Molding More Than Clay

Jonathan Steele ’14, adjunct ceramics instructor, hadn’t made a figurative piece since he was a student—then he was asked to teach the class.

ART 248 is a ceramics handbuilding course for art majors thinking about ceramics as a focus, or for painters, drawers, and printmakers who need to fill their 3-D course requirement. It’s one of two classes Jonathan is teaching this semester, while filling in for his former professor, Chad Gunderson.

“You need teaching experience to get teaching experience,” Jonathan says, “and I was feeling uncertain about that and asking [Chad], ‘How do you get your foot in the door of teaching, into academia?’ He said, ‘One great way is a sabbatical replacement position, and just so happens, I’m going on sabbatical next year.’” 

That’s how Jonathan found himself preparing to teach portrait figures, the task of transforming hunks of clay into recognizable human figures. But having spent most of his time since grad school making functional pottery like teapots and other vessels to earn an income, he needed a plan.

Jonathan Steele ’14, adjunct ceramics instructor, during class.

“The clear way for me to teach the topic,” he says, “was to work through the process with the students and lend insight as I was making decisions and coming into contact with challenges throughout my own creative process. I thought making something, and then just being transparent about the entire process with the students, would be the way to give guidance to them through the practice, through the process.”

A few lectures on technique just wouldn’t cut it. “I didn’t feel that I could just stand up and talk about it,” he says. “My role wasn’t just to teach how to make a bust or how to make a clay portrait, as much as why to make it. Why is that even a useful or interesting thing to do?”

Inspiration arose from personal tragedy. “The thing that jumped to my mind was to make an expression of grief, because I’m experiencing grief in my own life at the loss of my sister last year.” Gathering photos of himself and images online of people crying or screaming, and of sculptures depicting anger and grief, Jonathan pooled his source material, tapped into a well of emotion and contemplation, and created a piece all his own.

"I’m really happy with my students’ work on portraits/busts," Jonathan says in an Instagram post.

He asked his students to do the same. They collected pictures—of themselves, their friends or family members, strangers from the Internet, sculptures that already exist—showing people in specific expressions or poses. “This sculpture is an abstracting process of taking something that exists (human experience) and representing it in clay,” he says. “There’s a difference between looking at a real person and trying to make a sculpture from them, and looking at a sculpture and trying to copy that sculpture or use elements of it in your own piece. I had the students gather as much resource material as they could in photographic form, and then coalesce all of that into their own work.”

Operating just a step or two ahead of where the students were in their own work, Jonathan was both student and teacher through this process. “What I’ve realized and discovered in this role is that being a good leader in the classroom isn’t about knowing everything and telling it to the students,” he says. “It’s about having the tools and the experience to work with the students on their own work.”

As Jonathan and his students worked on their clay portraits, class discussions often turned to the topic of personal expression and the function of making something that represents a human, whether that’s emotional catharsis, social commentary, or technical mastery. “There’s a whole variety of reasons that one might decide to make a portrait of somebody,” Jonathan explains. “What are those reasons? Let’s talk about them and think about them.”

Now scattered throughout Jonathan’s office, drying and awaiting their turn in the kiln, the figures are finished and graded.

“Every one of the students put something of themselves into their work,” Jonathan says. “I was really happy with how the project turned out, bringing it out of the simple ‘learn a skill’ [mode] and into more of the personal need to create. That’s the next level of what it means to be an artist, or to be making art. I want to teach my freshmen and sophomores that more than I want to teach them how to move clay around, you know?”


By Sarah Stall
Photos from @jonathansteeleceramics on Instagram; used with permission
Published March 6, 2018


Scroll through the photo gallery to watch Jonathan's figure take shape: