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Kansas City Art Institute Brightens Blackened Walls Of Ceramics Department

Kansas City Art Institute
The new ceramics department at the Kansas City Art Institute boasts a high-performing plaster lab and expanded glaze room.

The Kansas City Art Institute's ceramics department dates back to the 1960s – and has a storied history, with larger than life professors who shaped the program like Ken Ferguson, Victor Babu and George Timock. 

This summer, Kansas City firms Helix and McCown Gordon Construction collaborated on a $750,000 renovation of "the old kiln room." 

The space, still under construction, boasts a high-performing plaster lab and an expanded glaze room. Above the main floor, a loft-like mezzanine holds faculty offices and a digital studio with 3-D printers. There's also a soundproof room with equipment to improve safety as well as the building's air quality. 

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR
Cary Esser, professor and chair of the ceramics department at the Kansas City Art Institute. Esser graduated from KCAI in 1978, earned her MFA in New York, and returned to KCAI in 1996.

 Cary Esser has served as chair for nearly 20 years — and she's worked closely on this design-build project, which links the traditions of the past to a digital future. Work is still underway, and Esser talked recently about the progress.

Here are some of the highlights from the conversation: 

On the ceramics department in the 1970s, when Esser was a KCAI student

"Well, in some ways, it wasn't that different. The furniture was different because it was very oriented towards making pottery. I would say, back then, maybe 75 percent of the students were working on the wheel.

"There was real interest ... and openness on the part of the faculty to students doing other things, but both Ken (Ferguson) and Victor (Babu) were potters, and George (Timock) even made vessels, sculptural vessels."

On boosting access to technology 

"Now, we have a room specifically for these 3-D printers. And the great thing about these 3-D printers is that they can print these three-dimensional forms that can then be also used for making molds from. So there's this really nice marriage now between the plaster area and the 3-D printing area ... It expands our instructional space and it expands our ability to teach curriculum in those areas, which are perfectly linked."

On creating a new light-filled space

"That room was a default storage area. The walls were blackened from many years of gas kiln firings. And now it is bright. It's got beautiful light, first of all, it's got beautiful work spaces, it's got beautiful work surfaces. It's got new and improved equipment. It's got this whole new space that's just light-filled."

On continuing a historic tradition 

"The wonderful thing about this field, and I think what draws a lot of people to this field, is that it does have a really rich, and deep, and ancient history ... I think that there's still the same kind of strong spirit for working, and producing, and exploring, and playing, and innovating, and finding new ways of doing things in ceramics."

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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