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WATCH: Kansas City Artists Play Experimental Ceramic Instruments Inside The Nelson-Atkins

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Ceramicist and sound artist Joey Watson performs in the Nogichi Court at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

For thousands of years, artisans have been making musical instruments out of clay — from whistles and rattles to ocarinas and horns. That tradition continues with two Kansas City artists who've turned ceramic vessels into a sonic experience. 

On Thursday night at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a large crowd gathered to watch ceramicist and sound artist Joey Watson and sound artist Rev. William Ellis Bradley perform in the Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Court. Wearing ceremonial robes, the two wandered through the space playing ceramic instruments based on the didgeridoo, a wind instrument developed by indigenous Australians.


Watson and Bradley’s performance marked one of dozens of events taking place through March 19, during the 50th annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Kansas City. The artists are included in an exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins called Unconventional Clay: Engaged In Change.

"The Noguchi Court itself has always been my favorite space in the Nelson ever since I moved to Kansas City,” says Watson. “It’s always held that for me and so it’s an honor to play in this environment.”

Watson has played the didgeridoo for eight years. He says he was inspired to make an instrument with the same tone.

“I always had this vision that I could do something in ceramics kind of relating to that,” he says. “I stumbled upon this form that originally comes from an udu which is a ceramic drum that has a hole in it. I ended up playing with my lips like you would a didgeridoo and it drones in a very similar way.”

The two artists met during their years at the Kansas City Art Institute. Bradley, who created solar-powered instruments for the performance, says he enjoys collaborating with artists who work in different mediums.

“This instrument specifically attempts to transmute light waves into sound waves,” he says. “We take the pure photons in and we use them as an energy source to create square waves so you get this multi-phonic structure from the instrument itself so it sounds very much like an old synthesizer.”

Watson says that this was their first opportunity to perform the piece. "Getting to expose what we’re doing to all kinds of people is really exciting."

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR 89.3. Follow her @juliedenesha.

The exhibition, 'Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change,' including work by 24 artists, is on view through June 12, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-751-1278. 

NCECA 2016, 50th Annual Conference, March 16 - 19, Kansas City, Missouri. For a complete list of area ceramics exhibitions, check here

The “Artists in Their Own Words” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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