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 Tuesday, June 15, 2010 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Professor Scott Chamberlin's Artwork Transformed By Fellowship
by Kenna Bruner, University Communications

A fellowship can be a broadening and stimulating experience for individuals who have shown originality and dedication in their creative pursuits. For Scott Chamberlin, his fellowship to New Zealand last year was an immersive journey that led him to startling, unforeseen, and life changing experiences.

An internationally recognized ceramic artist, Chamberlin is a professor in CU-Boulder’s Department of Art and Art History. He teaches in the Ceramic Graduate Program, which is ranked among the top 10 in the country.

In January 2010, Chamberlin and his family returned from New Zealand where he spent a year as a visiting professor and artist-in-residence in the contemporary crafts program at Unitec in Auckland. His fellowship was capped by an exhibition of his ceramic sculptures, “Fertile Matters,” a body of artistic work influenced by New Zealand’s culture and history.

A ceramic sculptor working with abstraction, Chamberlin draws inspiration from much that is abstract, and is interested in landscape architecture and topiary—the art of sculpting shrubs and trees. He wanted this fellowship because of Unitec’s overarching creative industries program that includes contemporary crafts and landscape architecture, which would allow him a cross disciplinary exploration to feed into his sculpture studio practice.

“I went knowing I was going to make sculptures, but I decided to just start making work and to see where it led—to let whatever happened happen,” he said. “As a result, my work changed quite a bit.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University and a master’s degree in fine arts from Alfred University, Chamberlin taught at the Camberwell School of Art in London and has been at CU-Boulder for 25 years. He has been awarded two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant for Individual Artists. Since 2003 he has been working on a sculpted garden in Portugal, where he went on sabbatical.

A traditional Maori welcoming ceremony
When Chamberlin and his family arrived in New Zealand, they were invited to a reception at Unitec. New Zealand treasures its indigenous heritage and integrates Maori culture into many aspects of life. Unitec has a Maori representative who welcomes newcomers into the fold. Chamberlin’s wife and daughter were unable to attend, but his two sons went with him. At the welcoming ceremony, a Maori representative sang a traditional greeting and recited a poem in the native language. Each of the 50 or so faculty members in turn touched noses and foreheads with Chamberlin and his sons in greeting.

“I was so moved,” he said. “It introduced me to the community and set the stage for me feeling welcome. Imagine doing something like that at CU-Boulder.”

On multiple levels the body of work Chamberlin produced last year was a departure from his earlier work—moving from totally abstract pieces to less abstract work; from individual pieces that stood alone, to a grouping that was connected to a narrative. Typically his sculptures have been mounted on the wall, whereas his new work included pieces that hung from the ceiling and some that were placed on tables. His collection of 12 terra cotta sculptures comprised a tableaux meant to be experienced as a whole rather than individually, which was another first for Chamberlin.

While Chamberlin didn’t begin his fellowship with the expectation of transforming his artwork, he did return with a sense that change in an artist’s work is essential for growth.

“My work became less abstract, which surprised me because I’ve studiously stayed away from making work that is recognizable,” he said. “I believe there’s a condition of an object that’s more interesting when you can’t name it so quickly. The intellectual grappling with a work of art becomes more about wonder and imagining and thinking about what it’s about rather than looking at an object and knowing what it is.”

Chamberlin arrived in New Zealand with only positive expectations for his fellowship, but his experience was challenged by a traumatic event. While on holiday in Samoa in September 2009, he and his family were caught up in the tsunami disaster. He was swept from the beach into the water, but fortunately emerged from the waves with only minor physical injuries. His family was safe on higher ground.

“It was genuinely a horrific event and I don’t know how I could even begin to talk about it in the context of the fellowship,” he said. “It will take time.”

Chamberlin’s new work evolved
From his research on how New Zealand was founded, colonized, and ruled, and the interactions between the English colonists and the Maori, as well as the many conversation he had with artists, students, and landscape architects, Chamberlin’s new work began to take shape and evolve. He worked in unglazed terracotta with white slip and a clear glaze, alluding to earlier provincial ceramics.

“I started making work with a much more open strategy,” he said. “The end exhibition was a group of works that were a conversation about all the things I was experiencing in New Zealand.”

From his research, Chamberlin was surprised to learn that New Zealand had a strong ceramic community in the 1960s and 1970s due to stiff tariffs imposed by the government on imported ceramics. During that time, New Zealand’s potters flourished, but when the government rescinded the tariffs and allowed ceramics to be imported into the country again, local studio ceramic products all but stopped production and university ceramic programs deteriorated.

“That was partly why I was there, to have conversations about how to get Unitec’s ceramics program running again and how to make it an excellent ceramic program,” he said.

Chamberlin is also currently engaged in conversations about developing an exchange program between the ceramics departments at CU-Boulder and Unitec.

“I’m of the opinion that human beings need to make things,” he said. “The real human need to make something and the even more human quality of finding satisfaction in that is real.”

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