Lending Library (of Cups) Comes to the Archie Bray

Eric Kao chooses a Christa Assad cup, Andy Brayman types up his Ceramic Library card

Potters as a group are particularly interested in the interaction between the things they make and the people who use them. The Artstream Ceramic Library grew out of a desire to explore this social exchange, rather than the usual monetary exchange. It grew out of wanting to extend and expand what was already happening in the Artstream Nomadic Gallery, a roving ceramics gallery established in 2001 by Alleghany Meadows that sets up its 1967 silver Airstream along city streets across the country. What was happening is that people got to talk directly to the makers of pots. This rare interaction and sharing, is of course, one of the best things about the whole experience on both sides. And people who would never go into a ceramics gallery were unexpectedly introduced and turned on to some of the best handmade pots around.

The Ceramic Library consists of forty cups from a dozen nationally-known potters, many of them current or former Bray residents. Cups can be checked out for up to a week to be used in whatever manner. In exchange, the Library asks that the user document the experience by taking a picture or by making some other piece of art in response. For example, here are pictures taken of Marc Pharis’ cup. The cups are housed in cushioned wooden boxes made by Andy Brayman and the process of checking out is done with a typewriter and a card catalog, just like in the old days.

Having the Ceramic Library here at the Archie Bray for its 60th anniversary is fitting given the history of social exchange and sharing at the Bray. In some ways, it defines the Bray. From the ubiquitous potluck where nearly every ceramic artist and is a devoted cook (or knows that Vann’s is the best place to get a quick contribution of fried chicken), to the sharing of glaze recipes and wood firing shifts, to the almost constant sharing of ideas, the Bray is also “a fine place” to share. The generosity of volunteers from the local Helena community to share their time, energy, and knowledge have been equally fundamental to the Bray experience and its success. Growth as an artist happens as much from these exchanges as it does from focused studio work.

We all have had experience with using something on loan, whether it’s a rental apartment, a leased car, or a cell phone. Most of us though, have never used a handmade object on loan. Because it’s temporary pleasure and relationship, do we appreciate the experience all the more? Is it like falling in love with a cup in a friend’s cupboard and then looking forward to using it on the next visit? Everything we experience in a museum is on loan, so how does it differ when one gets to take a handmade cup home? For James Klein, who has taken out a Lisa Orr cup, “it’s like visiting with an old friend.”

    On Edge.

    My name is Eric Kao and I am the Deputy Director of The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China.  Two weeks ago I was boarding a “K”-train in Jingdezhen.  After 16 hours on a train, one flight cancellation in Shanghai and 16 more hours on various planes, I landed in Montana.  I was charmed by the warmth of the friendly community on my first visit to Helena.  I have come to the Archie Bray Foundation as an “Edge Artist”, working side by side with other innovative artists in a collaborative and communal studio setting in the Bray Summer Studios.  This community departs the traditional methods of clay construction and incorporates computers that can model 3D images, print with ceramic material, mills that can form unfired and fired clay and robots that can coil build.

    As I sit here typing my first blog entry (first one ever!) in the Wynkoop&Deweese Resident Center, I pause and think about how I define technology.  My experience with ceramic materials and firing processes require lots of technology, but the most advanced digital device I have used would be a Bartlett kiln controller.   Just a second ago, Kurt Weiser walked through and said, “Gosh, everyone here in on a computer.  In here and the Summer Studio!”

    I was captured by all the equipment these artists brought with them.  There were truck-loads, trailers and crates full of gadgets and gizmos.  This is all in addition to the remarkable facilities the David and Ann Shaner Resident Artist Studio already has, including computer operated kilns, radiant heat from the floor and even a giant kitchen where you can choose from 5 ways to make your coffee!!!

    Being here for just over a week, I have learning about the versatility of clay.  Clay can be printed, milled and even scanned into a computer.  Technology and science always forwarded the way we work with ceramics.  The western approach to ceramic studio practice has always found innovative ways to adapt the materials and methodologies to our individual standards.  We create access to materials from around the world and build machines which allow clays and glazes to react in a way in which we prescribe.

    Jingdezhen’s unique earth materials have given created a reputation for being “as thin as paper, as white as jade, as bright as a mirror, and as sound as a bell”.  From the Song Dynasty to modern day Jingdezhen, innovative technology has prevailed in facets of forming, glazing, enameling, decorating and firing.  All of these developments revolved around one scientific constant, local geological minerals.

    Jennifer Woodin, who just offered me a toasted muffin, helped me realize how fascinating all the various cutting-edge equipment in Summer Studio shares a common bond with the software the group is using.  This constant in the studio allows for a co-nurturing of ideas that activates and increases our ability to work together, problem solve and fold this technology into our studio practices.

