In Fall 2018, I relocated from the bountiful and bustling Seattle to Memphis, Tennessee, a city marked by recent decline, however now involved in reinvention. I moved for a tenure-track job in Ceramics at the University of Memphis intrigued by the prospect of engaging in the city’s creative renaissance. The University’s program needed a renaissance of its own as I began to reimagine studios, advising a newly formed Clay Club, and building an energized and encouraging community in clay. Early on, the Clay Club expressed an interest in attending the NCECA conference in Minneapolis, and it became my job to prepare them for the experience by remembering my own first NCECA, the 2010 conference in Philadelphia.

I was a college senior, with days left before graduation. Tasked with the impending question of “what’s next,” I casually walked from booth to booth in the Resource Hall, lingering awkwardly at the tables of residencies and graduate schools to introduce myself as an NCECA first-timer and soon to be undergraduate of Alfred University. I remember mixed feelings of being tired, energized, overwhelmed, but inspired. I had never seen so much of this medium I loved. Nine years later, I watched four of my students from U of M enter that same Resource Hall in Minneapolis with anticipation that they may experience something similar. Over the last nine years, NCECA has provided me with financial support, exposure, connections, and validation as an artist, as I have transitioned from the roles of undergraduate to graduate to educator.

As a student and life-long learner, NCECA opened my mind to the possibilities of not just the material itself but the community needed to foster its growth. As an artist that works with the medium of ceramics in alternative ways, I have always appreciated that among many things, NCECA provides a platform for us to share work that materially and conceptually challenges the medium of ceramics. One of the most rewarding moments of my life was being selected as an Emerging Artist in 2017. It created a sense of validation and also encouragement to continue to pursue explorations in understanding the vulnerabilities in clay in its unfired state.

Since then, NCECA has continued to support moments of transition in my own work, most recently at this past conference in Minneapolis in the show Matter at Hand co-curated between myself, Allison Rose Craver, and Katie Coughlin. Working for the first time on a large-scale installation with clay in its dust state, I created a site-specific installation of disappearing images suspended on a series of sheer screens. The piece Walking on Ghosts mirrored the transitioning landscape of my new life and city. As I drive through Memphis, I am overwhelmed with block by block changes that vary from grassy lots, to new apartment buildings, to century old structures. The opportunity to show this new body of work allowed me to share these transitions and in turn receive feedback from a community I respect.

In the last four years, I have seen my role as an attendee transition from student to educator. With this comes a fresh perspective in the role NCECA can play in a person’s life. For the University of Memphis students, it was their first time at the conference, and I’m not sure who was more excited, me or them to attend. I secretly knew it had the power to reshape the energy of our school studio that desperately needed it. During the conference, each night the students returned with stories of who they met, what they had seen, and sheepishly, how much they had spent on new wares. This year I asked these first four students to share their experiences with others in our program. It was wonderful to see them explain the different facets of the conference, what interested them the most, and also how it has translated within the work they are making now. We have  12 students currently signed up to go to next year’s conference.

The NCECA conference is one of only a few moments when my roles as teacher and artist intersect. It has always amazed me that a single organization can provide a common place for those in different transitions in life. NCECA brings together a diverse group of hobbyists, professionals, educators, students, and super fans to celebrate a medium that’s unassuming but inviting. It’s just dirt, but its power to transform is the reason I fell in love with ceramics.

Visit katerobertsceramics.com to learn more about Kate Roberts.

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Top image: Process shot of Gate to Nowhere.
Second image:Gate to Nowhere, 2017.
Third image: Walking on Ghosts, 2019.
Last image: Process shot of Walking on Ghosts.