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Kansas City Art Institute Ceramics Grad Reveals Methods — For Self-Discovery And Big Cash Awards

Ryan Collerd
Courtesy of Pew Center for Arts and Heritage
Lauren Mabry

Lauren Mabry has some advice for future graduates of the Kansas City Art Institute.

Mabry is one of the celebrity ceramicists who’ll be in town later this month for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. She earned her BFA from the Art Institute in 2007, and less than a decade later was awarded $75,000 in unrestricted cash from Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. In naming Mabry one of its 2015 Pew Fellows, the center lauded Mabry as “a ceramicist whose expressive and colorful ‘dimensional paintings’ … play with form, texture, color and scale and blur the boundaries between ceramics, abstract painting and sculpture.”

Credit Lauren Mabry
One of Lauren Mabry's large cylinders.

“I’m still digesting the whole thing,” Mabry says of the award, speaking to KCUR from her studio in Philadelphia. “It’s crazy.”

After she graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute, Mabry went on to the University of Nebraska for an MFA and then to various residencies and post-graduate studies. She’d known since the age of 14 that she wanted to work in clay, but it wasn’t until grad school that she found her “genuine purpose with ceramics,” Mabry says.

“I was training to be a potter. That’s how I was introduced to clay: with the wheel, pottery, making functional items,” she remembers. “In grad school, the question kept coming up: What is so important about pottery to you?”

The question had never occurred to her, Mabry says. And it led to more questions.

“Am I really invested in this idea of drinking and eating off these handmade items? All of that was great, but I didn’t know if I cared that much.”

What is it about clay?

Challenging herself to figure out why she really cared about clay, Mabry says, “forced me to let go of pottery and embrace the things that are interesting to me.”

What she was interested in was the process: “The making, the firing, the transformation of the material in the kiln,” and “glaze and color and pushing the preconceptions – my own preconceptions – of what this stuff is for.”

All of which eventually led to the work that’s now earning her recognition.

Credit Lauren Mabry
Lauren Mabry's 'Composition of Enclosed Cylinders'

“I stopped seeing glaze as the thing you finish a piece with and started seeing that it was the subject of what I was doing. I shifted from this idea of ‘I’m making pots’ to ‘I’m making paintings with ceramics and glaze.’”

It didn’t happen overnight.

“It was a gradual thing. I kept making work and letting myself be very expressive and over the top with color and surface, and the function slowly kept leaving the picture. So my cups started losing their handles because they were interfering with this idea of three-dimensional paintings.”

Career advice

Mabry’s professional path has been equally methodical.

“I kept having goals and making strategies. While I was an undergrad, I was thinking about where I wanted to go for grad school. When I was in grad school, I was thinking about what I would do next.” She went to residencies in Montana, Oregon, Arizona and China.

Mabry also wanted a residency at the Clay Studio of Philadelphia, so she made a point of showing her work there so the curator would know who she was when she applied. That plan worked. And shortly after she moved to town, Mabry was researching grant opportunities when she discovered the Pew Fellowships.

“I was so in awe of this amount of money they would give to artists. I asked around: ‘How do you apply?’ People said, ‘You can’t. You have to be nominated.’ So I asked, ‘How do you get nominated?’ That’s a secret.”

Credit Lauren Mabry
Lauren Mabry's 'Curved Plane'

Her mentor at the Clay Studio told her: “If you want a chance at that nomination, be here and be present. Show your work, network, get to know people, be active in this community because you don’t know who’s watching you, you don’t know who’s making nominations.”

Two years went by while Mabry followed those instructions.

“I’d been very persistent in showing all over the country, pushing myself into being a professional. Suddenly, I got an email saying I was nominated.”

As in, nominated to apply. Of the 60 artists nominated to apply, Pew chose twelve Fellows. Of those, only four were visual artists (the others were writers, musicians, filmmakers and a choreographer).

Mabry feels as if Philadelphia has embraced her and her work, which has given her a sense of belonging and is allowing her to thrive. But her advice for artists would be relevant anywhere.

“Set a five-year goal and really figure out what it’s going to take to get there. Look at people who are doing what you want to see yourself doing. Be realistic, but also push yourself because things don’t happen by themselves. You have to seek out what you want and expect for yourself, and the rest is just making your best work and working hard. It takes a lot of planning.”

She also has advice more specific to Kansas City.

“The Kansas City Art Institute is an incredible resource. I would say to any student: immerse yourself. School is a special experience, and there are endless amount of things you can get out of it. I’m always grateful I went there.”

Lauren Mabry’s work is included in the following exhibitions during NCECA:
Sight Unseen: Rigorous Improvisation in Contemporary Ceramic Practices, Room 1501B at the Kansas City Convention Center, 301 W. 13th St., Opening reception 5-6:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 16.
Chromaphilia|Chromophobia, Kansas City Art Institute Grand Art Gallery, 1819 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri, 816-914-5394. Opening reception 5-9 p.m., Thursday, March 17.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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