I wouldn’t have done without that experience.

“Conceptual art was just beginning to take root when I was in school. I really responded to earthworks and stuff like that: Richard Serra and Joseph Beuys. I really responded to Beuys working with felt and butter and things like that, and I was influenced by the work of John Cage, especially his work Indeterminancy . I never really had much interest in pursuing art conceptually. I found the hidden magic within the material and how to manipulate it. That’s really what I’m about. You take a lump of clay and give it some life and some meaning and form.”

Jeff’s work is made with precision and certitude. He has been influenced by the landscape in which he grew up outside of Duluth, Minnesota, as well as that which he moved into in Dousman, Wisconsin (between Milwaukee and Madison). It seems many artists are influenced by the place that surrounds them. Each interprets this in their own way. For Jeff, architecture and his creative history with both woodworking and welding influence the ceramic pots and sculptures he creates.

Photo by Jeff Noska

“A lot of my pieces are more related to rural architecture: silos and graineries and barns,” Jeff explains. “[My interest is in] the nuances in buildings that have often been changed over the years and show remnants of the process. Windows that have been moved or marks where people whacked the building with the tractor or stones falling out of silos or barns. I’m not deliberately trying to represent those ideas, I’m merely trying to suggest them as design elements. If the surface is too blank, you’re really just looking at the form. But if you have cutouts or notches or dashes, it draws your eyes to it in a way that makes you think about the form a bit more or asks you to take a second look. They say people walk through museums and look at a piece of art for five seconds. So if I can make people slow down and look for a few more seconds or for a minute, they’ll see more than if they just take a glance.

“I kinda grew up in the country and had an uncle who farmed and still have a cousin my age, who I was close to, who still farms. When I relocated to southern Wisconsin it used to be all farmland, now it’s all subdivision. There are still remnants of silos and barns and UW–Waukesha (where Jeff teaches) has a hundred-acre off-campus field unit, the UW–Waukesha Field Station. It was once a small working farm. There’s a couple barns out there, and a machine shed and corn crib, and in 1997 I collaborated with Chris Davis-Benavides, who is now at UW–Milwaukee, to build an anagama wood kiln. It’s about 25 feet long x 6 feet high x 6 feet wide. It’s a lot of fun and a great collaboration between schools.”

Speaking with Jeff, I can tell he is as passionate about teaching as he is about creating art. He tells me how motivating it is to see his students rise to the occasion and challenge themselves to better develop their skills and ideas. In return, it motivates him to continue to grow and change. It challenges him.

“I don’t only teach ceramics, I also teach sculpture and 3-D design, and that’s kind of what keeps me active making sculpture,” Jeff says reflectively. “I want to be an inspiration to my students. I don’t just want to talk about it, I want to show them and be very active in the process along with them. I also teach drawing—intro to drawing. I sketch all the time. That’s how I work out ideas. I always draw things out so that I can see the template or pattern, so I can see the shape or get a much firmer grasp of what those shapes are before I get started, even before I wedge up clay. I think it keeps me sharper when looking at my own work.

Photo by Jeff Noska

“I still like working with wood and fine furniture—doing joinery. What I was most interested in was getting wood to stick together without any mechanical fasteners or glue—everything being dovetailed and wedged together. I still find that to be kind of exciting. The biggest difference to working with metal or wood as opposed to clay is that clay is a much more friendly material in the sense it’s so manipulative and it bonds together any way it’s handled and records that information. Where you really have to work to get a feeling into wood or metal, which is so cold and hard, clay is immediate in its 10 or 15 minutes or half hour. You can do what you can’t do with other materials.

“Clay is so manipulable, and once you learn a few processes, your limitations go away. You can pretty much make whatever you want. That’s what’s exciting. Even if you’re repeating things, you’re getting better at it. You do grow even though it’s not that noticeable to the common eye. That’s the huge part about art. As an artist that’s been active for decades, it’s the way you perceive objects and forms. There’s just a greater depth than if you’ve just taken a few art classes or have an undergraduate degree. Even with those things, it’s still not enough to really investigate art or get a sense of what art is. Art is the biggest, most beautiful thing out there. The whole idea is here’s how we do it, and here’s how we get better at doing it.”

I ask Jeff what his advice is for newbies and novices. He laughs and immediately says, “Never give up! Never stop! Once I started making art and making ceramics, I’m just one of those persons that never stopped. And I know a lot of people who have fallen off the wayside and given up. It’s hard, but if you have a passion, if you truly love it, it’s like being married. If you’re not in love with the person you’re married to, you won’t stay married. With making art, if you don’t love it, you’re not going to stick with it!”

Jeff’s work is available at his studio in Dousman, Wisconsin. He is open year-round, but a great time to visit is during the Kettle Moraine Studio Tour the second weekend of October. You can contact him through his website compositeclay.com for more information or to schedule a visit.

Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.