The Northern Clay Center (NCC) is taking a new approach as it presents its permanent collection. This exhibition, called “Light of Day,” centers around clay works that help craft a narrative about the NCC’s history as an organization.
“This was really about choosing works that told a story,” says Tippy Maurant, NCC’s deputy director and director of galleries and exhibitions . She’s been part of the center since 1995, when she began learning as a student. “The joke here is that I worked my way through pretty much every position except maybe three,” she says.
NCC first opened in 1990 as a place for exhibitions, studio space rental, classes, and gift sales, and in the intervening years to grow their programs, like hosting events and administering grants and residencies.
For its 10th anniversary in 2000, the organization began developing its permanent collection in advance of its anniversary exhibition, “Ten Years in Retrospect.” It further grew in 2020 around its 20th anniversary exhibition. Acquired through purchase and donation, the early acquisitions were focused on relationships between NCC and the artists. For its new “Light of Day” permanent exhibition, NCC is taking a different approach.
“It was really curated with the work as the focus rather than the relationships as the focus,” Maurant says. “This is a long journey in clay that we’ve had at the Clay Center. We’ve had artists from all over the world. They all tell this story of our history together.”
Mike Helke, an assistant professor of art at the University of Wisconsin — River Falls, and Sarah Millfelt, NCC’s former director, helped curate the exhibition, with a selection of works that honor the different pathways to clay art, and different careers in clay artists have had.
The exhibition features nationally known artists like Stephen de Staebler and Paul Chaleff, the latter who is often credited with the resurgence of interest in wood firing in the United States. Kirk Mangus and Eva Kwong, who were both McKnight artist residents and known nationally, will also be part of the exhibition.
Studio artists with long relationships with NCC are also highlighted, like the late Joseph Kress, who, according to Maurant, “was a beloved studio member and a really rich part of the community.”
It’s an opportunity to get to know artists that might have been overlooked, like Shirley Johnson, a potter working in a time when there were a lot of male makers, Maurant says.
Jun Kaneko, a Nebraska-based artist, often makes monolithic works as part of his practice. The piece of hers that NCC owns is a bit easier to move. “It’s smaller, but it’s still nonetheless impactful,” says Maurant.
The works in the show also feature international artists, including Lithuanian artist Egidijus Radvenskas, whose piece in the show, “Mysterious ML Smile,” references the Mona Lisa, and Madhvi Subrahmanian, who participated in a group exhibition at the center in 2021. Subrahmanian’s work speaks to liminal spaces, Maurant says. “Like before you go into a space or before you leave a space, what happens to you?” she says. “Do you take a deep breath and prepare yourself? Do you exhale when you leave? That work was really significant and thoughtful.”
In tandem with “Light of Day,” NCC is also presenting “In Plain Sight,” featuring work from artists who rent studio space at the center. It’s a mixed group — some make their living full time from clay, others are clay educators, and still others have full time jobs outside of their art careers. It’s the first time NCC is featuring them in a gallery setting.
Pre-pandemic, the studio spaces were open to the public for people to walk through and see the work of the artists in the studio. That all got shut down in 2020, with a planned re-opening of those spaces for the public occurring in June. “They really are out of sight for the public right now,” Maurant says. “We wanted to celebrate the end of that pandemic closure by really putting a spotlight on the works there.” Each of the artists will show one or two pieces.
Besides seeing drastic changes because of COVID-19, NCC has also been impacted by the murder of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed. Located on Franklin Ave. in the Third precinct, Maurant says the racial reckoning of 2020 has influenced the organization’s inventory of values as an organization.
“We’ve been working incredibly hard on both those fronts—staying open and viable as an arts nonprofit in a pandemic, and as a part of a community where we want to be actively anti racist,” Maurant says.
“We are getting to a place where we are more actively engaged with the community now,” she says. “Our outreach program is coming back in full force.”
“Light of Day,” and “In Plain Sight” both open May 6 and run through June 25, with a reception Friday, May 5 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. (free). Also check out the American Pottery Festival Preview, which runs May 2 through 28— it’s a chance to see and buy work that will be in this year’s American Pottery Festival next September. More information here.