Molding the future in CIA Ceramics

The typical high school art class tends to offer limited experience with clay.

“You make a cheeseburger, you make a dragon, you make a girl with really, really big eyes, and then you say I love ceramics,” says Seth Nagelberg, chair of Ceramics at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Yes, students do tend to love it—even when they know only a fraction of what there is to love about contemporary clay work.

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Today’s ceramics artists have access to techniques that stretch back to the beginning of pottery making, as well as to computer programs that allow them to push out objects through 3D clay printers. Ceramicists work as high-art makers represented by galleries (1986 grad Susan Collett’s work has been shown in international art biennials), as designers generating objects for housewares retailers (2002 grad Nancy Yusko works for Kohler), and lots of things in between.

Ceramics has boomed under the influence of technology, changing how it’s thought of, marketed and made. And that’s the world for which Nagelberg is determined to prepare ceramics majors.

The history of CIA is closely entwined with the history of contemporary ceramics. Cowan Pottery, operated by CIA instructor R. Guy Cowan in Lakewood and then Rocky River from 1912 to 1931, employed a host of artists who worked in clay and other media. Among them were sculptor Thelma Frazier Winter, Edris Eckhardt and Alexander Blazys. Viktor Schreckengost’s famous Jazz Bowl, commissioned in 1930 through Cowan by Eleanor Roosevelt, became a symbol of the age and of the designer’s success.


Over the last three decades, CIA’s Ceramics Department—part of the school’s Craft environment, which includes Jewelry + Metals and Glass—had been spearheaded by the prolific and award-winning William Brouillard and Judith Salomon. Both are retired from teaching (though still producing work). When Nagelberg was hired to take the torch, he brought with him experience in sculpture, production and industrial design.

“I have three different bodies of work that include tabletop design, which is my production work,” Nagelberg says. “Then I do some architectural tile that’s artistic, not bathroom tile. And then I have what I call collisions of everyday objects, where I’m using readymades, looking at different things that are castoffs and turning them into designer items. I use technology, so I use 3D printing and make molds for 3D objects.”

When Nagelberg started studying ceramics at the University of Hartford in the ’90s, he was half expecting to live like the stereotypical hippie potters of yore, making pottery and schlepping it to art fairs in a Volkswagen minibus. Times had already changed, though. Ceramics had been professionalized in part by universities developing programs and granting degrees in its study during the post-World War II years.

And, of course, as Nagelberg started his career, the internet was on its way.

Social media and e-commerce helped give rise to the maker movement by allowing artists, artisans, foodies and farmers to communicate with others working in similar arenas as well as to potential customers. Makers can become their own marketers, and many must do that to some degree.

“I want people to graduate with something they can produce on their own to sell, which is not so different than before,” Nagelberg says. “But the world has changed. Photographing your work used to be the last thing you did. Now you take those pictures and you go on Facebook and you go on Instagram.”

Students leave the program with a broad set of technical skills in ceramics—hand-building, throwing, sculpting, glazing—as well as all the makings of the website: an artist statement, biography, resume and portfolio. “That was an afterthought when I was a student. Somebody mentioned it loosely two weeks before graduation.”

He also emphasizes entrepreneurship by bringing in visiting artists who have used innovative business models, such as Andrea Denniston, a West Virginia potter who built a camping trailer as a traveling gallery for her work, and Brian Giniewski, who raised more than twice his goal on Kickstarter (selling his trademark “drippy pots”), which allowed him to move into a big, new studio.

Whatever innovations CIA ceramics students have at their fingertips, it’s still the craft that gets them in the door. “They want to make pots,” Nagelberg says. “The typical ceramics is functional pottery, and there’s narrative pottery, which is like painting on ceramics. And then the other thing is to make sculpture.”

Junior Kelsea Deininger, who loves making art in part for the therapeutic qualities she derives, chose ceramics because it meant making “something that people could be using and enjoying at the same time, and interacting with constantly, versus something being in the background. It feels right.”

Other students move toward sculpture, or are inspired by the processes themselves. On private property in Lake County, CIA has a wood-fired kiln that gets fired at least once a semester and takes artists back to the earliest forms of making with clay. “The reason we fire with wood is that it’s a tradition, but you also get results you can’t get any other way,” he says. “The flame actually leaves marks on the work. When the wood ash gets hot enough it melts into a glaze. The flame actually licks the piece, so you’ll get these marks. The aesthetic has to do with being less in control. It’s like drawing with fire.”

These days, Nagelberg is working with colleagues from the Jewelry + Metals and Glass departments on a 2018-2019 biennial called Think Craft. It will be a yearlong series of events, including a three-day symposium in September 2018, that will draw artists, collectors, dealers, writers and educators to CIA.

“We want to bring people to Cleveland, just to come to the symposium, but it’s also to draw attention to craft at the school,” he says. “Cleveland is a good place to be doing ceramics.”

Cleveland Institute of Art

Reinberger Gallery

11610 Euclid Avenue

Cleveland, Ohio 44106