2017 Essay | Ball State University School of Art

2017 Essay | Ball State University School of Art

Fostering Dialogue and Collaboration

By Natalie E. Phillips, PhD, and Davira S. Taragin

Kenton Hall and Brent Cole
Utility Cabinet 5, 2017
Wood, plywood, glass, steel
67 x 23.75 x 18 inches
Photo by Serena Nancarrow
Kenton Hall
All the Pretty Ash Trees, 2017
Video; length: 3 minutes
Photo courtesy of the artist
Organized for SOFA Chicago 2017, the exhibition Ball State University School of Art: Fostering Dialogue and Collaboration presents as case studies works by the School’s 3-D faculty. It showcases how its educators incorporate in their own practices and teachings the diverse types of collaboration that have informed works in craft media over the past seventy years. The exhibition augments recent articles in American Craft and Metalsmith magazines and the landmark 2013 compendium of essays Collaboration Through Craft ˡ in addressing for the first time the topic of collaboration in late twentieth and twenty-first century work in craft media. Such documentation points to the need for more in-depth study since these collaborations—even though relatively few and often short-lived—are critical to the ongoing dissolution of hierarchies in today’s art.
Barbara Giorgio-Booher
Adaptation of Nepenthes, 2016
Kiln-formed glass, glass powders, plexiglass
27 x 27 x 1.5 inches
Photo by Serena Nancarrow

Collaborations in Contemporary Craft

The original notion of the Studio artist working alone was quickly dispelled in the Studio Craft movement’s early years. As early as mid-century, Studio Craft could claim a number of invaluable partnerships—mostly married couples— that included ceramists Vivika and Otto Heino, Warren MacKenzie and his first wife, Alix, Nan and James Mckinnnell, Gertrud and Otto Natzler, and Mary and Edwin Scheier;² and glass artists Frances and Michael Higgins. A number of prominent artistic pairings have followed; however, some couples, such as glass artists Sybelle Peretti and Stephen Paul Day, take the same approach as some of these early collaborators and move between working separately and as a team. In these partnerships, the artists generally function as a single entity and command equal stature and recognition while assuming distinct roles in the execution of a shared concept.

Stemming from his residency at the Venini glass factory in 1968, Dale Chihuly deserves credit for popularizing another type of collaboration: teamwork. At the core of some of the workshops founded by early Studio woodworkers and furniture artists such as George Nakashima and Wendell Castle, teamwork is primarily identified with glassmaking. The artist with the overriding concept is assisted by a group of established or emerging talents who have been assembled specifically to create more complex statements than what is feasible by the solo practitioner. Authorship, however, can be an issue. The artist with the idea usually takes ownership, but some artists, such as glass sculptor Richard Marquis, base their very practice on acknowledging collaboration.   

Jessica Calderwood
Reluctant Sexpot, 2014
Porcelain, felted wool, fiberglass, milk paint
48 x 29 x 29 inches
Photo by Serena Nancarrow
Jennifer Halvorson
Convention, 2017
Pressed glass
Left to right: 3.25 x 6.25 x 6 inches; 3.25 x 6.5 x 7.5 inches;
4 x 6.5 x 4.5 inches
Photo by Serena Nancarrow

Most revolutionary of the recent collaborations is the concept of technically proficient artisans/makers translating into craft media the ideas of artists from diverse backgrounds. Egidio Costantini with his Fucina Degli Angeli glasshouse adopted this format in mid-century Murano; factory artisans under Costantini’s direction translated into glass the sketches or models made by such modern masters as Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Oskar Kokoschka, and Pablo Picasso. Since the 1980s, however, by pairing gaffers with artists not trained in glassmaking, the artist residency programs at Pilchuck Glass School and Brooklyn’s New York Experimental Glass Workshop (now Urban Glass) have done the most to popularize this type of working relationship.

