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Is a cup just a cup? 'Contemporary Ceramics' at the McLean County Arts Center has a range of answers

side-by-side black and white ornate teapots
Harris Deller
Throughout his long career, ceramicist Harris Deller oscillated between function and form. His teapot series endeavors to be both. Deller's porcelain works are often black and white and two-sided, presenting dichotomies and what he calls "two for the price of one."

The McLean County Arts Center has a new show kicking off Friday in the Brandt Gallery. The group show, titled "Contemporary Ceramics," features clay pieces from several Illinois artists.

Among them is Harris Deller, whose ceramics are part of the collections at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Illinois State Museum and the De Young Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco, to name a few. Deller retired from Southern Illinois University 10 years ago and still lives in Carbondale.

Current SIUC faculty Pattie Chalmers and Kari Woolsey are also featured in “Contemporary Ceramics,” as are Twin City artists Erin Furimsky, Kristen Heteji, Linda Willis Fisher and Claire Hedden. Tim Kowalczyk, from nearby Woodford County; Aurora-based Doug Jeppesen, and Chicagoland’s Leanne McClurg and Kari Woolsey complete the roster.

As the eldest of the bunch, Deller’s style is distinct. He trained under renowned ceramicist Richard DeVore at Cranbrook Academy of Art and prefers smoothed porcelain, eschewing the current trend showing the “work” by leaving behind evidence of the artist’s hands and tools.

But until about 50 years ago — Deller is in his 70s now — a career in art never occurred to him.

“I was a political science major,” said Deller. “Neither one of my parents had any education beyond the fourth grade. I was the first to attend college and I had these great aspirations of becoming an attorney.”

School was difficult for Deller; he struggled with his grades while enrolled at California State University-Northridge.

“It was real tough for me,” he said.

At the beginning of his junior year, Deller had dinner with a friend and remarked on the dishes.

“We were eating off these brown, heavy disks,” he said. That dinner sparked a change of major and a curiosity in clay that has never wavered.

“My generation was incredibly lucky,” said Deller. “I began college in the middle ‘60s. It was a great time; there were a lot of opportunities for kids coming from middle class and lower middle class backgrounds to become an artist. It’s a much more difficult thing now for young people.”

At Cranbrook, DeVore emphasized personal expression, which Deller carried with him to the ceramics department at SIUC.

“The most important thing is to be able to find your own voice and get it out there through and in the materials,” Deller said. “What he wanted you to do was cut right to the chase, find your personal voice and develop it. It was a tough process and I feel like I’m still arriving. I’m still trying to find that.”

Two sides to every story

An undeniable component is Deller’s affinity for black and white, infusing the work with dichotomous symbolism.

“It’s as simple as right and wrong,” he said. “A lot of my work is two sided as well — the idea of, there are two sides to a story, or you get two things for the price of one. You can turn it one way and look at it for six years, and when you get tired of looking at that side, flip it around and look at the other side.”

Function vs. form is an existential question in art. Some artists make utilitarian items to be used; others make things to look at. Deller, who’s made both, said the chasm between ceramicists is not so vast, with mutual respect given on both sides of the aisle.

“I started out as a functional potter,” he said. “Cups were my big item. I mean, I made cups, cups, cups.”

“There’s this theory that the content of a cup is the cup. I tried to make a cup that had content beyond that. That was a very difficult thing to do. Probably the best thing for a cup’s content should be that it’s a cup.”

“Contemporary Ceramics” runs Friday through Oct. 28 at the McLean County Art Center, 601 N. East St., Bloomington. There is an opening reception Friday 5-7 p.m. Admission to the gallery is always free. mcac.wildapricot.org.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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