Whether we’re talking sculptors, painters, authors, musicians, or any other creative, decade after decade, the Midwest produces some of the most profound artists in the world. In recognition, this year we’re zooming out from Wisconsin to celebrate ceramicists in our neighboring states. Next stop: Indiana.
Every good artist has at least two traits in common with his or her peers regardless of their chosen media: they provide the viewer with an entry point to their work and their thinking, and they provide a reason to linger once entrance is achieved. Memory, narrative, familiar iconography, and emotional tension are all devices that artists will utilize to attract the attention and emotional interaction required of the viewer to successfully complete the creative act. Ted Neal creates a poetic resonance by evoking a memory of place and occurrence without devolving to something maudlin, or sentimental. His work is as much a celebration of industrial presence and passing as it is a mnemonic of an era of prosperity and unconscious consumption. He presents us with a marriage of rustbelt ephemera and forgotten rural architecture.
Ted made the journey from Galway, in upstate New York outside of Saratoga, to Utah State University and its legendary art department, and came to work with artist and professor John Neely, who profoundly changed the direction of Ted’s artistic life by encouraging him to go to grad school in ceramics. He landed at Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, where he worked with Dan Anderson and Paul Dresang, both of whom helped to shape his iconography and his methodology. After earning his MFA, he taught at Edwardsville before returning for five more years to work as the technology instructor and studio coordinator for the ceramics area at Utah State University. From there, he moved to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he is now a full professor in the art department as well as graduate coordinator.
Ted spends much of his summers traveling the country building kilns, a practice he perfected while at Utah State, for various colleges, universities, and arts and craft schools. They vary from wood fired, salt, and soda to reduction style. He considers this a part of his academic research and service, as he often accompanies these events with workshops to pass these skills on to the next generation of artists. Having worked in a broad array of materials while he acted as a tech instructor, Ted is comfortable with most welding disciplines, not only informing his kiln building but also finding expression in his artistic work in which he combines sophisticated metalworking with his ceramic pieces.
Much of Ted’s work can initially suggest they are crafted from COR-TEN steel (a process that utilizes steel alloys to create a rust-like surface that stabilizes without painting) or cast iron. In fact, the surface quality is a result of adding slip, a creamy mix of water and clay, to previously fired work which is then refired in a reduction process. The added iron compounds in the slip combined with careful temperature adjustment and aided by a given piece’s location in the kiln allows Ted to exert some control over the color variations he achieves. There is, however, a serendipitous quality that evinces when the final piece is revealed. “Opening the kiln,” Ted says, “is like opening presents on Christmas morning.”
This ability of ceramic to mimic another material was demonstrated to him by Paul Dresang, who creates astonishing trompe-l’oeil (fool the eye) sculptures of unzipped leather satchels containing gilded ceramic vessels. Ted has taken this concept further by mimicking the appearance of rusting steel silos, including climbing fixtures and fastening hardware, and then mounting them on welded steel frames that appear indistinguishable in material from the ceramic structures. This playfulness characterizes much of Ted’s work in his efforts to conjure an illusion of material combined with an evocative form intended to stir a memory of forgotten architectures and places.
Critical to Ted’s identity as an artist is his calling as a teacher. Working with his students in the studio, doing the projects alongside them so they can track the development of his thinking and craft, is an essential part of his creative process. The students can witness not just the ideation and inception of a concept, but its fulfillment and final evaluation. Ted Neal is an artist whose creativity is truly realized in the making of his art and in the sharing of its secrets with the next generation of ceramic artists.
MALCOLM MOBUTU SMITH
Professor Malcolm Mobutu Smith of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, is an amalgamator: a modern-day alchemist who combines and transforms experiences, influences, inspirations, flights of spontaneous imagination, social conscience, and clay into ceramic art that is compelling and powerful, even magical. He’s an artist who utilizes exquisite craftsmanship to strain the boundaries of ceramics, blurring the lines between conventional function and pure aesthetic form. “Art,” he says, “functions implicitly.” The expressive intention and demand is not worn superficially; it’s imbedded within the piece as its function.
The son of two artists trained at Michigan State in the 1960s, Malcolm’s artistic journey began as young man. He was captivated by ceramics and started showing and selling while still a teenager. Fortunate enough to study with high-school mentor Paul Bernhardt of the Conestoga High School in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District outside of Philadelphia, he found direction and came to greatly respect and emulate Bernhardt, who had studied at the world-renowned Alfred University in New York State, the same institution where Malcolm would earn his MFA. His undergraduate training initiated at the Kansas City Art Institute and was completed at Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania. Along this path, he met numerous artists who helped guide and inspire him to the artistic achievements he is celebrated for.
