The David and Ann Shaner resident studio building: Rick Newby writes about the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, Helena, Montana.
SOMETIMES A WORK OF ARCHITECTURE is much more than a simple shelter or functional space, more even than the expression of an architect's singular vision. At its best (though architects might beg to differ), a structure embodies the values and character of the person or institution for which it is designed. The $1.75 million, 12,000-square-foot David and Ann Shaner Resident Studio Complex, situated on the grounds of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, is just such a structure. Designed by Mosaic Architecture of Helena, the Shaner Building reflects--in profound and sometimes surprising ways--the values, aspirations and spirit of the foundation and the ceramic artists it serves.
Named after the late David Shaner, the Bray's former resident director (1964-1970), and his wife Ann, who now serves on the Bray's board of directors, the new studio building is arguably one of the finest facilities of its kind in the world. Its excellence is the result of a rigorous planning process that involved not only the Mosaic team of architects, but also a band of seasoned ceramists and technicians, among them artists Richard Notkin, Dan Anderson and Robert Harrison, collector and patron Jim Kolva, Bray clay business manager (and the owner's rep during construction) Chip Clawson, and Bray former resident director Josh DeWeese.
Set in the midst of an historic brickyard and clad in metal and brick, the Shaner Studio mimics the industrial buildings that surround it, especially the corrugated steel brick factory immediately to the west. Nestled unobtrusively at the site of a recently demolished portion of the brickworks, between the brick factory and the summer studios, the building is intentionally understated. As architecture, notes Ben Tintinger, Mosaic Architecture's lead architect, the Shaner structure is not, with "its simple warehouse shape," exceptional--at least at first glance. What distinguishes it, argues Tintinger, is its "connection to so much history," its thoroughly thought-out functionality, and the way it "so seamlessly fits in" with the surrounding context.
As an aside: Tintinger may have been the ideal architect for this project. A native of Helena, he grew up with a father who was a master bricklayer (much of the brick Tintinger's father laid came from the former Western Clay Manufacturing Co, today the Bray), and after considering bricklaying as his own career, Tintinger turned to architecture, designing for his thesis project a modern brick factory. Similarly, Rick Casteel, the landscape designer who created the design for the grounds surrounding the new studio (not yet fully implemented), is a native of Helena, growing up near the Bray. For his thesis project at Harvard, Casteel designed a comprehensive and visionary landscape plan for the Bray property.
The Bray's team of planners brought a long list of desires and needs to the table, and the resulting building meets nearly all of them. Artists like Notkin, Anderson and Harrison had visited, and often spent significant time at many of the world's leading ceramic institutions, ranging from Greenwich House Pottery in New York City to Colorado's Anderson Ranch, the European Ceramic Work Centre in the Netherlands, and Japan's Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, and they collected ideas at each. They also looked back to the Bray's roots, in search of the best qualities found in the fledgling foundation.
In the Bray's early days, Ann Shaner points out, everything happened in close proximity in the modest original studio building, allowing for maximum efficiency and intimacy. During the year (June 1963-July 1964) that Dave Shaner and Ken Ferguson overlapped, the two potters sat at their wheels directly across from each other, the kilns were in the next room or immediately outside, and the glaze room adjoined the studio. But as the Bray grew and flourished, the residents' studios migrated to a nearby building; the organisation added more and more kilns, with the wood and soda kilns in particular far distant from the studios; and everything became less intimate, making it more challenging (and risky) to transport pots and sculpture back and forth from studio to kiln.
In Ann's view, this is one of the marvellous things about the new building: That it brings the Bray back to its roots, with everything contained in the same space, or complex of spaces. Josh DeWeese, who left the Bray at the end of 2006, agrees. He observes, "The building's basic design, the way it flows, is proving to be wonderful," and he goes on to list the features that make it so: its spacious studios, both communal and private; its glaze room, plaster room and vast kiln room; its adjacency to the new residents' centre (with its meeting space/dining room, full kitchen, and computer room/office) and to the already-existing summer studios; the "nice flat floors" that allow works to be easily carted to the adjoining kiln room; the floor drains that help keep dust in check; and perhaps most intangibly but pleasingly, the soaring spaces and the clerestory that floods the studios with light.
