During a sabbatical leave in the 1980s, University of Dallas English professor Eileen Gregory took a pottery class, instead of writing. She immediately fell in love.
“I would get up in the morning, cooking bacon and do a coil [pot] while the bacon was cooking, I mean I was just crazy,” Gregory recalls.
On a schooner on the Great Lakes, Campus Safety Officer Bud Curtsinger also thought about the forms and movements of ceramics, believing that “you can’t separate [life and pottery].” His introduction to the art, though, was years earlier.
“I was 16 years old and I was just messing around at UD on a Saturday and I saw a lady throwing a pot and that was it … I [had to] do it,” says Curtsinger, who in 1975 was in one of ceramics professor Dan Hammett’s first senior classes.
In the library, Circulation Coordinator Robert Prince is a more recent potter.
“I’m a boy, so I play in the mud a lot, and I thought, as an adult, I could still play in the mud a little bit,” says Prince, who was never exposed to art growing up and tried pottery largely because of his artistic wife.
A few floors above Prince’s library office, philosophy professor Robert Wood sits in an office filled with art – mostly his clay sculptures – ranging from abstract, potato-like figures to busts of Shakespearean characters. He began making art as “lab experience” to accompany his Aesthetics course.
Despite different beginnings, these artists share a love of their medium: clay.
“There’s something about that lump of clay [turning] into a beautiful form,” Hammett says, explaining pottery’s attraction. Having met many potters through the years, he sees an “intuitive quality about them, [they] like to respond to something.”
In the responsive and tangible encounter with clay, artists often allow the medium to dictate the form.
“It’s a three-dimensional [form] coming into being, there’s something about the volume of it that’s very fascinating,” Gregory says.
Working in clay cultivates patience, an awareness of craftsmanship and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of form.
“You are literally in continuity with thousands and thousands of millennium, millennia, of people … so all those shapes are there and you take one up and you don’t know that you’re taking it up, but they’re kind of in the memory,” Gregory recalls hearing from Hammett.
As an English professor, Gregory is “in the business of language” but she sees a connection between the poetic forms she studies and the ceramic ones she creates. Pottery’s emphasis on forms – new and traditional – relates to those in poetry as both explore “why one [form] is more elegant than another,” Gregory said.
Curtsinger, who creates “big, useless pieces” in his home studio, was at UD during the ceramics department’s inception. He even helped make the lights hanging in the Haggar Cafe to raise money for the fledgling department.
But Curtsinger found more than artistic skill. Firing a wood kiln in the winter of 1973, he met his future wife, who now teaches at the Dallas Craft Guild. He majored in ceramics at UD, received an M.F.A. in Ceramics from Indiana State University and had a career as an artist and teacher. He even taught once for Hammett during a sabbatical. About seven years ago, when Curtsinger’s pieces stopped selling, he returned as a “CSO guy.”
Prince, who left retail to work at UD, learned that art makes you look at little things, like the perfect mug handle that can feel “like being home.”
Like Prince, Gregory enjoys pottery’s functionality, whether in using mugs made by her friends or seeing her own work in the hands of colleagues.
“It’s just being used in daily life so much, I just love the idea of a really handmade thing, a well-made thing, not … in a museum,” Gregory says.
She and Wood view ceramics as complementary to intellectual pursuit.
“I consider it a kind of antidote … I’m in my mind all the time and when you’re making art, when you’re involved in an activity like that, you’re thinking but you’re not thinking,” Gregory says. “I think people really, really enjoy it as an alternative life, I feel like I have an alternative identity as a potter.”
Perhaps part of the attraction is art’s alternative method of communication. According to Hammett, art is “one of the best things in the world for being able to [communicate what you feel], it allows you to communicate on a different level.”
Whether sharing mugs, joining a millennia old tradition or communicating through a piece, clay fosters community. Ultimately, as Wood explains, art is not a solo exercise but a social one.
“Art comes out of the heart and speaks to the heart…art is kind of a heart to heart relationship.”