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Clay celebration in Highland Park hopes to fire up passion for pottery

| Thursday, April 16, 2015, 9:11 p.m.
David MacDonald is artist in residence at Union Project this week.
David MacDonald
David MacDonald is artist in residence at Union Project this week.

Renowned ceramist David MacDonald set out to be a painter, but a college course he was required to take as a fine arts major ignited an unexpected passion for pottery that has endured for 40 years.

“I wasn't familiar with ceramics until I had to take that course, but, once I started working with clay, I fell in love with it,” says MacDonald, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., and exhibits at a number of private galleries.

This week, he is artist-in-residence at Union Project, a nonprofit, community-based arts organization in Highland Park, where he will mentor other ceramists, visit area schools, lecture and demonstrate his pottery-making process.

His residency is being funded by a $15,000 grant from the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Program, a partnership of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments. It is part of Union Project's annual clay celebration that culminates April 19 with the Mother of All Pottery Sales, where 33 local ceramists will exhibit and sell their work.

That event, which is free and open to the public, will feature demonstrations by MacDonald “throwing on the wheel.”

“David is the best-known, most accomplished artist we have ever hosted,” says Jenna Vanden Brink, a potter and manager of Union Project ceramics cooperative. “To have him come for an entire week to work with students, with adult beginners, and with other professionals is very special.”

Having taught ceramics at Syracuse University for 36 years before retiring, MacDonald says he enjoys sharing with people who are as passionate about pottery as he is, as well as “awakening an interest” in others who may have untapped talent. Part of why he chose pottery as his means of creative expression is that it combines what is beautiful with what is functional, he says.

“You make aesthetic decisions as an artist that have practical application, too, which I find fascinating. Ceramics appeals to more of our senses than painting or sculpture.”

Everything MacDonald creates is a vessel of some sort, such as a bowl, a cup or a platter, and reflects his propensity for intricate patterns, including cross-hatches, diamonds and swirls that he carves into the surface of his work.

“The forms I make are relatively simple,” he says, “but I try to make them visually interesting and unique through surface decoration.”

His designs, often glazed in earth tones, originally were inspired by the decorative traditions of sub-Saharan Africa, “but have morphed over the years into something more personal,” he says. “You could describe them as Africanesque, but they are not replicas.”

MacDonald typically works in porcelain and stoneware, and wants people to use what they buy.

“Having a collection of cups you just keep on a shelf is like having a collection of bells you never ring,” he says. “You lose an important dimension of having these objects in your possession if you don't enjoy them.

“I understand that some might be kept for special occasions, but I also make things affordable, so that first of cup of coffee in the morning can feel special, as well.”

Although MacDonald says he is not as interested in creating museum pieces, his work is part of the permanent collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Montclair Art Museum in his native New Jersey, and in the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse.

MacDonald will demonstrate his creative process on April 19 in the same Great Hall where local potters will sell their work. Showgoers will have an opportunity to put their hands into clay in the Project's downstairs studio under the guidance of guest potters from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and Assemble, a Lawrenceville-based arts and technology nonprofit that emphasizes youth programming, Vanden Brink says.

In keeping with the Union Project mission, April 19th's sale, which is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, will be an all-inclusive event, representing ceramists of all ages and skill levels, from hobbyists to pros, she says.

“We support emerging artists as well as ceramists you're likely to see at places like the Three Rivers Arts Festival, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, which has a pretty robust program,” Vanden Brink says.

Keith Hershberger, a member of Union Project cooperative and a teaching artist at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, agrees that the show will be a rare treat for the public.

“It's called the Mother of All Shows for a reason,” he says, “because you get to see all that can be done with one medium — clay.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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