John Zimmerman came back to Gallup in August energized. The University of New Mexico-Gallup ceramics instructor had just spent a year at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft on sabbatical and was eager to engage the new students in his Ceramics I class in a way that would convey that energy.
The class, none of whom had ever worked with modeling clay, responded enthusiastically to Zimmerman’s “Landscape Project.” His goal of having the students work together on their first project for the class helped open them up and promoted interaction – a thing that is not always easy for the cultures that intersect at UNMG.
“I chose this topic because the landscape is the one thing that everyone shares,” Zimmerman said. “It’s something we all have in common.”
The collaborative sculptures started with the basics. Students learned the coil-built procedure to create the base structure. From there, they added on, creating interesting and sometimes fantastical interpretations of the local landscape. Bighorn sheep and fearsome snake heads, plants, geographical features such as waterfalls and caves, totemic figures and humans ascending a rough-hewn staircase, all figure into the sculptures and create a sometimes phantasmagoric aspect.
“They built the structures the same, textured to look like rock, and added individual elements to create a theme,” Zimmerman explained. “They tried to think of their projects in a holistic way, creating one big thing as opposed to several small things.”
Zimmerman is planning two more such collaborative projects: a seascape and a cityscape.
Many of UNM-Gallup’s students have never seen large bodies of water, so Zimmerman says he’s eager to see what they will come up with. In the seascape, they may imagine sea creatures they know through images, he says, but he is also encouraging them to think about water on the scale they are familiar with – be it a puddle or a well, or a windmill and a pond. He will encourage them to think in terms of their daily experience.
The cityscape will likewise provide some challenges for students who are mainly rural and whose experience of the wider world may be limited. Zimmerman also looks forward to seeing how they will try to translate what they know about urban life into ceramics.
Beyond breaking down social barriers, however, Zimmerman sees these projects as a way to help beginning students understand Contemporary Art. Many are familiar with traditional Indian art but it can take a class like Ceramics I to open them up to the expressive possibilities that lie with Contemporary Art.
“I’m a white guy from Ohio,” Zimmerman said. “I can’t teach Native American pottery, but I can help push the students beyond this one tradition. My job is twofold: to allow them to express their own culture, but not just to stop there. I can help them ask, ‘how do I express living within this culture but with a contemporary world view?’ How is this information relevant today? We see a duality in these pieces, for instance, in that they talk about the past and honor it, but also express a view that is about the present and the future.”
He credits fellow instructor Ken Roberts’ History of Art classes with opening the door to contemporary art for many of the students.
“Ken’s classes give them a huge spectrum. I can tell which students have taken these classes – their knowledge is larger.”
Zimmerman, who is also manager of the Ingham Chapman Gallery, says ultimately the goal of UNMG’s Fine Arts Department is to honor the local culture but also to provide students with an opening to see new horizons of artistic expression.
The results of the class’s first efforts, the Landscape Project, are on view in the display case in Gurley Hall.