Review: 17th San Angelo National Ceramic Competition

by Diana Lyn Roberts

The San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts (SAMFA) has a well-deserved reputation for its commitment to ceramics. Aside from a small but strong permanent collection of traditional and contemporary works, SAMFA ( dedicates its beautiful galleries to clay-based art every spring, alternating invitational and juried exhibitions. The jewel in the crown is the San Angelo National Ceramic Competition, a biennial competitive show now in its 17th iteration. Inspired by the vision of long-time Director Howard Taylor, the competition and related events have made this West Texas town a Mecca for ceramics enthusiasts.

Along with co-conspirators Roger Allen of the Chicken Farm Art Center and the art department of Angelo State University, Taylor has crafted a collaborative, citywide art-fest with multiple exhibitions, workshops, a symposium and a growing reputation. This year’s competition brought in 1300 entries from artists in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Winnowed down to 120 objects by juror Anna Stanfield Harris, Curator of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, the resulting exhibition displays the array of style, process and subject matter explored by contemporary ceramic artists.

From large-scale installations to traditional teapots, what strikes the viewer first is the sheer range of formal and aesthetic concerns. The show is displayed in two separate galleries, each with a mix of traditional, functional objects and more purely sculptural or conceptual pieces. The quantity of work is a bit overwhelming at first. One is immediately struck by the eternal exhibition trade-off: more space for each object, or more artwork to look at.

With 1300 entries, we can forgive the juror for selecting ten to fifteen works more than the space can comfortably hold. A few pedestals less might improve circulation, but after one adjusts to the forest of objects, textures and colors, the intuitive logic of the installation starts to emerge. Juxtapositions of form and impulse, figurative and abstract imagery, color and texture, all come together to illustrate the fundamentally malleable nature of ceramic that makes it such a compelling, diverse medium.

Harris’ prize selections give us a starting point for analyzing the range. First Prize winner Steve Hilton’s 53.405 . . .53.406 . . .53.407 is a purely sculptural work comprised of hundreds of hand-crafted flat “rocks” painstakingly piled to form an archipelago, edged in fine black sand, on the floor of the smaller gallery, just as one enters. Viewed from a balcony accessed from the upper floor of the museum, it looks like a vista from a high cliff.

Harris’ Second and Third prizes went to figurative works. Leslie Laine Lewis’ 2nd Place Siren’s Song acknowledges whimsy and humor, while Melinda G. Marino’s 3rd Place Tibetan references the classical portrait bust, with a hint of modern socio-political commentary. Divergent tendencies are evident, notably in Verne Funk’s exquisitely crafted In the Paint, an almost Surrealist depiction of a small nude figure with dunce cap, collapsed in a puddle of paint atop the bald head, one supposes, of the artist himself. Jung Hwa Lee’s The Girl presents a disturbing, psycho-sexual image of a naked, pouting child with large glowering eyes, sitting in a defensive posture with red, perhaps bloody, hands and feet, atop baby-blue synthetic fur. Nuala Creed’s Babes in Arms splits the difference, exploiting the saccharine creepiness of three baby doll forms holding various explosives, using black humor to bring the point home.

Traditional forms comprise a significant aspect of the show. Paul Fehlberg’s Organic Form #39 is the ultimate thin walled, salt-fired stoneware pot, elemental and round, pushing the limits of its perfectly balanced, rotund form. Dale Neese’s Asian-inspired Ovate Jar is a veritable compendium of process: hand-thrown reduction fired stoneware clay, rope impressions, white engobe slip, shino glaze with wood-ash applications and feldspar chunk inclusions. Daphne Roehr Hatcher’s Blue Green Portal is a simple platter form, but its elemental beauty and simple elegance more than justify its presentation as an art piece on the wall. A host of teapots and other functional forms, some traditional and others in the mode of hyper-decorated, post-modern amalgamation, offer substantial variation.

Abstract and conceptual works give further dimension to the show. Jennifer Quarles’ Cuneiform Series: The Problem juxtaposes inscribed runes in handmade stoneware tiles, with Xerox transfer overlays of computer generated text and Venn diagrams showing various relationships between the words, information, data and knowledge. Veronica Juyoun Byun’s Made in China is a 4×4-foot wall-mounted puzzle of sculptural relief blocks. On closer inspection, the individual elements are revealed to be cast from custom formed Styrofoam packing materials, a comment on our globalized consumer economy. 

Ana England’s Shared Identity: Hurricane and Growth Rings with Thumbprints juxtaposes the formal similarities of its subjects and draws subtle metaphorical comparisons. Joe Davis’ Nut Boll #1 is a study in texture and organic form, like a 3-D rendering of a microscopic organism. The only free-standing sculpture in the show, Danville Chadbourne’s Sacrificial Mystery–The Perpetuation of Power and Sally Brogden’s Untitled—a wall-mounted, elegantly reflexive loop—suggest more purely sculptural concerns.

With this much work, there’s no way to address all of the physical details and interpretations in any given viewing or discussion. Like other large competitive shows, the 17th San Angelo Ceramic Competition provides a substantial cross-section of the clay-based artwork being produced by artists across the nation.

What makes the San Angelo experience special is the unity and total lack of pretense in the event itself. A small group of works was on display at SAMFA by notoriously unpretentious Ohio artist, Jack Earl, who led a full-day workshop at the Chicken Farm Art Center. The works are from the private collection of SAMFA and competition supporters John and Darlene Williams, reflecting a special artist-collector-museum relationship. An adjacent SAMFA gallery presented the excellent touring exhibition “George Ohr Rising.” SAMFA’s satellite gallery housed a show of the Texas Clay Art Association, and numerous private galleries and studios participated in a city wide Gallery Stroll. Arizona State University hosted an open symposium featuring juror Anna Harris and invited artist Jack Earl, and the unplanned but invaluable participation of ceramic scholars and art dealers Garth Clark and Mark del Vecchio. Naturally, the weekend culminates in a grand barbecue at the Chicken Farm. In short, “Ceramics Weekend” has everything: exhibitions, workshops, symposia, camaraderie and a substantial amount of beer, barbecue and live music—it is, after all, West Texas.

the author Diana Lyn Roberts is a Texas-based art critic and frequent contributor to CM.