During the past week, I had the pleasure of getting to know several members of Illinois State University’s ceramics department. What I found behind the doors of Centennial West 101 was an incredibly talented and tight-knit group of faculty and students who rarely receive the recognition they deserve.
When these artists are not working to design their own dinnerware lines or sculpting alien landscapes, they are working to obtain residencies and spots at craft centers over the summer so they can continue perfecting their work by collaborating with other artists across the country.
I was able to spend some fulfilling time discussing the department with a man who knows and loves them very much, the night custodian of Centennial East and West, Gary Alcorn.
Alcorn is a massive supporter of the arts on campus and has been close with both the theatre and ceramics departments since he began working for the university in 2005. Last year he provided two students $1,000 each to attend a three week summer course in order to work on their craft.
When asked why he chose to be so generous to the students in the department, Alcorn stated, “I work two part-time jobs in the daytime and one full-time job. As long as I have a roof over my head, I love to help out, and their work is unreal. Every year they get better and better. Yes, this is a job, but I look forward to coming in because this is a family. You pay so much to go to school here, and each and every student here touches my life, so I want to give back.”
Tilly Troelstrup, BFA in studio arts with a focus in ceramics
Can you tell me a little bit about the work you create here in your studio?
I create functional utilitarian work, which means I create ceramics that are used in homes. I want to create things that people can enjoy and find useful. My main tool is the wheel, and I create cups, plates, pitchers, bowls, plates, etc. with a focus on surface treatment.
What was your experience at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where you utilized your scholarship money?
I took a two week workshop with Shanam Emami, a potter and professor at Colorado State University. Her workshop focused on surface design and geometric patterns so it seemed like a great fit for me. I learned an incredible amount about my skill and was able to better my skills 100 percent. She [Emami] is very patient and kind. Those connections and resources are invaluable and it was an incredible experience. My mom and I drove out there [to Maine] together, and I got to know her on a completely different level. It was amazing to have her be able to come out and see what I do and see that I am around incredible people.
Tyler Lotz, associate professor in ceramics
Can you tell me a little bit about your background in ceramics and how you got to Illinois State University?
This is my 12th year teaching here. I started teaching full time in 2002. I discovered ceramics in high school and was accepted to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. From there, I went on to Penn State for my undergrad. I ended up changing my major from chemistry to art during my time there, but it was always my intention to teach at a university. For my graduate degree, I attended Alfred University, which has one of the highest-ranked programs for ceramics in the country.
Do you have any special projects you are working on through or outside of the university?
I design my own line of tableware, called Tenet. It is basic tableware — cups, bowls, tumblers, tea pots etc. I also create sculptures, which are mainly abstract, mixed-media sculptures. They address ideas regarding Simulacra — a simulation, or a stand-in for something. The other layer of that are things regarding our environment and our ecological world.
Can you tell me about a special experience you have had through working with ceramics?
I did a residency out in Red Lodge, Mont. at the Red Lodge Clay Center. It was an “artists invite artists” residency, so I was invited. Then, I got to invite artists I had a kinship with, and artists I admired to go there with and to work with.
Dylan Gifford, ceramics post bacc student
Can you tell me about what it means to be a part of a Post Bacc program? It’s something I have never heard of.
Basically, it is a year between undergrad and grad school where I get to work without a curriculum — I take one class a semester — and amp up my portfolio for a residency. I work in the studio and get to utilize its resources and focus on my work.
Why do students choose to participate in Post Bacc programs instead of just going straight to grad school?
A lot of people come into ceramics later in life and are not always ready to go right into graduate school. Ceramics is also very time-consuming and it’s nice to have an extra year in order to prepare your work for graduate admissions.
Tell me about the projects you have been working on here.
I do sculptural work! I create alien landscapes. Right now I am working on plants. I am going to start making insects and fruits soon and then maybe some “squids” — heavy on the quotation marks. My goal is for my landscapes to be displayed in a gallery someday.