Seisler shifts art from utilitarian to conceptual

Portrait of Nicole Seisler
Courtesy of Nicole Seisler

Assistant Professor encourages students to explore creativity in ceramics rather than practice functionality

THIS PAST YEAR, Nicole Seisler joined Lewis & Clark’s Art Department as its very own new assistant professor of ceramics. With over 30 years of professional experience at multiple universities, Seisler sums up her relationship to the art form neatly. 

“This thing with clay and me, it’s been going on for a while,” Seisler said.

One of the most striking things about Seisler’s work is her determination to shift the traditional vantage of ceramics as a practical art form to one that encapsulates something more broad and conceptual. 

“When we say utilitarian or functional ceramics, we usually think of like cups or bowls. Maybe toilets, maybe sinks, things that have use value,” Seisler explains. “And what we do here, and what I do in my practice, is much more idea-driven than use-driven. However, I think that when we say so-called functional ceramics, we are doing a kind of a disservice
by only associating that with
utilitarian objects.”

Instead, she rejects the preconceived notions of ceramics as something that holds merely instrumental value and reestablishes its role as an artistic medium for expression.

“Really what I see is a much broader definition of what functional ceramics actually means,” Seisler said. “How does it function in the world? Can it function to connect us to each other? Can it function to connect us to place? Can it function to record?” 

Seisler’s answer to all these questions is a resounding affirmative. In fact, with an endearing tone,
she asserts that the act of creating
is useful.

“I will often say that clay makes me functional and it’s like this relationship where I feel very much myself,”
Seisler said.

Seisler’s work draws upon the relationship between the artist, collaborator and viewer. Some of her works begin with a solo endeavor which becomes more public and participatory over time. In this way, she facilitates the participation of meaning-making through a collaborative work of art.

Seisler is the founder of a continual project entitled the “State of Ceramics.” The project hosts virtual meetings that act as a global forum for dialogue concerning the state of affairs of ceramic art. She emphasizes that all are welcome, whether they have been a tenured professor of 30 years or embraced their newfound passion three months ago. While these were once held in-person, the COVID-19 pandemic was the cause for the switch to this virtual format, which provides the added benefit of bringing together more interested parties than was
once possible. 

The most recent “State of Ceramics” meeting examined how bricks — one of the most durable building materials in architectural history — have produced and reproduced hegemonic systems throughout American history. The group discussed how European settlers intentionally chose brick as the material with which to build prisons, schools and courthouses on indigenous lands to ensure their generational survival. The ceramicists explored in detail how artists can
use the medium of brick without reifying the same colonial structures of the past.

Seisler firmly believes in dismantling barriers to entry for those with equal passion in the field. This is partly why she also founded A-B Projects. A-B Projects is a myriad of projects under one unified umbrella, which offer critical dialogue with community members, material research and experimentation and an A-B Projects ceramics certificate. 

“I’m creating a set of very specific parameters in which people can participate to create meaning collectively,” Seisler said. “I think that A-B projects is really indicative of this aspect of my work, where it’s an educational platform that exists outside of academia and is trying to embrace non-academic roles or, let’s say, fewer roles, and less hierarchy. It’s much more of a shared learning environment where there’s no teacher, there’s no students, there’s just participants. And yes, some people have more of a guiding role in things, myself included.”

For those looking for a more hands-on experience that similarly incorporates discourse surrounding ceramics, Seisler also directs “Studio Sessions,” which is an online platform where ceramic artists guide each other through topic-based material experiments.

Seisler thinks of “Studio Sessions” as the cousin to “State of Ceramics.” In a smaller group of collaborators brought together virtually under a specific topic, participants can expect to experiment with materials toward a specific goal. While joining “Studio Sessions” requires a fee, scholarships are available for those in need of financial aid, another way in which Seisler attempts to remove obstacles to participation and creation via clay.

Seisler describes her current ceramic practice as a tripod, where the three legs are directing and curating, teaching and then making. Each of these aspects
feed into one another. 

For instance, her work often comes into the classroom, and research in the classroom may influence
A-B Projects.

Seisler notes that, given it is only her second semester here at LC, the development of the ceramics program is still in the early stages. She offers the following for those curious as to what to expect from one of her ceramics courses.

“People can expect from our ceramics program that it’s unconventional and that they are going to come here and their kind of preconceived notions of what ceramics is will not be reinforced. What someone’s going to encounter in a ceramics class here will be the unexpected experimental, the idea-based, not the utilitarian,” she said. “In my experience, there’s an expectation from a lot of students that they’re going to come here and they’re going to get on the wheel and they’re going to throw some pots, and that’s probably the last thing that they’re gonna end up doing in
the class.”

For more information on Nicole Seisler and her various projects, visit A-B, or read her profile on the LC website.

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