Ceramist Chris Staley, who has recently enjoyed residencies at both the Shaner building and the European Ceramic Work Centre, notes that in each place "natural light acts as a strong catalyst for the creative process, for the changing natural light is a transformation in progress". Josh DeWeese calls the lighting provided by the clerestory "spectacular", and the other resident artists who have worked in the new space are similarly laudatory.
Ben Tintinger, who was joined by Mosaic architects Gretchen Krumm and Jeff Downhour for this project, expresses pleasure at the collaborative process but notes that his team felt a little usurped in their role, especially in regard to the interior finish. The Bray planners did not want a polished interior, with warm colours and exposed woods, but rather insisted on viewing the decoration as a work in progress (much as the Bray grounds have served as an everevolving sculpture garden). "We were a bit of an oddball client," says Robert Harrison, "because we wanted so much control of the aesthetic decisions. But we wanted to keep the decoration flexible for future generations, with few limitations."
To that end, the Bray asked that the walls be painted white and that the masons leave a dozen recesses in the brickwork, inside and out--as spots for future residents to mount tile murals. Already, Thai ceramist Suwanee Natewong has installed a large figurative mural, constructed during her Bray residency in 1988, on the exterior of the resident centre. Despite a few decorative flourishes (especially ornamental bricks produced in the brickyard and artistmade and custom tiles in the restrooms), the Shaner complex appears a little austere. Over time, however, it will--in the planners' vision--gain an increasingly textured surface, another layer documenting the rich history and aesthetic diversity of the place.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged decorative element to date is the door to Dave Shaner's studio at Bigfork, Montana, as it appeared at his death in 2002. With its dense collage of invitations, photographs, and posters, the door--set behind glass--serves both as homage to Dave Shaner's high place in American ceramics (the Ceramic Research Centre, Arizona State University, plans a major Shaner retrospective for September/October 2007) and as a salute to the thriving ceramic subculture he helped to nurture during his years at the Bray.
The studio building is a continually evolving work in another way. As Josh DeWeese notes, "The more we inhabit the building, the stronger feeling I get that we have the rough shell for truly the best studio I've ever had the opportunity to work in." He then goes on to enumerate all the elements that still need to be completed.
These include building additional wood kilns and a large gas-fired car kiln for firing large-scale sculpture. "We've finished things to a point, but there is much to do, technically and as a home," to give the place the "feel of a studio". DeWeese admits that he must "resist the urge to fill in all the spaces" and acknowledges that, with regard to both decoration and the studio systems, "new people will bring new ideas and different sensibilities about how things should work". Under DeWeese's leadership, the Bray has already installed a new 16 cu ft frontloading Frederickson electric kiln and built two indoor gas kilns and a massive woodfired train kiln in the extensive new wood kiln area immediately behind the Shaner Studio (this will replace the current woodfiring area).
Technology is not the only thing that draws artists to the Bray. Intimacy, a kind of togetherness, with everyone working and playing in close quarters (just as Shaner and Ferguson did in those early days), has long been seen as central to the Bray experience, and in the planning process, a number of resident artists lobbied for open studios only, feeling that private studios were contrary to this warmly communal spirit. Others argued that a 'one size fits all' approach ignored the differences between artists, with some having far greater needs for privacy, quiet and autonomy than others. Richard Notkin, in particular, led the charge for private studios, having seen that a mix of private and public spaces has worked well elsewhere.
