by Sheri Boggs

"Archie Bray" is one of those names you're going to be hearing a lot of over the next few months. And even if you'd rather eat ground glass than go to art galleries, even if your first thought upon hearing the word "ceramics" is "garishly painted dwarves like at Grandma's house," you need to know one thing: The Archie Bray Foundation is a big deal.

The Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture (the MAC) opens "A Ceramic Continuum: Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence" this Friday. Within a few weeks, similar shows of Archie Bray-themed ceramic works - entitled as a whole as "Spokane Celebrates Ceramics" -- will be opening up all around the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene area, including exhibits at the Lorinda Knight Gallery, the Jundt, Joel, Art Spirit, Art by Yourself and the Red Sky Studio and Gallery. The fact that this is a major artistic endeavor for Spokane is not lost on Jim Kolva, whose passion for ceramics is evident in his own museum-quality collection.

"This is really an opportunity to showcase what's possible in contemporary ceramics," he explains. "Spokane's never had anything like this before. Seattle had a big ceramics show a few months ago, with five or six venues participating. So we thought, let's try it here."

Sitting on 26 acres just outside of Helena, Montana, the Archie Bray Foundation is a former brickyard now transformed into a place that fairly vibrates with creative energy. The foundation is named for its founder, a brick maker and avid arts patron who dreamed of opening a place for serious ceramic artists to work and study. Bray started the foundation in 1951 and it has since become an internationally recognized institution. Sculptures - reminders of all the artists who have come and gone -- punctuate the dry Western landscape; rustic buildings and enormous beehive kilns give testament to the hard physical work involved in making ceramics. Many residents find the grounds themselves inspirational - it's not uncommon to hear ceramic artists and collectors talk about "the Bray mystique" and to describe the heady sense of working where other great artists have worked before. For others, the old buildings far away from the state-of-the-art studios and modern equipment provide unexpected resources.

"I initially thought of making The Beast [one of her most recent and most technically challenging works] when I was poking around the brickyard ruins," says Beth Cavener Stichter, a current resident of the Bray who just finished up a show at the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d'Alene last month. "There is this one building where you can peer into the window, and there is a fantastic menagerie of rusting machine parts, wooden wheelbarrows, stacks of disintegrating brick, and conveyer belts running to and from the ceiling. Big holes in the roof have allowed copious amount of water to seep in, and everything is covered in bright green moss and small delicate growth. It is absolutely stunning. I felt like I had found a doorway into a lost age or another world, and I imagined strange men and beasts skulking around in the decay when no one was there to see."

"The site is a strong part of it," agrees Kolva. "As a board, we've been looking at various designs and ideas for the next 50 years and one of the biggest, most important things people have said to us is "Don't mess it up by making it all sterile and clean.' In other words, you need that grit from before when it became an arts facility. The clay from bricks and sewer pipes transposes into clay in the hands of artists. The site appears to be coming from the earth and returning to the earth at the same time."

If there are any ghosts at the Bray, they hover in the wordless desire to do work worthy of all those who have come before. Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos - who both have pieces in the show at the MAC - came to the Bray in their early 20s and helped give the Bray its widely recognized status as "the birthplace of contemporary American ceramics."

"The very underpinnings of American contemporary ceramics - that free and loose quality -- originated at the Bray," says Kolva. "It all happened right there."

The beauty of the Bray, however, is that there's no such thing as "the Bray look." The small consortium of local ceramic artists, instructors and enthusiasts - including Terry Gieber, Lisa Nappa and Lee Ayars - who curated and planned this summer's exhibits have done an excellent job in showing that ceramics can be everything from an austere black teapot to a sculpture of a baby pig riding a unicycle with a propeller on his nose. While the show at the MAC is the traveling exhibition of the Bray's 50th anniversary show, other venues offer individual ceramic artists (Gina Freuen at the Art Spirit, for example) as well as group shows of resident artists (at Lorinda Knight) and exhibitions of local individual collections (at the Jundt).

Each piece of pumice-rough stoneware, each delicate eggshell of porcelain, every voluptuously curved vessel is informed by a sense of developing significance. In fact, one of the most exciting things about "Spokane Celebrates Ceramics" is that for every "big-name" piece in the show - Autio, Voulkos, Akio Takamori, Frances Senska, Patti Warashina, Kurt Weiser - there is an emerging artist (Keith Simpson, Chris Antemann, Sarah Jaeger) whose work is already making waves and garnering critical accolades. For many of this new generation of ceramic artists, there is a sense of both gratitude and possibility in being a current or recent Archie Bray resident, continuing in a tradition that started amid all the dust and sweat of a Montana brick factory more than 50 years ago.

"Every one of us was chosen for this place, and we cannot help but feel awed by the company we keep," says Stichter. "So I feel this anxious and excited energy to produce something better than myself to leave as part of the Bray's legacy. The exchange of ideas and emotions is rich soil. Every brick has its history and every physical gesture has tangible consequences."

Exhibits -

"A Ceramic Continuum: Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence"

May 21-July 18. Opening reception for MAC members: Friday, May 21, featuring a lecture with the Archie Bray Foundation's Resident Director, Josh DeWeese, at 6 pm, followed by a reception and gallery visits at 7 pm. Northwest Museum of Arts & amp; Culture (MAC), 2316 W. First Ave., 456-3931

Gina Freuen -- Now through June 5. The Art Spirit Gallery, 415 Sherman Ave., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, (208) 765-6006

"Brian Mackin: New Forms" -- Now through June 4. Spokane Art School, 920 N. Howard St., 328-0900

"Spokane Collects Ceramics" -- June 1-July 31. Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga, 202 E. Cataldo Ave., 323-6611

Current Archie Bray Residents -- June 4-July 31. Lorinda Knight Gallery, 523 W. Sprague, 838-3740

"Ceramic Form: Regional Faculty" -- June 14-July 16. Spokane Art School, 920 N. Howard St., 328-0900

Former Archie Bray Residents -- May 21-June 30. Opening reception: May 28 from 5-8 pm. Red Sky Studio and Gallery, 115B S. Adams St., 462-5653

Current and Former Bray Directors -- May 21-June 30. Opening reception: May 28 from 5-8 pm. Kolva-Sullivan Gallery, 115 S. Adams St., 462-5653

Selected Artwork -- May 21-July 18. Spokane Teachers Credit Union, Main Office, 106 W. Nora Ave., 326-1954

Current and Recent Bray Residents -- May 21-June 30. Joel, 165 S. Post St., 624-2354

"Painted Ceramics: A Group Show" -- June 4-30. Art by Yourself and Spike Coffee House, 122 S. Monroe St., 838-8993

5th Annual Clay Invitational -- Past Bray Residents -- Aug. 13-Sept. 4. The Art Spirit Gallery, 415 Sherman Ave., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, (208) 735-6006

Publication date: 05/20/04

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