    It is apparent that creativity and science go hand in hand.  The creativity activates our imaginations and creates unrestrained hypotheses while our scientific processes keep us focused in order to conclude our findings. When I wish to have another set of hands, I know, in reality, that the only sources I can turn to for help are science and technology.

    I look forward to a new dialogue in regards to skill of the hand vs. digital assistance from machines and how it is utilized in ceramic practice.  The production of objects with Jingdezhen porcelain is valued only after the hand has effectively elevated the piece from its lowly assembly line beginnings.  I am excited to see the same marriage of hand and machine with the technology the Edge Artists have brought to the Bray.

    The Archie Bray Foundation is much more than a residency, gallery, clay business and community studio on the property of an old brick factory.  It is a place that rains and a place that shines, creating rainbows that leave us anticipating when the next one will appear.  As we choose our discourse as individuals working in clay, we all appreciate what the Bray provides, “…for all who are sincerely interested in any branches of the ceramic arts, a fine place to work.”  -Archie Bray, Sr. 1951.

      First week at the Bray

      My first impression at the Bray is how much the people who work here feel connected to the history and the place.  For me there was an instant sense of home here and connection with the Bray’s long tradition of ceramic history.  For the month of June, I’m lucky enough to be brought out here with a group of 10 artists, to explore what it means to be working on the “edge” of new technologies and its intersection with ceramics.  The combination of a beautiful tradition and new explorations has made my first week ever at the Bray both exciting and endearing.  Everyday here so far has been a whirlwind of sharing ideas, wisdom, and kindness.

      The back yard at the Bray with all the remnants of it's history.

      After a community dinner we all took a break to enjoy the fine bit of sun that peaked out of the clouds, leaving us with a gorgeous rainbow.  A much welcomed break from all the time in front of a computer.

      One of the highlights of this gathering is all of the great new equipment that arrived for the event.  A moment when we all got a good look a the ceramic 3D printer that John Balistreri generously brought out for us all to experiment with.  We’ve been so fortunate to have Mark Hall and Greg Pugh here to help us all out with the technologies.  As you can see we have kept Mark running this first week.

      Chad Curtis, David Reed, James Kline, Mark Hall, Rachel Hicks, Steven Lee, John Williams, Bobby Silverman, checking out the first print of the month.

      And of course meal times together are always special amongst a group of ceramic folks.

      Ayumi Horie and little Max Brayman happy about whats cookin' in the kitchen.

        Why I love the Archie Bray

        The view at dusk from the Bray summer studio

        The Archie Bray Foundation is the oldest and arguably the best ceramics residency in the world. Founded in 1951 and based in Helena, Montana, the Bray is situated on the grounds of a historic brick factory. It‘s a place infused with history, yet boasts state of the art facilities along with the brightest artists in the ceramics world. I’ve been involved with the Bray for fifteen years and my love for it has grown deeper and deeper. While I make an annual trip out here as a board member, I’m back as an artist this time. And as the Bray’s 60th anniversary event approaches, I’ve been reflecting about a few reasons that make the Bray so special.

        Chad Curtis assembling his DIY 3D printer, the MakerBot

        The Bray is really proficient at changing with the times and being open to new ways of thinking, all the while remaining true to its mission of being a “fine place to work”. For the Bray’s 60th anniversary this month, ten artists have been assembled as a think tank to explore the “edge” of digital technologies and ceramics. Artists have brought two ceramic printers and one milling machine to fabricate objects that have been designed on computers, rather than with traditional techniques. It’s interesting coming in as a potter who uses technology more for social outreach and marketing because it’s encouraging me to approach my ceramic work in a different way. As a first project, I’m making a token in Rhino (with the generous help of numerous fellow artists along every step!) that plays with ideas of value and exchange. At the same time that all this is happening, an anagama is being loaded today by a crew of potters who love the richness and ardous process of woodfiring. The flexibility that the Bray embodies by having these two processes running parallel is just one example of what makes the Bray so good.

        John Williams heads up the homemade ravioli making team with sous chefs, David Reid, Steve Roberts, and Eric Kao


        In my opinion, one of the most valuable things one person can give to another is trust. It acts as a kind of nourishment that allows people to sprout, grow, take risks and thrive. I’ve seen the Bray adopt this philosophy as in institution again and again, despite changes in leadership, staff, and the resident artist community. The way in which it’s manifested is that residents here are not in a retreat, cut off from the world, but present in the messiness of life. There’s no dorm or set mealtime to artificially structure their lives as it is in other residencies. The Bray has set up residents with what they need as artists and a minimal set of community expectations, after which residents have the freedom to make work in the way and at a pace that makes sense to them. This kind of trust works really well because it relies on the best things happening organically through self-motivation. I’m talking about art work, but it even happens in the kitchen, as evidenced by last night’s spontaneous handmade ravioli dinner made by six and spearheaded by artist John Williams, who just flew in from Italy.