Increasingly common across all media, such collaborations have resulted in groundbreaking projects like the traveling exhibition Demons, Yarns and Tales (2008-13) that featured tapestries designed by fifteen internationally recognized artists including Grayson Perry, Fred Tomaselli, and Kara Walker and executed by Chinese weavers, and the recent partnership between the Whitney Museum of American Art and Tiffany’s in which precious jewelry and objects designed by select 2017 Whitney Biennial artists were then realized by company artisans.  

Slate Grove
Luxury Prayers, 2017
Glass, oak, textiles
32 x 21 x 36 inches
Photo courtesy of the artist

Recently, multidisciplinary artists Theaster Gates, Nick Cave, and metalsmith Gabriel Craig have promoted a form of collaboration that actively involves community. Gates, for instance, defines his work as encompassing “sculpture, performance, space, and friendship.”³ Taking advantage of the performative nature of craft, this new generation of artists consider audience participation and open dialogue with the public critical to their practice.

Ball State University School of Art’s Collaborative Spirit

Ted Neal
Tureen, 2017
18 x 12.5 x 12.5 inches
Stoneware and steel
Photo by Serena Nancarrow

The School of Art at Ball State University actively fosters collective alliances that are assisted by the close proximity of its studio facilities and the generous, cooperative attitudes of its faculty. Even though collaboration can be a difficult process, requiring artists to set aside their independent egos and work together with an attitude of mutual respect, collaborative efforts between BSU faculty and students alike are thriving. Cultivating these approaches allows Ball State artists to operate in the interstitial spaces between traditional media.

Some of the most fruitful collaborations come from unexpected places. In Utility Cabinet #5, furniture artist Kenton Hall and Brent Cole, Director of the Marilyn K. Glick Center for Glass, combine their respective areas of expertise in wood and glass. At once beautiful and functional, the cabinet is inspired by memories of Hall’s grandfather, who owned similar finely-crafted furniture. The cabinet is accented by five glass bowls blown by Cole exhibiting a beautiful orange hue reminiscent of the Douglas fir tree. Cole and Hall relied on each other as “technicians, craftsmen, and aesthetic advisors.”4 For Cole, glass captures a decisive moment frozen in time like a snapshot. This ability complements the capacity of wood to record the hand of the sculptor as well as the history of the specific tree from which the wood was sourced. That same characteristic of wood is referenced in Hall’s video piece All the Pretty Ashtrees. Inspired by dialogues with intermedia professor Maura Jasper, it alludes to the near extinction of the ash tree.

Vance Bell
Caustic Cargo, 2016
Stoneware, slip, salt, glass
5 x 38.5 x 7.5 inches
Photo by Serena Nancarrow

Cole also worked in conjunction with drawing professor Barbara Giorgio-Booher, who learned from Cole how to use frit—or powdered glass—to “draw” on sheet glass using brushes, spatulas, and stencils. Adaptation of Nepenthes uses this process to subliminally play off of both human and botanical forms. When installed in a greenhouse environment, Giorgio-Booher’s work creates further unexpected collaborations with nature itself; the greenhouse plants echo the imagery of her panels.

Assistant Professor of Glass Jennifer Halvorson’s work marks an unexpected merging of art and industry. Convention is produced with a glass press and duck mold purchased from the now defunct Fenton Art Glass Company of West Virginia. Halvorson works with a team of students to operate the press, creating a large quantity of pressed glass ducks that she can then further manipulate while they are still hot. Similar to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Sunflowers Seeds or He Xie, Halvorson’s work harnesses the power of the multiple to construct narratives; however, the individual works maintain their own identity due to the subtle manipulations of the forms.

Chet Geiselman
Untitled Bas-relief #40, 2014
Ash, walnut, cherry, maple, sycamore, stained poplar, and steel
29 x 11 x 5 inches
Photo by Serena Nancarrow

Likewise, metalsmith/jeweler Jessica Calderwood uses industrial materials to investigate gender and identity. Reluctant Sexpot was created while she was an artist-in-residence at the Art/Industry Program at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. It is composed of materials largely associated with traditional women’s work, such as felt and porcelain which were fabricated with the assistance of Kohler artisans. The sculpture features a young girl’s legs striking a pigeon-toed stance. Out of her torso bloom pendulous fuchsia bulbs, the stamens of which appear threatening, aggressive, and even phallic, despite their historical associations with the feminine. This coming-of-age sculpture alludes to contradictions regarding how women’s bodies are viewed as they enter sexual maturity. The young girl maintains her innocence, yet is becoming aware of the ways in which women’s bodies are sexualized and marginalized by the male gaze.

