His hands caked with dry clay, Coleton Lunt sits at the potter’s wheel, carefully kneading the spiraling funnel before him. He has a relaxed demeanor, but when working, his eyes are concentrated and intense as he molds and shapes his creation into form.
It is a process Lunt has performed hundreds of times before. Some of these shapes turn into finished products. Others fail and fall apart on the wheel. All of this is part of his learning process as a ceramics major at Northern Arizona University.
"At times, ceramics is grueling and heartbreaking,” Lunt, a senior studio art major, explains. “You experience disappointment, but out of that comes humility. Thanks to my classes, I’ve been humbled—I’ve been able to step back and look at my own work from a different point of view, and I have become so much better at this art because of it.”
Lunt was one of three students from the university selected to attend summer workshops at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee. The other two, Tolley Rippon and Levon Muller, are similar to Lunt: hardworking and passionate about art and pottery.
This experience will help the students with their future careers; Lunt says that Arrowmont gives his graduate school goals a boost, and could lead to an apprenticeship with a practicing artist. But equally important, the work helped them discover something deeper: their passion for art form.
“The three of us are producing good work,” Lunt says. “We’re all interested in the program and passionate about wood-burning kilns. We're not just here for a degree: we really like ceramics, and I think those in charge of the workshop were looking for people who really wanted to go to Arrowmont to pursue ceramics as an art form.”
Learning at home and away
The students were not the only ones traveling across the country. Jason Hess, their professor, guest taught a workshop at Arrowmont titled “Firing the Anagama,” which focused on how to properly fire wood kilns. It is a subject that Hess was well-positioned to speak on, as Northern Arizona University has a great variety of kilns.
"We have probably the biggest, most detailed wood kiln facility in the country,” Hess says. “We have eight different wood-burning kilns, all different designs that produce different results, and they all have different personalities."
Hess has worked with Lunt and the other students in classes before. In ceramics, teachers can learn just as much from students, and Hess has a deep connection with the students who went to Arrowmont. Like them, he loves ceramics, and wants to help them succeed.
Just like Hess lent his talents and knowledge to the workshop for part of the summer, he says it is common for visiting ceramics artists to flock to Northern Arizona University for a chance to work with the kilns.
“We have at least one nationally or internationally known visiting artist per semester,” Hess says. “Someone will come here, and we'll give them some funding to work in a studio for a month. They will interact with students and present a couple of lectures.”
Hess says the opportunity for his students to work with professionals is priceless.
"You get to see a professional artist working, hear ideas they may have, see their techniques, and get insight or criticism,” Hess says. “The students can get criticism from that person, and it's from a different perspective than the faculty. It makes the experience that much richer."
Miller, a senior studio art major, says the education he has received from the ceramics department goes past just learning how to mold clay.
“I didn't think that I had the ability to make sculptures, or the ability to try making figure pieces,” Miller says. “My professors helped open my eyes and broaden my spectrum on what can happen with this medium.”
Prepared for the future
At Arrowmont, both Miller and Lunt attended a class on plaster work taught by accomplished artist Nicholas Bivins. Hess says the three students were given a great chance to make the connections necessary to be even more competitive for residency programs after they graduate.
"When they graduate, there will be residency programs all over the country where they can apply,” Hess says. “At Arrowmont, they met and interacted with all of the people who work there, and those folks will remember them if they apply in the future. In addition, many senior artists will take apprentices, so you may develop an opportunity to go work with somebody for a while as an apprentice.”
Lunt says he hopes to apply for one of those residency programs after he graduates. He is appreciative of the opportunity he has been given to study ceramics in Flagstaff, where he has access to visiting artists and a wide diversity of kilns.
“It has been amazing to be surrounded by the masters of ceramics in the west here at Northern Arizona University,” Lunt says. “You can’t put a price on that. It’s been a great opportunity.”