After long debate, the planners came to a compromise, and the new building now boasts both highly flexible open studios (for up to five artists) with movable partitions to accommodate large-scale works and five private studios for those who prefer their own company to robust interaction. (Of particular note is the Peter Voulkos Visiting Artist Studio, which houses the Bray's annual Peter Voulkos Fellow but is also available for use by leading ceramists, most often in mid career or later, who desire a private space.) Recent resident Miranda Howe, one of those who savours her privacy, appreciates having a choice--and as someone who experienced the openness of the former Bray studios, she finds the quiet and solitude of her current studio "phenomenal". At the same time, she notes, the strong bond of the Bray spirit, "almost like family," has in no way diminished.
It can be argued that a major impetus for the creation of the David and Ann Shaner Studio Building is the increasingly competitive market among ceramic residency programs worldwide. And certainly the rise of fine ceramic facilities elsewhere has been a goad. As Josh DeWeese has said, "We focused on quality. We didn't build for more artists; we built a state-of-the-art facility, to better serve the same number of residents as before." The implication is that better facilities will help keep the Bray the top destination in an ever-more crowded field.
But Ann Shaner sees things differently. She feels strongly that, more than anything else (the fierce competition, the need to keep up with the latest technology, the fragmentation and rusticity of the former studios), the launching of the new studio is quite simply a logical extension of Archie Bray's original vision: that the Bray continue to be a fine "place to work for all who are seriously interested in any of the ceramic arts ... that it may always be a delight to turn to ... a place of art--of simple things not problems, good people, people all tuned to the right spirit." And Ann Shaner affirms, "The new building is far beyond our wildest dreams--a marvellous realisation of Archie's long-held vision."
As Josh DeWeese departs in search of new challenges, after 14 remarkable and productive years as the Bray's resident director, the foundation welcomes Steven Young Lee as its new director. A former Bray resident, Lee was born in Chicago and received his MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 2004. He has taught at Interlochen Centre for the Arts in Michigan, the Clay Art Centre in New York, and the Lill Street Studio in Chicago. He has also managed a ceramics' supply business in Chicago. Most recently, he has taught at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, British Columbia.
In a recent interview, Lee spoke of his aspirations for his tenure at the Bray. While cautious about making any abrupt or radical changes in the Bray's direction, Lee did speak glowingly of the foundation's rich history and his desire to further develop certain aspects of that legacy. In particular, he spoke of building on the Bray's internationalist tendencies, first seen in early workshops by Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Marguerite Wildenhain--and most recently underscored by this past summer's Archie Bray International gathering, which brought to Helena ceramic artists from Mali, the former Soviet Union, Australia, Wales, France, China, Thailand, Korea, Israel and Ecuador. In 2004-2005, Lee participated in a one-year cultural and educational exchange in Jingdezhen, Jianxi Province, Republic of China, and that experience, together with several trips to Korea, has fuelled his passion for dialogue with other ceramic traditions, not just those of Asia but also the rich ceramic heritage(s) of Europe and elsewhere. He delights in how these encounters can "enrich and challenge our ways of looking at ceramics". This urge to further "open the pathway to other cultures" promises to make Steven Young Lee's stay at the Bray a truly dynamic and inclusive time.
"Josh DeWeese has done a marvellous job at the Bray," says Lee. "He has set the bar high, and I will try to continue in his footsteps, always seeking the best artists and offering the best possible facilities." Likewise, Josh speaks highly of his successor. "I knew from the time Steve was here as a resident that we would be seeing him again," he said. "His talent, vitality, teaching and people skills will be a terrific asset to the Bray as we move ahead."
Archie Bray Sr, did not build a monument to himself. He built a workshop for potters.
Rick Newby is co-author (with Chere Jiusto) of 'A Beautiful Spirit: Origins of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts', published in A Ceramic Continuum: Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence (Holter Museum of Art/University of Washington Press, 2001). Newby's most recent catalogues on ceramic sculptors include Rudy Autio: The Infinite Figure (Holter Museum of Art, 2006) and New Works: Lawson Oyekan: Solstice Lip Series, Minneapolis (Northern Clay Centre, 2006).