W. Joseph Zack
Beetle Mounting Box, 1997
Cherry, ebony, zebrawood, brass, glass, found objects
3.5 x 15 x 12.5 inches (closed)
12.75 x 15 x 12.5 inches (open)
Photo by Serena Nancarrow

Glass Studio Manager Slate Grove’s Luxury Prayers allows for a partnership between the artist and viewer, similar to the participatory dialogues explored by Gates and Cave. Grove’s work is a “designer” pew inspired by our obsession with consumption and the worship of brand names. The beauty of the work belies its associations with crass status symbols, inviting the viewer to kneel down and pray. But to whom is one really praying? The work asks its audience to actively participate in questioning consumerism and religious hypocrisy even though it may make viewers uncomfortable in the process.

Collaboration of opposing materials is another way to diversify artistic processes. Ceramic professor Ted Neal’s functionally beautiful Tureen is a stoneware vessel with an iron handle that was fired to create a metallic ceramic surface. Marrying ceramic and metal, Tureen functions as a “conceptual vehicle for expression about global consumption.”6 Vance Bell’s Caustic Cargo is also a seamless convergence of two dissimilar materials—ceramic and glass—while Untitled Bas Relief #40 by 3-D Studio Manager Chet Geiselman unites exquisite samples of disparate varieties of wood highlighting the patterns of the grain.

Collaborations between art and nature have long been explored by contemporary Earth artists such as Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson, and Nina Katchadourian in her Mended Spiderwebs series. In this vein, W. Joseph Zack’s Beetle Mounting Box is inspired by the forms and colors of the beetles he obsessively collected for many years. The box is a fully-functional unit which includes tools for mounting beetles, as well as logos he designed to represent the five types of beetle families. The colors and textures of the many different types of wood used in the box mirror the incredible variety of beetles; thus, the design of the box itself takes its cue from nature.

The wide array of collaborative efforts at Ball State represent the diversity of its faculty, each with their own expertise and interest in open dialogue. Students and faculty alike reap the benefits of the generosity of the artists at the School of Art. Ruled by a non-territorial, non-hierarchical approach to studio space and media, Ball State’s faculty continue the historical legacy of the Studio Craft movement while paving the way for new forms of collaboration.  

Note: Davira S. Taragin wishes to thank noted ceramic historian Martha Lynn for her contribution to this essay as well as Mary Beth Kreiner, art librarian, Cranbrook Academy of Art Library, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. 

1 See Amanda Ravetz, Alice Kettle, and Helen Felcey, eds., Collaboration Through Craft (London, New Delhi, New York, and Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

2 See Martha Drexler Lynn, American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity 1940 to 1979 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 117 - 18. 

3 Valerie Cassel Oliver, Glenn Adamson, and Namita Gupta Wiggers with Sarah G. Cassidy, Hand + Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2010), p. 60.

4 Brent Cole and Kenton Hall, interview by Natalie Phillips, School of Art, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana., 14 July 2017.

5 Ted Neal, interview by Natalie Phillips, School of Art, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana., 17 July 2017.


Award-winning art historian Dr. Natalie Phillips is an Associate Professor of Art History. She received her Ph.D. in Visual Studies from the University of California, Irvine with a specialization in contemporary art and critical theory. Phillips has written articles and reviews for such journals as American Art, Religion and the Arts, Metalsmith, Ceramics Monthly, and Women’s Art Journal. She is currently authoring a book on the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Davira S. Taragin was formerly Curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Toledo Museum of Art and Director of Exhibitions and Programs at the Racine Art Museum. She is currently an independent curator. Along with other projects, she serves as Consulting Curator to Ball State University’s School of Art in Muncie, Indiana, and to the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum.  

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