2022 Outstanding Creative Endeavor Award
Ted Neal, Professor of Art
The walls of Ted Neal’s office tell you everything you need to know about this 17-year professor of art. Shelves and bookcases fill almost every available space, and those shelves and bookcases neatly display an eclectic mix of cups, mugs, bowls, teapots, serving trays, cannisters, and any other type of vessel you could imagine.
Only a small amount of the art lining the walls is his. Most are made by students, visiting artists, or trades and purchases made in his many travels around the country visiting ceramics events with his students. He uses these pieces to educate and inspire his students with a wide variety of creative techniques and styles. He encourages his students to touch and feel the vessel and use it as it was intended, so they can truly appreciate how it’s made.
When asked where his passion for teaching ceramics originated, he described how it evolved over time, throughout his education and early career. His mother, a self-taught artist, always encouraged him to do what he was passionate about; and his father, an electrician and self-proclaimed tinkerer, taught him the joy of taking things apart and learning how to put them back together.
As an art education major at Utah State University, Neal was trained in all types of studio art such as photography, sculpture, and ceramics. When it came to choosing a concentration program, he felt most connected to ceramics and decided to pursue that as his emphasis. Upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in fine arts, his professor and mentor, John Neely, suggested grad school – something Neal wasn’t even familiar with at the time.
And thus began a three-week long epic journey with a friend and a malamute, driving across the United States in a Volkswagen Vanagon exploring graduate programs the old-fashioned way – before you could simply peruse a website and apply online. Eventually, Neal decided on Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville under Dan Anderson and Paul Dresang, where his trajectory in art education shifted from K-12 to college-level teaching.
Upon completing grad school, he went back to Utah State to work as a studio technician which paved the way for his passion for building kilns. Upon reflection, Neal credits his father for helping him in his desire to build and create kilns and studios. His father was an electrician and all-around handyman who fixed everything in their home on his own. “I never knew that a thing like a repairman existed. He fixed everything hands on.” It was a natural progression for him, learning all he could about the art of ceramics, from the clay, to the science, right down to building the very things needed to create a piece.
Neal’s next stop, after perfecting the art of kiln building at Utah State, was Ball State University. It is here that he has grown his craft and become renowned for his summer kiln building workshops throughout the country. Building a kiln takes more than just blood, sweat, and tears. It takes funding, schematics, and a variety of other very specific criteria depending upon the location of the kiln being built. All-in-all the process takes up to a year to plan, fund, and then create.
On the teaching side of Neal’s endeavors, he’s well-known for the yearly trips he takes with his students across the country to experience ceramics shows, art centers, studios, and festivals to give his students a real taste of what it means to live and work in the world of ceramics, creating and selling art to the general public. This helps his students build their networks and expand their knowledge of the different styles of ceramics that can be created if you are willing to look past the typical rules. These trips are partially funded by the students’ own work that they create throughout the year and sell at various events.
He also teaches them the importance of giving back to your community. In years past (pre-pandemic), his class would fire hundreds of bowls and put on the Chili Bowl event where they would sell the bowls (and chili made by the great chefs on campus) and donate the proceeds directly back into the community to various nonprofit organizations. It’s events like this that show his students the importance of knowing your audience – an event on a college campus needs to be priced appropriately for college students to be able to participate and enjoy, whereas the same bowls made here could be priced much higher out in the ‘real world’ or at an art show.
Neal speaks fondly when talking about past students and the careers they’ve gone into upon leaving his studio. He has a number of students who are throwing professionally and making a name for themselves, as well as students that have gone on to use their knowledge and connections to work at educational art centers where they educate future generations of art lovers.
Personally, Neal doesn’t have all that much free time to create his own art but is always sketching and drawing ideas for vessels and pieces. One of his walls does contain a small collection of his own work, which is also showcased in galleries and exhibitions around the county and can be seen on his website, tednealceramics.com. His small office collection is a mixture of steel and clay molded and shaped into pieces reminiscent of industrial-style architecture from times past. Cups that resemble oil barrels, a sugar cannister with a small shovel of a spoon that looks like it came from a time when everyday items were created to be looked at and appreciated for more than just being useful. Neal’s pieces send you back in time and somehow transfer you to a utopian future where beauty meets utility.
Beauty and utility are what it all boils down to for Neal and what he hopes to teach his students. “My utilitarian work is most satisfactory when a single object occupies space as both a useful object and one that also embodies loftier ideas such as beauty, connectedness, and shared kinesthetic experiences.” There is beauty in the ritual of using everyday items whether they are a simple coffee mug or handmade cup that is colorful and delicate. Everything that is created has a use – sometimes those uses are created out of necessity or convenience, yet sometimes those uses invoke an emotion or inspire you, and Professor Neal strives to do both with his work.
“I believe that the function of a thing is measured in more than its suitability to complete a task (utility). Thoughtful, experiential, and haptic concerns, imbued in objects by a maker can make life more than just about getting a thing done (like cooking or eating), but can bring elements of joy, communication, ritual, and community to our shared experiences.”
*This feature story was written by Erin Stalcup and originally published in the Sponsored Projects Administration 2020-2021 Annual Report, which can be viewed here.