Ceramics renaissance in Woodstock

In the new kiln shed. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Recent years have seen the return of printmaking to art’s forefront. And now is the time for ceramics brightest hour, at least in Woodstock and the rest of the Hudson Valley.

The opening of the Selections: Contemporary Woodstock Ceramics Art exhibition at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild’s Kleinert/James Arts Center and Historical Society of Woodstock Saturday afternoon, February 25, has a quiet monumentality about it. Especially when one considers the joint shows as but two legs to an ever sturdier exhibit that includes the ongoing Carl Walters and Woodstock Ceramic Arts exhibit that’s been drawing accolades at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. As well as the fact that all were curated by Bard College Professor of Art History Tom Wolf, with help from his “History of Art in Woodstock” classes at Bard and support from the Bard College Center for Civic Engagement.

Talk about putting together a truly mighty cultural phalanx, albeit with a fragile potter’s tip.


The shows opening this weekend draw new focus to the continuing work the Byrdcliffe Colony has been doing at its kilns over the decades they’ve been under the leadership of the talented teacher Rich Conti, as well as the fine ceramics art being produced locally by the likes of longtime Woodstockers Mary Frank and Grace Wapner, as well as relative newcomer Arlene Shechet, a true contemporary art superstar. They accentuate the comfortable interplay between the past, present and future that comes to light every time one of our active arts organizations coordinates exhibitions with the Historical Society, as well as the new push by Byrdcliffe to recalibrate itself as a modern version of what it started out as over a century ago: a place where arts and crafts, the traditional and avant garde, are allowed to come together and create something new and simultaneously lasting.

In addition to pieces by Conti, Frank, Shechet and Wapner, there will be varied work by Eric Ehrnschwender, Sophie Fenton, Robert Hessler, Jolyon Hofsted, Brad Lail, Young Mi Kim, Joyce Robins, Alan Hoffman and Elena Zang. Sometimes the comforting idea of pottery will come to life in vessel forms, other creations venture towards sculpture and even painting. Classic shapes alternate with things more natural. All told, the assembled selection explodes the idea of pottery into something as complex as the various materials and steps involved in ceramic arts today.

Moreover, it all continues and augments the first grand retrospective of Walters work since 1950, expanding on the array of style’s the early 20th century ceramics master explored alongside a host of other Woodstock artists, inspired by the kilns that were key to Byrdcliffe founders Ralph and Jane Whitehead’s original vision.

“Many talented artists from the region could have been added, but we are focusing on a dozen who range over several generations, including ceramicists who specialize in beautiful functional objects and sculptors who incorporate ceramics as part of their artistic vocabulary,” Wolf has written of the new shows. “Carl Walters was renowned for his ceramic sculptures of animals, but he also made functional objects that were popular in his day as well as now. The contemporary artists in the Woodstock shows tend to divide into those who make functional pottery and those who define themselves as sculptors, though some follow Walters’ example and do both.”

Behind the scenes with this triumvirate of Woodstock ceramics shows is the recent expansion of Byrdcliffe’s ceramics program to include classes in primitive pit-firing and intensive 2-day workshops with visiting artists in addition to its regular class schedule, which serves over 100 students each year. As well as last year’s major community effort that saw a new kiln shed constructed to accommodate a larger kiln, permitting greater numbers of objects to be fired and more students and ceramicists from the region served.


The Selections: Woodstock Ceramic Arts Today exhibits, both running through April 9, will open this Saturday, February 25 at the Historical Society’s home located at 20 Comeau Drive from noon-4 p.m., and simultaneously at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts at 36 Tinker Street from 2 p.m.-4 p.m.

For hours and more information, see  www.historicalsocietyofwoodstock.org or www.woodstockguild.org.

The Walters exhibit at the Dorsky Museum, on the SUNY New Paltz campus, runs through May 21. For more information see www.newpaltz.edu/museum.