If you were to ask someone where the epicenter of the American ceramic fine art scene is, you would get a lot of answers, and very few of them would include an old brickyard on the outskirts of Helena. In a state with celebrated painters and photographers, few know the story of how Montana has shaped contemporary ceramics over the last 60 years.
But that’s starting to change, thanks in part to a new show at Kalispell’s Hockaday Museum of Art titled “Beyond Craft: The Art of Ceramics.” The show opened on Feb. 15 and runs through April 7. It features the work of 25 Montana artists curated by the Hockaday’s Celinda English.
“We have an incredible amount of talented ceramic artists in Montana,” she said. “Curating this show was like sticking my hand into a bag of diamonds and picking out 25 amazing pieces.”
Montana’s rich ceramics tradition goes back to the 1950s and Archie Bray’s Western Clay Manufacturing Company. Bray was a bricklayer and avid fan of the arts, and he felt that ceramics could be more than just people making useful vases and bowls. He believed that, given the right environment, ceramics could become a fine art, so he opened an art center at the brickyard in 1951 as a place for anyone interested in pushing ceramics to the next level.
Montana artists Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos were the art center’s first resident managers in the 1950s, and their work attracted national attention. A 1952 workshop at the center put Montana on the map, and the ceramics scene has been growing ever since. Eventually, the brickyard closed, but the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts has carried on its founder’s mission for decades.
Since its inception, “The Bray” has attracted hundreds of artists from around the world, including Flathead Valley’s David Regan. Regan was born in Buffalo, New York and became interested in ceramics as a child.
“I found ceramics both mesmerizing and endlessly challenging,” he said.
Regan attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and later graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1986. He did a residency with the Archie Bray Foundation from 1986 to 1988. Today, he’s a professor of ceramics at Flathead Valley Community College.
Regan’s piece in the Hockaday show is called “Water Rights” and was inspired by the smoky fall of 2017. It features two hands and a drawing of a water system along the arms. The sculpture is a perfect example of Regan’s work: a combination of three-dimensional ceramics and two-dimensional drawings, or “2.5D” has Regan likes to call it.
Other artists in the show include Candice Haster, Ken Kohoutek, Trey Hill and John Rawlings. English said she hopes the show educates visitors about the state’s incredible ceramics community.
“We see a lot of landscape art, but it’s our mission to also educate people on art that they’re not used to seeing,” she said.
Regan said he hopes the show will bring more attention to Montana’s role in the art of ceramics.
“A lot of people don’t realize how strong the ceramics scene is here,” Regan said. “Montana is a mecca of sorts of contemporary ceramic artists.”
“Beyond Craft: The Art of Ceramics” runs through April 7 at the Hockaday Museum of Art. For more information, visit hockadaymuseum.org.