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Art for your Kitchen Table: An Interview with Dan Finnegan, Curator of the Hill Center’s Upcoming Pottery Show

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Are you a lover of fine art?  It’s a rhetorical question, I know, but the point is this:  If you’re interested in art, the Hill Center’s first annual Pottery on the Hill  exhibition and sale is a must-stop on your weekend arts calendar.  As a medium, pottery is often characterized as craft rather than fine art, but sculptor (and artist!) Dan Finnegan, curator of this weekend’s exhibition, aims to change your perception.   I sat down with him as he and the Hill Center staff finished preparing for this weekend’s show to find out more about the pieces being exhibited and why pottery should be in kitchens across the District (including yours).

Dan Finnegan examines the glaze on one of his vessels.

Planning for the exhibition began shortly after the Center opened in 2011.  According to Hill Center board member and art director Nicky Cymrot, Finnegan’s pottery represents the high caliber of work that the Center would like to champion, and when the building opened to the public, she recognized that the site would offer the perfect backdrop for a regional craft show.  The two have known each other for many years, leading Ms. Cymrot to feel she could turn over the curatorial reins directly to the artist.  From his studio in Fredricksburg, Virginia, Finnegan has crafted an exhibition designed to simultaneously showcase pottery as both objets d’art and useful household objects.

Finnegan explains that early on he decided the exhibition’s theme would focus on so-called “useful objects” (think vases, vessels, serving bowls, etc), stressing functionality over more whimsical shapes.  Even with that caveat, the fifteen artists selected (travelling from as far away as Minnesota) represent an incredible diversity in their approaches to their chosen discipline.  For instance, the modern architectural forms and baked-on imagery of Stacy Snyder’s pieces exude a chic feeling of urbanity, directly confronting Mathew Hyleck’s primordial pieces, seemingly crafted by magma and stone.  When placed together in the same room, it’s incredibly fascinating to see how different artists, using the same raw materials, approach the idea of making a useful object.  Even within each artist’s collection, there are wide disparities in the way glazes move along the surface of the vessel.  Finnegan explains that the unique nature of each piece is due in equal measures to the skill of the artisan in preparing the work for firing and then to the serendipity of the heat and flame inside the kiln.  For the artist, opening the kiln door when the firing is complete is a moment of breath-holding excitement (with, to be honest, a momentary tinge of trepidation), when Nature’s last word on the matter is fully revealed.

Useful items fit for the table.

It is that juxtaposition that Finnegan hopes will lure viewers in and convert them from casual observers to pottery aficionados.  Craft shows of this type are a rarity in the metro area (candidly, when was the last time you saw a pottery exhibition announcement in East City Art or any other local arts forum).  Finnegan points to Georgetown’s Cross Mackenzie gallery as a promoter of ceramics, but even there the emphasis skews to the fanciful, cutting-edge side of pottery over those works that might be deigned “useful”.  There are a variety of reasons for this invisibility, but Finnegan notes that as the genre of pottery continues to evolve, he sees a niche collector base in DC simply waiting for an invitation to the party.

The concept of “usefulness” continued to crop up in our conversation, and I asked Finnegan to elaborate.  He prefers the term “useful” over “functional”, citing the later as having too much of a (to coin a phrase) Bauhaus-ian feel, emphasizing a functional utilitarianism over more artistic possibilities.  To call a piece of pottery a “useful object” marks it as part of our daily routine, slowing us down momentarily as we interact with the object.  According to Finnegan, “people connect… to the work, and that is a really important, powerful thing.  Our hope is that people will see these as artistic objects to put to work.”   Picture yourself at a dinner party, he suggests, where each piece of dishware is uniquely created by hand, and imagine the conversation that can flow as the hands around the table touch, grasp and maneuver the object.  That connection – that reaction to the visual and sensorial stimulation of the object — is what separates “useful” pottery from merely “functional” pottery.

Sunlight plays off the side of a jug.

With an understanding of this distinction, I asked Finnegan if he considers these pieces more along the lines of an artwork or a work of fine craft.  As a reviewer primarily of contemporary art exhibitions, I can already sense my own bias coming to surface as the question rolls off my tongue.  After all, why can’t these be considered artworks of equal worth to the ones we hang on the wall?  Finnegan nods in understanding; he’s obviously been over this art-versus-craft superiority argument before.  “If it’s [both] useful and beautiful, why is it considered inferior [to modern painting or sculpture]?” he posits, and he has a good point.  After all, when was the last time you took a painting off the wall and attempted to eat a bowl of cereal off of it?  Useful indeed! In the end his hope (and he speaks for the entire group) is that people will find simple moments of pleasure by putting these objects to work in their homes.

Pottery on the Hill opens Friday, October 26th at 6:30pm with a benefit reception for the Hill Center.  Ticket information is available here.  Entry both weekend days is free.  Concurrent events include a featured talk entitled “Pots and People” by Louise Allison Cort, Curator for Ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.  For a complete guide to events, visit the Hill Center’s website here 

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About the Author

Eric Hope is a curator and writer based in Brookland. He moved to Washington DC in 1997 and a twist of fate found him a volunteer marketing job at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 2009, after ten years of marketing work at large museums in DC he moved into the realm of curating, staging a variety of solo, duo and small-group shows for the Evolve Urban Arts Project. He currently freelances as a curator and writes about local artists and the DC arts scene for a variety of online publications. Originally from Missouri, Hope holds degrees in International Relations and Public Service Administration from DePaul University in Chicago.

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