        Almost ten years ago, the new Shaner Studio and resident artist center were purposefully built on the edge of the ruins of an old brick factory. The massive humped domes of the beehive kilns, the railroad trestle, the hills of discarded brick, and the tool shop in back that literally acts as a window into the past, set the perfect scene. Growing up in New England, I love the closeness of history because it always presents a question about where we are now and how similar we really are to the generations before us. Walking around the grounds is like seeing a timeline of modern studio ceramics come to life. Rows of whole and broken pieces line the walls of the original pottery building and can often be identified as early pieces of this or that now famous artist. As a young potter living here for two years, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to identify all the shards I saw on a daily basis because it was both a history lesson and a way to connect to those who worked here before me.

        The upshot of being surrounded by all this ceramic history is that it acts as a major motivator for many artists in the studio. Having a place in this continuum, wanting to contribute, and moving the dialogue forward are what lead to some of the most exciting experiments and best pieces ever made in ceramic arts. Being among the innovation and passion of the resident artists and the sheer brain power of the “Edge” artists is both humbling and energizing. These three reasons are just a few of many reasons I love the Bray.

        Vintage Akio Takamori figure and Steve Godfrey jar

          The boats I’ve been working on..

            Spring is here!

            Mother’s Day was GREAT!  Somehow the forecast for 70% rain stayed away from the Bray!  I helped in the Clay Corner during part of the event, below an action shot with a masterful giraffe!

            Young artists fast at work in the gazebo!

            The following weekend while taking my shift watching the North Gallery, Don Reitz’s work was delivered.  This is a great reminder that our 60th Celebration is about a month away!  The two pieces are a sight to see in person.  As a quick preview, a snapshot of the two!

            Two fresh pieces for this summer's celebrations!

            Now that we’ve recovered from the excitement of Mother’s Day , it’s almost time to kick it into high gear for the 60th… but first to take a little time to enjoy the warmer weather.

            Click to see a video of Kensuke & his kite!

              • Deborah Britt said... Thanks for posting the pictures of Don Reitz's work. I'm excited to see them in person at the 60th event!

            Bray Brew at the Blackfoot Brewing Company

            This morning I stopped by the Blackfoot River Brewing Company to check up on the bottling process of a special brewed Belgium Strong Ale  made for this summer’s 60th anniversary event….we like to call it the Bray Brew! Resident artists Courtney Murphy, Kenyon Hansen, Nick Bivins and Kensuke Yamada volunteered to help with the process.

            There will only be 500-750ml bottles available and will be on sale during the event. Don’t worry we will let you know when that happens….you don’t want to miss out.  Special thanks to the Blackfoot and Tim Chisman for making it all happen.

            Sorry about the photos not being turned the right way…the program wouldn’t let me rotate them for some reason. I will try again later. For now, I guess you just have to tilt your head a little :)

              Count Down to Mother’s Day!

              This Saturday, May 7th, the Bray will hold it’s annual Mother’s Day Sale!  This is a super fun day and serves as a fundraiser for the Bray as well as the Farm in the Dell.  We have been prepping for Mother’s Day for a bit now.  It started with making planters as witnessed on the blog in March… coincidently on National Corn Dog Day!  And then we loaded up the salt kiln twice to fire the planters!

              Martha and Kenyon each volunteered to fire the salt kiln!

              Picking up our newly planted planters at Farm in the Dell

              After all the work was fired, we delivered over 300 planers to Farmer in the Dell where they planted flowers and herbs!  They did an outstanding job!  Notice Kenyan’s large hanging planters!

              Matthew picking up raked piles all day!

              Kenyon with Hanging Planter Head!

              We just picked up the planters on Tuesday!  So, now we have to tidy up to prepare for all of our visitors ! A day of yard work and our grounds are stunning!  So we are ready for our Mother’s Day Sale and hope to see you!

                • Steven Young Lee said... Kenyon should wear that planter all the time!

              testing this blog thing out

              I need to finish making the lids for these pots.

                Just another Day…

                Yep, we are tired of the weather, it was overcast, drizzling and still in the mid-forties.  You have to do something…Fiddlesticks! Today was practice, tomorrow we will have a Bray “Break” at lunch to recycle old work!

                  • Jana Evans said... Click on "Fiddlesticks" to watch a video of our quick Bray break... it's healthier than a smoke break, gets rid of kiln flaws and makes more room in the studio! Kenyan's tumblers are stacked two high for this video.