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Learning the Value of Creative Community at Ox-Bow Wood-fire Intensive

Guest blogger Emily Cobb is a graduate student in the MFA Printmaking program. She recently had the opportunity to join the Kendall Clay Collective at the semi-annual Wood-fire Creative Intensive.

The first time I drove up to Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency for their summer open house, I though I had gotten the directions wrong. Coming down a one lane residential back road, I was met with more than a few “DEAD END” signs. But like the old saying, where this particular road ended, another began, heading directly into a forest.

Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) Sculpture and Functional Art Assistant Professor Israel Davis has been bringing students to Ox-Bow since 2007, when he established a bi-annual Wood-fire Creative Intensive to offer students hands-on experience creating wood-fired ceramic art. Since then, this four-day, three-night trip has evolved into an immersive experience full of creativity, community, and learning, where participants connect with visiting artists, watch demonstrations, and work together toward creative goals.

KCAD students at Ox-Bow(above): Members of the Kendall Clay Collective and KCAD President Leslie Bellavance (back row, third from right) posing in front of the kiln at Ox-Bow; (below): Sculpture and Functional Art Assistant Professor Israel Davis (right) is the cornerstone of the Ox-Bow experience

Professor Israel Davis


When I recently had the opportunity to go to Ox-Bow along with the Kendall Clay Collective (KCC) to take part in my first Creative Intensive, I had a feeling the experience would offer me something special. I wasn’t disappointed.

The secluded atmosphere of Ox-Bow combined with the tight-knit sense community and busy schedule of the workshop creates an entirely unique environment for learning and creating. Students are pulled out of their everyday bubble and thrown into the woods surrounding the school where teamwork, community, and a playful attitude can become defining moments in their artistic development.

Students at Ox-Bow(above): work and conversation bleed together during the Creative Intensive; (below): loading the kiln is a community affair

Loading the kiln at Ox-Bow

Molly Duff, a senior Printmaking student who’s minoring in Sculpture and Functional Art and also serves as the KCC President says, “For me, community is a huge part of these workshops. To be able to come together with a group of people that work as hard as my clay kiddies do is something super special. There's a definite unified energy that surrounds the Ox-Bow intensives. It brings everyone together to work toward a common goal.”

In my experience, the Ox-Bow environment builds something closer to a family. For instance, I discovered that a group of ladies from the surrounding area join the KCAD students at each Creative Intensive and make all the food for the weekend. These ladies were the first people I met. They’re all extremely experienced, both with clay and cooking, so they’re nice people to have around for a weekend like this.

They immediately greeted me and offered hot drinks and conversation until dinner was ready. Through the rest of the weekend, they would jump in to work with us, offering advice on glazing, throwing, and answering any question that might pop into a student’s mind.

Ox-Bow group photo(above): a close bond is formed among participants in the Creative Intensive; (below): KCAD President Leslie Bellavance, who taught at Ox-Bow in the 1980’s visited with students during the Creative Intensive

President Leslie Bellavance with KCAD students at Ox-Bow

At dinner, I sat with friends and strangers, and we all talked as if we had known each other forever. At Ox-Bow, it doesn’t matter if you’ve just met; you’re all there to work hard, have fun, and play with clay. We picked up from dinner and carried our conversations out into the woods and the clay studio. The Ox-Bow veterans offered advice on glazing and some of us made beads while others began loading the kiln.

Once the night fell, I wandered back and forth between the kiln and the fire. I had the chance to talk with one of the visiting artists, Henry Crissman, and some of the other students, about anything from school and work to travel and books. Eventually though, the conversation often came back around to how to stoke the fire and avoid the smoke that kept shifting to blow in our faces. The laughter and conversation there went on well into the late hours of the night.

Ox-Bow meal time(above): a lot of the bonding at Ox-Bow happens during meal time; (below): the fully-loaded kiln waits to be fired

loaded kiln at Ox-Bow

The next morning, the sun was shining and the weather was unusually mild. I was told that autumn at Ox-Bow often meant rain, so it was nice to wake up to such a warm day. Visiting artists Tom Bartel, Sunshine Cobb, and Hiromi Iyoda kicked off the day by grabbing large hunks of fresh clay and jumping right into some demonstrations.

As each artist began to create, students were able to watch them incorporate their styles and develop pieces from the ground up. Seeing this allowed us to get tips on a variety of clay-working techniques and ask questions according to our own interests, whether they concerned functional or sculptural ceramics. Henry Crissman, meanwhile, continued to glaze some special mugs he made that were then fired in the wood kiln.

Later on in the day, KCAD President Leslie Bellavance came to visit during the artists’ talks, and stayed to interact with them and with the students. President Bellavance is no stranger to Ox-Bow, having attended workshops there in the 80s, but this time around she was able to see how KCAD students take advantage of having this incredible resource so readily accessible.

visiting artist at Ox-BowStudents listen to a demonstration from one of the visiting artists

In the middle of all the action, of course, was Professor Davis. It’s clear that he enjoys his time at Ox-Bow just as much as (if not more than) anyone else, but when I talked to him about it after the trip, he was emphatic that the Creative Intensives have always been about the students.

“When a student pursues educational opportunities beyond the school in which they are enrolled, they are actively taking their education into their own hands. Events such as the Wood-fire Creative Intensive offer students an opportunity to exercise an interest beyond the impetus of a grade,” Davis says. “It’s about building relationships and a network of support.”

firing the kiln at Ox-Bow(above): All hands on deck helping to fire the kiln; (below): some of the finished pieces

finished ceramic pieces

Having been able to experience the weekend at Ox-Bow myself, I can certainly agree. Being involved in this weekend heightened my investment and interest not just in wood-fired ceramic art, but also in the creative process as a whole. Opportunities like this are about more than just social time; they provide real world experience and build lasting support systems students can depend on well after graduation.

The Kendall Clay Collective's next Creative Intensive will be held at Ox-Bow School of Art from March 24-27, with a preparation day on March 13. If you would like to be involved, contact Professor Israel Davis or KCC President Molly Duff as soon as possible.


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