Ceramics professor Dan Hammett still remembers when he first came to the University of Dallas in August of 1974, after finding a job notice on the board at his M.F.A. program.
“The Texas weather was deceiving,” Hammett said. “It was cool and crisp, and I think there was some kind of arrangement that was made [in that way].”
Other factors besides the unseasonable weather came together during this first visit: Hammett’s meetings with those he would later consider like a family, including Gene Curtsinger, the university’s first academic dean and the first professor who did not belong to a religious order; Professor Lyle Novinski and his wife, Sybil Novinski; the then-registrar; novelist Caroline Gordon-Tate, then composing a work on the Trail of Tears; and Drs. Donald and Louise Cowan.
“It was interesting because every time I turned around, there would be another person involved that was really easy to talk to, and so at first I really felt the family atmosphere, even though they misled me about the weather,” Hammett said.
He added that Donald Cowan’s support was one of the reasons he chose to teach at UD.
“He looked me in the eye when I said, ‘Well, what do you want ceramics to be?’ and he said, ‘I want you to make it the best it can be, to whatever level you are capable of taking it,’ ” Hammett said. “That kind of trust, that kind of empowerment, and asking me to have a vision … it really allowed me to build [the ceramics program] with a vision. When I first came here, that was exactly what I wanted to do, and they found a way for me to do it.”
Often, the means of building the ceramics program involved furnishing campus with necessities, including lights in the cafeteria and ceramic signs on buildings, in order to obtain funding.
“That first senior class that I had, those students worked on those lights and not their own personal things until almost January,” Hammett said “It’s always been a really wonderful relationship [between ceramics and the university] in the sense that we didn’t really have money, but we could always extend ourselves.”
Besides growing the art department at university, Hammett has had success as an artist, with commissions and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Southland Corporation, according to his profile on the art department’s website.
Work from his private studio, “Handcrafted Ceramics,” has been featured in exhibitions and collections across the United States.
Hammett’s interest in ceramics began when he was a child living in northeastern Oklahoma.
“Growing up, my grandparents owned a farm, and as a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents,” Hammett said. “When my grandfather was doing something I couldn’t be a part of, I would be told to go to the edge of the field while he did whatever he was doing. At the edge of the field, there was a creek, and the creek had a clay bed, and I would work with clay while he was doing what he was doing. And I think that initial response, and the smell of summer rain on the fields, kind of reminds me of what clay smells like, and I have always been the kind of person who loves to create things, build things, make things, and ceramics allows you that kind of physicality.”
Hammett also took inspiration from the Native American pottery he saw growing up.
“There were a lot of museums that had a lot of Indian pottery, and so in elementary school I was introduced to lots of red clay pots and black clay pots that the Native Americans made,” Hammett said. “I think that was the seedbed for me to get started.”
His journey as an artist took him beyond the Great Plains and across the Atlantic when he went to Rome and Greece with the university, taking his own trip to Crete to see Heraklion and Minoan pottery at Knossos.
The time he spent abroad during the Rome semester, too, was like a new meeting of the family he had come to know at UD.
“When [Lyle Novinski] would join us for those 14 days we were in Greece, it was like a reunion,” Hammett said. “[We would] stand in front of those amphorae or stand in front of that chapel … those things we saw on a slide in the auditorium thousands of miles away. It was like the family was complete again.”
Hammett added that he would often privately correct Novinski after his lectures on pottery, giving a sense of both the family atmosphere and the intellectual enrichment he emphasizes in reflecting on his time at the university.
“As a professor, I am challenged on every level,” Hammett said. “Whether it’s about a design project or whether it’s about ceramics or about painting, that I need to talk to the students and give them my perspective, just like I did with Lyle … and I think that’s what the University of Dallas is all about.”