United by Clay: KCAD Clay Collective Builds Community Through Ceramics
Professional artists say that it takes determination, grit, and a deep passion for craft to make a living from creativity. But as valuable as that advice may be, it’s a lesson that members of the KCAD Clay Collective (KCC) prefer to learn by hand.
This Kendall College of Art and Design student organization uses the medium of ceramic art to develop creative skills, build personal and professional connections, and create social impact through community initiatives. The group’s members represent a wide range of majors, and from that disciplinary diversity comes a true collective identity that has enabled the KCC to do some amazing things outside of the walls of KCAD.
“Clay is a communal media that requires and depends on people to make it work,” says KCAD Community Arts Advocate Salvador Jiménez, who served as president of the KCC during his time as a student. “You depend on everyone putting in their physical labor to make it happen. It's a community of students and professionals who have that one thing in common – clay – and each of them interprets the medium differently."
Professor Israel Davis (right) with visiting artists Jason Burnett (center) and Margaret Bohls (left), displaying collaborative work they created during a workshop at Ox-Bow School of Art (credit: Israel Davis)
One of the KCC’s most valuable assets is the longstanding relationship with the Ox-Bow School of Art developed by Israel Davis, KCAD ceramics professor and the group’s faculty advisor. Spread out over 115 acres of dunes, forests, and trails in Saugatuck, Michigan, Ox-Bow hosts regular workshops, classes, and residencies for artists looking to gain a new perspective and focus on their work. For the past five years, Davis has worked with KCC students, helping them raise funds to attend Ox-Bow workshops where they can experiment with the school’s expansive ceramic wood-firing facilities.
Woodfire ceramcis isn't all about clay - here, KCC members restock the wood supply at Ox-Bow (credit: Israel Davis)
Having access to this type of kiln gives KCAD students the opportunity to craft unique ceramic pieces. Students spend their days and nights glazing their work, prepping the kiln, cutting wood, and taking shifts to tend the kiln once it is fully fired.
“Any time you have an intensive time with art, it is a transforming time," says Davis. "You are not encumbered by the chore-like experiences of the day. You don't have to worry about your food, telephone calls, or feeding the cat. It gives you a chance to really be invested and immersed in being creative."
KCC members Molly Duff (foreground) and Lydia Bode (background) feed the kiln at Ox-Bow (credit: Israel Davis)
While the students are primarily focused on creating, there’s a depth to the entire Ox-Bow experience that allows them to turn themselves over completely to their craft. Beyond stoking the kiln and creating work at Ox-Bow, Davis has made it a point to invite visiting artists along as part of the workshop. Class sizes are kept intimate, giving students the opportunity to engage with visiting artists on a one-on-one basis. Students often bring along their portfolios to be critiqued by fresh eyes.
“KCAD students learn a lot in the classroom about technique and being an artist, but the KCC gives them an opportunity to apply their skills and techniques, learn about being an artist, and develop their résumé outside of the institution,” says Davis.
This kind of close proximity between practicing artists and students is what has made the relationship between KCAD and Ox-Bow so strong. It’s not uncommon for students to be offered employment opportunities by either the visiting artists or Ox-Bow staff.
Former KCC member and current KCAD Community Arts Advocate Salvador Jiménez loads cermaic art into the wood-fired kiln at Ox-Bow (credit: Israel Davis)
“Israel is always thinking of art as a career,” says Jiménez. “He is always trying to bring in visiting artists to talk about their work and how they got there, and he is always asking us to question what it means to be successful."
Back home, the KCC works to extend its communal atmosphere into the Grand Rapids community. The group is currently in the process of revamping Heartside Ministry Gallery's Art Studio. The gallery is situated along South Division as part of Heartside Ministry and allows disenfranchised residents of the city to express themselves through art. KCC members are also working with the gallery to set up demonstrations and workshops to encourage people to create and sell their art.
The group also recently finished a project with Thresholds, a social service agency that works with adults with developmental disabilities. KCC members helped Thresholds residents stimulate their own creativity by helping them fire original designs on ceramic tiles, which they then get to take with them as a permanent reminder of the collaboration.
The KCC poses with Thresholds residents in the KCAD clay studio (credit: Israel Davis)
"I really love helping out the community and being involved outside the school," says Nate Large, KCC's current president. "It was really fun watching people create things and seeing the big picture come together."
In every one of the group’s initiatives, Davis promotes students to various leadership roles, and he is constantly facilitating opportunities that push students outside of their comfort zones and spark them to pursue a higher level of personal and professional possibilities.
A look inside the tight-knit community that is the KCC at Ox-Bow - Professor Israel Davis takes KCC selfie! (credit: Israel Davis)
"Being the kind of passionate person I am about making art, making a living as an artist and the pursuit of that, I want to push students to visualize a path," says Davis. "The KCC becomes a stepping stone for these students to begin their own journey.”