Published: Oct. 26, 2016

Ariana Kolins has had a secret desire since high school to open a tea shop and gallery. For Matt Smith, growing up with a father who was a jack-of-all-trades gave him a role model who worked in many creative ways to solve practical, everyday problems.

Both of them became artists working in clay and now are pursuing MFA degrees in CU Boulder’s Ceramics Graduate Program, ranked fifth in the nation by US News and World Report.

They were drawn to the ceramics program because of the nationally recognized faculty, the program’s interdisciplinary approach to art making, the spacious new facilities and the success of graduates who have gone on to successful careers in art and academia.

"I came to CU to become a better artist," Smith said. "This program forges artists who know how to think critically, who are passionate about making art that people can think about, challenge or enjoy."

The Ceramics Graduate Program in the Department of Art and Art History is meant to be a transition from classroom learning to individual learning in a private studio practice. The program offers a solid foundation from which students can take risks, be challenged and stretch themselves as artists.

Eight graduates are enrolled in the ceramics area annually. The ceramics space houses include individual studios with common kitchen and separate hall for the graduates, nine gas kilns, 10 electric kilns, a ceramics teaching collection, glaze lab, plaster room, clay mixing room and three classroom studios.

A robust interdisciplinary and conceptual approach encourages cross-pollination among myriad art-making disciplines.

While Smith and Kolins have been working in clay, they have also been exploring other materials.

Kolins has been working on an art installation with used tea bags. Collecting hundreds of tea bags from friends and co-workers, she empties the bags and stitches them together using the tea strings. The different teas stain the bags a variety of colors, which makes the whole piece reminiscent of a handmade quilt.

"I chose this program because graduates were coming out with their MFAs working in clay," she said. "This is the first time ever that I’ve not worked in clay. I have a fascination with simple objects we throw away and that we don’t even notice, like tea bags. Something I’ve learned while here is that sometimes clay isn’t the obvious material. For this work I’m doing now, there’s no reason to have clay, so it doesn’t belong."

Smith came to the program because thinking about ideas and whatever those ideas demand is often how the material begins to form.  He recently put up a large video installation with church banners made in the manner of those that hung in the church his family attended. Smith made the banners by laser cutting Bible verses into felt using his grandfather’s handwriting. Light shines through the cutouts, projecting onto the walls the verses that held meaning for him.

"The reason this makes sense within the ceramic context is the idea of objectness," he said. "I find a certain power in objects that have meaning to me, that hold a personal history and a personal narrative. Being sensitive to the power of objects is one reason why I'm here. Above it all is a passion for challenging ourselves in this field and making pots, but ultimately I want whatever exciting idea that comes to my mind to play itself out in a material and a process that makes the most sense."

So, what do stitching together tea bags and cutting Bible verses into felt have in common with throwing a pot on the wheel?

Artists are continually reaching for something more within themselves. If they stop growing in their work, their art can become sterile no matter how developed their skills. Graduates come out of the program conversant in the ideas that drive them to create and prepared to engage in a meaningful exchange about the role of the arts in the world.

"I think in terms of clay, and that is where the values of this new project are coming from," Kolins said. "This is an intense program. It teaches us to think critically. I process the world through making and I felt this was a place where I really could learn and grow."

Kolins will have her work in the MFA Fall Thesis Exhibition at the CU Art Museum from Nov. 5 to 17, with the opening 5 to 7 p.m., Nov. 4.