Skip to main content

Ceramists, landscape architects play in clay

January 03, 2012

Initially, the project began as a simple replacement of two tired-looking planters flanking the entrance to the School of Art at ASU.

It has since expanded into a collaboration between ceramic students of Susan Beiner, associate professor, and landscape architecture students of Joe Ewan, associate professor, in an undertaking that few, if any, university students experience.

Here’s the story of how two planters turned into many and could launch the transformation of Neeb Plaza from ho-hum to stunning.

When Beiner was first approached about having students in her ceramics class create two pots for the School of Art main building’s entry she embraced the idea. And then she quickly expanded it to more pots: large, beautiful planters that would eventually require more than 2 tons of clay to mold.

Beiner and Adriene Jenik, director of the School of Art, tapped Ewan to include landscape architecture students from The Design School, a fellow unit within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, whose doors also open onto Neeb Plaza on the ASU Tempe campus’ western border. Jenik and Ewan, who is assistant director of architecture and landscape architecture at The Design School, were able to move the collaboration beyond a great idea to reality by scheduling Beiner’s and Ewan’s classes concurrently for the fall semester.

“We got it to happen,’’ Ewan said.

By the end of September, eight teams of student artists and designers had each created three proposed ceramic pot designs from which a panel of judges selected the best to be made from each team.

The collaboration between artist and designer was unprecedented, Beiner and Ewan said. Ceramic students learned what plants work best in the Neeb Plaza environment and the desert heat, drainage requirements and other specifics such as ideal container shape in terms of depth and soil volume requirements. Aesthetically, they could align each pot’s color palette to the plant that would reside in it.

“The people who design the planters don’t have conversations with the people who fill the planters,’’ Ewan said. And vice versa. “This was a rare opportunity to maximize the design.”

The project has become an even rarer opportunity for ceramic students to work in grand scales usually experienced only by commercial artists.

Most advanced ceramic students are creating work that fits on shelves or tabletops, Beiner explained.

"I like to provide new experiences with techniques and materials combined with ideas, which keep me and students interested," Beiner said. “My guess is no other university program is doing something like this. It’s brand new and it’s very exciting.’’

The nine to 15 pots that Beiner and Ewan hope to eventually install range from two to almost four feet in height. A five-foot long curved, clay slab planter has been designed to descend gradationally from 27 to six inches in height. Its walls are two inches thick and it’s being made in three sections.

“It’s a grand, grand scale,’’ Beiner said. “The ceramic students – most students – never work in that big of a scale. It’s a good skill to have and it’s a learning process."

More than 2 tons of clay so far have been used. Student designers and artists have painstakingly pressed large slabs of clay into molds that Rico Piper, ASU School of Art craftsman, helped fabricate from Beiner’s drawings. Materials for the project have been provided through external support funds donated to the ASU School of Art by David and Joan Lincoln.

Although the initial phase of this grand project was physically demanding, the next phase requires patience and nerve. By January, Beiner expects to have six of the pots bisque-fired. It’s one of the most precarious stages of the process.

If not done correctly, the pots could blow up, she said. And even if it is done carefully – edging the kiln heat up ever so slightly so that the pots fire at a nice 1835 degrees Fahrenheit for about three days – they could still break.

“In ceramics, you don’t get out what you put in,’’ Beiner said. She’s hoping that in the end there will be 15 ceramic pots to install.

Once the pots are fired, the process moves to glazing, which, given their size, presents more nail-biting moments. Here, Beiner plans several glaze tests on tiles and on miniature versions of each pot to refine this process as much as possible before the final firings.

Besides the custom-designed ceramic pots, students are also creating planters from 40-inch wide vitrified clay sewer pipes manufactured by Mission Clay Products in Phoenix.

It’s not the first time that the California-based manufacturing company has worked with ASU art students, but it is its biggest undertaking so far, said Bryan Vansell, general manager for the family-owned company.

Mission Clay has provided the 1.2 tons of pipes, the forklifts to move them and the kilns to fire them. They’ve also provided space for students to work on designing these sewer pipes-turned-planters.  Beiner will have to find the truck to move these massive planters from the West Buckeye Road location to the Tempe campus.

“We have all the big stuff, they just need to bring their own fine-tuned aesthetic,’’ Vansell said. He appreciates the collaboration his company has with the ASU student designers and artists.

“It opens up our employees’ eyes to the potential and it helps them see how others see them differently than just sewer pipes,’’ he said.

And like the X-square project installed on Neeb Plaza, these well-designed pieces of art also illustrate what happens when students within Herberger Institute’s six design and arts schools collaborate.

“I think it’s going to be stunning,’’ Beiner said.