The Future of Ceramics Education: Saratoga Art Center Resident Artists Paige O’Toole and Mark Tarabula
The 21st century is emerging as a time of radical change in human interaction. The digital revolution that brought us into the new millennium pervades every aspect of modern life, from our homes, our schools, and our workplaces, to our very sense of who we are and what we aspire to in life. For young artists, navigating this new world requires reevaluation of historic norms and a keen sense of how the new artist stands as interpreter and philosopher for a new age. Mark Tarabula and Paige O’Toole are ceramic artists in residency at Saratoga Clay Arts Center in Schuylerville, New York. At the beginning of what each hopes will be a long career in the arts, the artists recently shared their ideas about the current state of ceramic education, exhibition, marketing and purpose.
Mark Tarabula is a Michigan native who followed the traditional path of earning a BFA in Ceramics at Northern Michigan University and moved on to work exchange relationships with galleries and centers. Tarabula says, “At the time I thought of it as a period of paying your dues, where you get the use of a studio in lieu of a competitive wage.” With residencies at Gallery One in Ellensburg, Washington, and The Ceramic Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he worked various positions, teaching courses, managing the kilns, running the gallery, and building his own work. While these types of residencies are invaluable in helping an artist develop skills and a vision, Tarabula points out that often, the resident artist is forced to take on part-time work to meet financial obligations, lessening time available for creative work. Too often, the weekly work requirement expands while the stipend does not. The equity of the internship model has been in question in many fields.
Tarabula’s goal has always been to secure a teaching position at the university level. After three years of residencies, he returned to school in 2017 to earn an MFA at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He says, “There has always been a sense among artists that if you don’t have the MFA, you are somehow not as serious. But people are beginning to question that premise. Some don’t feel ready, and others are just not interested. It’s a debate. Certainly, the advantages are that you have time dedicated to progressing in your work and you have a community ready to provide feedback.” In a wider sense, these thoughts mirror a general reevaluation of tradition academic degrees in all fields, especially in light of rising tuition costs and the availability of digital learning. What the classroom of the mid 21st century will look like is still undetermined. The past pandemic year saw institutions scrambling to re-define education. The new digital technology can address many aspects of education more efficiently and in a less costly way, but education as a right-of-passage and period of human development is not as easily addressed in the online model, as we have seen with the closure of elementary and high school schools during the pandemic. And, in the arts, the hands-on element creates a special problem for digital teaching.
Paige O’Toole, also a current resident at Saratoga, shares Tarabula’s ambivalence about the formal education model, even as she intends to matriculate at Alfred University’s distinguished MFA program in Ceramic Art this coming fall. O’Toole came to Saratoga directly from an undergraduate program at SUNY New Paltz that offered study abroad programs that formed her sense of aesthetics. “Studying abroad has definitely shaped my approach to making. The work I’m making now is directly influenced by my travels. In a way, it is an attempt to recall past experiences,” she explains. She transformed from a freshman who had no idea what she wanted to study and virtually no experience in clay to an accomplished sculptor with a BFA in Ceramics, a BA in Art History, and a budding interest in contemporary craft theory. She is frustrated by the lack of interplay in education between ceramics and art history. “There is a serious gap here,” she laments. “There is not enough art history in ceramics education and the same goes for ceramics in art history education. There is a strong disconnect and students are left with little to no knowledge in regard to the history of crafts and decorative arts. I felt it was limiting, not being able to find any courses that were specific to these histories. My work is rooted in questions of craft and not having a distinct space to address my thoughts left me a little dissatisfied with the current education model.” Her European study sparked an interest in museum studies and restoration and helped to clarify her future goals. She says, “I could see this as an alternate career path for myself, and I might pursue further education in this field once I have completed my MFA. I would be just as happy to be a full-time artist as I would to be working in a museum setting dedicated to preserving and interpreting histories of art. “
Tarabula earned his position at Saratoga Clay Art Center as a Resident last autumn, after completing an MFA in Ceramics. He says the position provides generous support and he has been very encouraged by the guidance of the center’s founder and director, Jill Fishon-Kovachick. Founded in 2011, the center is the home of thirty clay artists and offers residencies for artists coming out of academic programs, who are supported and encouraged to develop a body of work that embodies their artistic voice. Tarabula’s year there has been productive, and he is renewing for a second term. Likewise, O’Toole says, “Saratoga has given me the space to make and explore the ideas I began to develop in my last year at New Paltz, and I am really grateful for that.” The independent practice as an artist in residence has confirmed her desire to pursue a career as a working studio artist. She says, “I want to make. I went to school to be an artist and that is what I intend to do. At first I was hesitant to go for an MFA because I see that graduate programs seem to set you up to be a professor, and that is not my ultimate goal. I think getting an MFA for me will be about having the space and the community to help me further this body of work.” Making creative work is too often a subordinate occupation, secondary to teaching, running a studio, or waiting on tables.
Both O’Toole and Tarabula approach their work as the manifestation of an idea. O’Toole explores that nature of craft with a challenging presentation of the frame. She says, “I am fascinated with the frame as a craft object. Frames are complex, handcrafted works that are fundamental to the art experience, but are often overlooked, which directly correlates to the position of craft in art discourse.” Her hand-built sculpted pieces arise out of her close-up observation of decorative items such as wall sconces and architecture, beginning with a defined frame that is filled with forms that arise from the movement of her hands and body. Her work will be on display in her show, “Anonymous|Reframed,” this July and August at the center.
Tarabula’s oeuvre is an exploration of human attraction through deconstructed and abstracted body parts. His final semester at Edinboro coincided with the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says, “I was right in the middle of finishing my thesis show and the studios closed. I had always done wood firing and never experimented with how color could enhance the work, but the summer before my last year of grad school, I started this shift. It felt unfinished, because of the pandemic, so I have continued it at Saratoga.” The pieces attempt to abstract the concepts of beauty and revulsion, with bright streams of color suggesting bodily fluids. The work will be featured in his show, “Reversal: Red,” this June and July at the center.
For artists like Tarabula and O’Toole, marketing their work hold special challenges. Tarabula says that social media has made selling easier but has its own drawbacks. “Setting up your own website,” he says, “is difficult because you have to find a way to get traffic. Selling through third party websites, like Etsy for example, take a percentage in fees. Selling through galleries is also a tradeoff. They market you and can help grow your following, but also take anywhere from forty to sixty percent of the sale.” The market for sculpted pieces is different than the market for functional pieces and is probably not as suited to the new digital forms. Securing a relationship with an institution provides opportunities for exhibitions and potential sales. Tarabula sums up, “To be a successful artist these days you have to be able to do it all, from making to marketing.”
What art education will look like in twenty or thirty years is hard to say. O’Toole doesn’t see the model shifting much. She says, “In my experience, no one really talked about what happens after you graduate. The obvious goal is to be able to make a comfortable living making and selling your work, but the current education model does not spend nearly enough time teaching young artists how to realistically achieve that goal. Too much of academia is thinking in the abstract, and while there is immense value in that, I think we need to balance that with practical education.” O’Toole and Tarabula, in spite of their doubts, are the new artists who are exploring today’s ideas and creating a future that is yet unseen.