But Malcolm is not just an artist of academic presence and legacy. His influences extend into the arena of graffiti writing; hip-hop music; break dancing; popular comics, especially of the 30s and 40s; jazz music; pre-Columbian pottery; Etruscan vessel forms; and, most importantly, his experiences living as an African American man in the complex bargain insisted upon him by a country that never fails to reinforce his Blackness and remind him daily of the struggle that he and fellow Black Americans face. He has recently completed a series of tableau-like pieces consisting of teapot-sized sculptures sitting on rectangular or wedge-shaped plinths with eccentrically shaped brightly painted backsplashes. From a certain point of view, the sculptures might conjure a memory of early modern sculpture or mid-century container forms, but the shock comes when the back of the piece is viewed: a bent plane is covered with an image drawn from the most-offensive caricatures of Black children sourced from racist cartoons and publications dependent on the promotion of stereotyped depictions. Most of these works were made during the tenure of Barack Obama as president, a time which Malcolm felt was only temporarily masking the real racism at the heart of much of America. His vision now seems prescient.
But this is only a small fraction of his encyclopedic output. Malcolm is also a trained draftsman, like his father, and he worked to master the CAD (computer-aided design) system that is so ubiquitous in the studios of working architects. These systems allow him to design three-dimensional forms that would be almost impossible to envision with traditional drawing. Relying on the CAD system, he can build models he subsequently can print out on sophisticated 3-D printers. He describes this endeavor as working on a “pluralistic platform” that allows for “pure plastic potential.” It has been possible for him to design forms that can literally not exist as three-dimensional entities. In some cases, the printer simply ignores the impossibilities and creates workable interfaces while declaring in other cases that the form cannot be realized. By asking his drawings to do the impossible, he breaks the traditional relationship between foreground, middle ground, and background. He has partnered with scientists and mathematicians at his university to engage in what he refers to as “reimagining science.” Together, they have produced fantastic, spontaneous forms that can be built and produced on a 3-D clay printer.
His current work, which will be displayed at the prestigious Wexler Gallery in Philadelphia in the upcoming fall season, is both a return to and reinvention of earlier explorations featuring letter and word forms sculpted into vessel-like structures that have moved away from his earlier poly-chromed forms returning to an acknowledgement of the monochromed essential nature of ceramics. He is now also included in a three-person exhibition at the 411 Gallery in Columbus, Indiana, which happens to be home to one of the great collections of public mid-century modern architecture in America. His show, Felsic Morphology, showcases his newest vessel forms in tableau format. “These new decorative objects operate as signifiers of an acculturation to aestheticized things reflecting desires and imaginations,” says Malcolm.
Justin Rothshank is a potter who considers his and his family’s role in the larger society and environment with the same attention and enthusiasm that he brings to the aesthetic decisions that inform his work. Justin’s studio is located in Goshen, Indiana, which is also home to Goshen College, a Mennonite-affiliated liberal arts school that he and his wife, Brooke, attended. While he took art classes in school, he did not get a BFA, the more traditional route taken by artists who make their livings solely from their artwork. But his college experience and his faith inform a significant aspect of what Justin does. On his website, he writes about his family’s commitment to issues of social justice, environmental responsibility, historical knowledge and understanding, and family values.
A portion of Justin’s work is created specifically to enable him to contribute to social causes, such as Black Lives Matter, and other progressive entities. This year, he adorned two sets of mugs with portraits of Amanda Gorman, the young poet who achieved virtually overnight recognition when she read her work at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, and Dolly Parton, who released a statement last August supporting BLM and is also known as a promoter of LGBTQ+ rights. The images on the mugs were done by Brooke, who is an illustrator and painter of miniatures. The full sets of these mugs will have 100 percent of the proceeds donated to organizations that promote the principles and ideals that the Rothshanks use to guide their lives.
Brooke also collaborates with Justin on other pieces in his catalogue of work. Justin uses ceramic decals as a way of placing images onto the surface of his various forms. Some of these are flowers and plant segments; some are wildlife representations; and some feature photo images of current and historical figures, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Harriet Tubman. Brooke helps create some of the illustrated elements and others are commercially sourced then collaged together to create various new relationships of pictorial interaction. Justin indicated that not all of the over 30 venues that display and sell his work carry the full line of his output. Because his work appears in museum shops, gift shops, and boutique design stores in vacation destinations, he has learned that the political pieces sell well in east coast establishments while the more decorative and collectible works do better in community clay displays, museum-quality gift shops, and dedicated art galleries. With the wide range of venues that offer his work for sale, few of them offer the full range of what he creates.
All of Justin’s work is done in earthenware, a red-bodied clay that he chooses because of its connection to the material of many Indigenous cultures, such as African pottery, Native American pottery, and Spanish majolica ware as well as its far more ecologically friendly economy of firing resources. Earthenware requires a firing temperature of at least 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, 200 degrees below that of stoneware. While that temperature differential may seem small, Justin points out it can cut the firing time in half with the concomitant savings in fuel and the reduction of added environmental burden.
While the vocabulary of forms that Justin works in, cups, mugs, platters, pitchers, jars, and candle holders, might initially seem limited, his imaginative flights and inventiveness are more often expressed in his surface treatments: decals; rich glazing; choice of images; textures; and soda firing, an atmospheric process in which he introduces baking soda or soda ash into the atmosphere of a gas-fired kiln to create surfaces that cannot be realized in any other fashion. Justin's work is solid, authentic, comfortable, and clearly the expression of a midwestern life lived with sincerity and conviction.
Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.
Malcolm Mobutu Smith