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potters in mfa programs?

updated thu 19 dec 02


Stephani Stephenson on wed 18 dec 02

This is re: Rick Mahaffey's post on sculptural focus of MFA programs.
He wrote" In this state, if you want to go to the largest school it
seems that you
need to be doing sculpture if you want to get into their MFA program in
Clay. There are Very Few choices locally (in this state) for someone who
pots. One of the programs in a neighboring state only likes their own
I wondered why all of the people working in clay sculpture are not in
the sculpture program. Seems to me that when one takes a clay program
and turns it into a
sculpture only program that the clay program just another sculpture
program with a different name. Is one of the two programs (Clay and
Sculpture) redundant?

I agree, Rick, but it goes even further than deciding between the
'vessel throwers' and the 'handbuilders'
It gets even more specific . Just because one's work is 'sculptural'
does not ensure their acceptance into a 'sculpture' oriented program.

There may also be inclusion or rejection based on whether your work
looks 'contemporary' or even 'avant garde'
So a student with sculptural work not fitting into this sometimes
very narrowly defined 'contemporary ' genre will not fit in.

Sculpture and Ceramics programs are not necessarily redundant. The
sculpture program at the U of O at the time was perhaps unusual in that
it was very traditional and figure oriented... in fact, you really had
to learn how to do the figure very realistically ,.. and go on to work
in bronze. So it was very different.
ALso , I think in many programs, you will really find that there are a
great many people doing pots.... though this surely will vary from
place to place, maybe even region to region in the U.S.

I was pretty naive when I applied to programs... I went to look at them
but didn't know diddly about a lot of things....

The thing I found out that i DIDN'T know before I went was... that my
MFA experience really was influenced GREATLY by the OTHER MFA students
in the program and also the adjunct professors.... as they are the ones
you share with and learn from a great deal/

In my program I was surrounded by some excellent wheel throwing , vessel
making ,potters. One of them taught and there were 3 more I am thinking
of that were very very generous with students, sharing their skills.
Another was a woman, an anglo, who had grown up in Japan, married into
a Japanese pottery family... had watched and loved the process her whole
life but was not allowed to practice throwing there. after a lifetime of
observing she came over to the US, got into school where there was a
wood kiln, and started kicking but, as it were! Also , of the many
visiting artists, a good percentage were straightforward potters.
SO a motivated MFA potter student could do well there and would not have
been forced or encouraged to change. However there is a strange
psychological thing that can happen to you in grad school.
Curiously, for the MFA project , a couple of the potter MFA students
tended to feel like they need to do a 'sculpture' project'...yet this
school was not dictatorial in it's process, I do not think it had to do
with pressure applied.... it had more to do with the type of individual
, and sometimes misguided, self talk we are subject to!!!!! (i.e.
OMIGOD i'm in grad school !!! I guess I better do something 1.
extravagant, 2. big, 3. wild, 4.. 'original 5. 'impressive' for my
'final' show!!!! 1)
I guess I have a certain amount of compassion for people, as I have
'been there' too .. Though admittedly I wasn't in a high profile
school, so maybe didn't see a lot of the posturing that goes on at some

I don't put down people who go to MFA schools OR people who work in
apprenticeships or anything, because I think the main thing is that the
individual is reaching out and saying 'I want to devote some time to the
studio, the craft, the process" . I think there are many different
rivers that still lead to the sea.

However , what I want to say, is, now that I am so darn old and wise (o'
for sure!) is that for people who are directed and wanting to do this
(and no one says you must....) ... look at the work in the studio and
the other students... sometimes there is a flourishing subculture,
regardless of the figurehead....

Stephani Stephenson