With the sun fading fast, the warm light shining on the lonely ceramic art began to seep into five empty folding chairs that congregated outside of the Clay Studio of Missoula. The chairs were supposed to be filled with the many people who would attend the exhibition, but all that sat there was the disappointment of yet another beautiful thing falling prey to COVID-19.
The University of Montana’s post-baccalaureate ceramics program hosted its opening reception of the “Enouement” fall exhibition at the Clay Studio of Missoula on Friday, with a small attendance during the three hours it was open to the public.
The one-room display would be tight in normal circumstances, but COVID-19 made the small art studio seem that much smaller. The studio offered hand sanitizer upon entering, and people were required to put on masks before taking the first step in the building.
Arrows on the floor directed the viewers to remain COVID-19 friendly, though only a few people stood in the studio. One side of the floor featured larger pieces in their own respective corners, while the other featured smaller pieces crammed and mixed together on shelves.
On the right wall was a display of pots painted a rusted silver, shaped like wheels of metal meshed with gears. A life sized, two-headed black and white snake slithered in place on the middle wall, with a single red fishnet on its body. In the middle of the room was a blue peacock made partially out of clay and partially out of what looked to be pieces of a bathrobe.
The turnout was lower than expected, said Brady Monk, the artist behind the “Stoneware” display in the corner of the main room. Monk’s work is among that of eight other post-baccalaureate artists who were given the opportunity to participate in the “Enouement” display.
Monk said his art is not at all visually inspired by the events of COVID-19. But as an artist, his vision for his pieces was revamped after the initial hit of the pandemic in March.
“The concept started before the pandemic, but was not finished until we could get back to the studio,” Monk said.
The pandemic has not necessarily taken a toll on the art per se, but rather the artist, said Trey Hill, an associate professor of arts at UM. Hill teaches two ceramics classes and a sculpture class at UM. He also helps the post-baccalaureate students facilitate their work and the exhibition they opened on Friday.
The process to get artists back into the studio and working like they did before the pandemic has been difficult, Hill said.
“It’s easy during this time to sit on the couch and let the time pass,” he said. “But these artists are actually taking advantage of it and making thoughtful, strong, well-made work.”
Some of the event’s artists said their art does not directly pull inspiration from the struggles of the pandemic, but Hill said many current ceramics students are using the pandemic to influence the message behind their art.
“I think it’s good. Make work about what you see, make work about the experiences you are having,” Hill said.
Some students found inspiration from the pandemic, but others have struggled, not only to find a place to continue working, but also the motivation to create the meaningful work they’ve wanted to make.
Three plates float to the left of the two-headed snake in the heart of the exhibition. Each plate displays a different cat, each with a price tag of $50. The artist, Nicolle Hamm, is a 2020 UM graduate of Fine Arts with a focus in ceramics.
When the pandemic forced UM to close during the month of March, Hamm was in the middle of her BFA exhibition pieces. They were set to be on display in April of 2020, when the school cut the cake and shut down the ceramic studio for all the artists.
“I basically stopped working for about a month,” Hamm said. “Everyone was depressed when we got kicked out of the studio.”
When August came around, Hamm, now graduated, said all of the post-baccalaureates flooded to the studio to cram in work for the art on display in “Enouement” and get their craft back in action.
“I think that all of us are thinking that at any time we could get kicked out again,” she said.
Though the opening night wasn’t as lively as hoped, Hill said he is still hopeful for the future of these artists.
“I’m really proud of them in the way that the students came to play here and lean into these hard times,” he said.
The “Enouement” exhibition will remain open Nov. 6 to 21, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m Saturday
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