A special Alfred reconnection

Gustin setting up
By Rick McLay ’89

Prior to this past summer, the last time artist Chris Gustin MFA ’77 was in Alfred was the summer of 1980 when he taught ceramics at the School of Art and Design, College of Ceramics along with friends Graham Marks ’76 and Harriet Spleth ’68. Between then and now, he has enjoyed a rich career as a teacher and a renowned wood-fired kiln artist.


What finally brought him back to campus after 33 years was the opportunity to have a retrospective show at the Schein Joseph Museum of Ceramic Art. The show, “Chris Gustin: Masterworks in Clay” (Sept. 19-Nov. 22, 2013) was testimony to over three decades of remarkable creativity, with an extensive body of work that has many influences from his two important years as a grad student at Alfred University (AU).

Yet it was not simply a matter of the retrospective that drew him back. It was an opportunity to reconnect with the special place – and the people – he says changed the course of this life.

“So, how did I end up coming to Alfred?” he asked aloud. “I was attending the Kansas City Art Institute and considering going for my MFA. The thing is, I wasn’t certain about going into teaching, but wanted to set up a working studio. During my senior year of 1974-75 mentor (and fellow AU alumnus) the late Ken Ferguson ’58 said Alfred was the ‘place to be’ so I applied.”

But it wasn’t as simple as that.

Gustins and Leslie BellavanceAt the time he was placed on a waiting list because the two available spots had already been filled, and as August 1975 wore on, time was running short as to what his options were going to be, since Alfred was the only place to which he had applied.

“Then, I got a phone call from AU in late August.” Gustin recalled. “It was really just a matter of luck. One of the other applicants had withdrawn at the last minute, and I had been accepted. In my excitement I packed my car that night and began my journey to Alfred.”

Gustin arrived at a time that he describes as being a paradigm shift in ceramics.

“Studio pottery was moving away from function and utility to abstraction and sculptural ideas,” he said.  “It really was a golden age of ceramics because the transition was a unique balance of tradition and innovation. I was very, very fortunate to have known the ‘old guard’ of Bob Turner ’50, Val Cushing ’52, and Ted Randall. They were the kind of artists who were readily adapting to the changes and guiding the students through them. In addition, the newer members of the faculty at the time, Wayne Higby and Tony Hepburn, were bringing ideas that meshed perfectly with the Alfred vision.” he remembered fondly. “That is the brilliance of AU. It has never been afraid of voices that will rock things. It is a lovely chaos.”

Gustin’s two years of grad school were particularly intense.

“I began thinking of new ways to work, and was getting feedback and criticism that challenged everything I had done before. I saw new ways to work with the material, and ideas revolving around ceramic installation were becoming very big. What I found was that there were questions about ceramics out there that I didn’t know existed let alone know the answers to.

“I have to say that what I experienced here in Alfred completely affected the course of my life. It clarified my voice as an artist,” Gustin reflected. “However, I have come to realize something much more important. Those years were very busy, and admittedly stressful. And to the student it’s all about the work and the goal: the final show. But in retrospect I realize it was the beginning. It was the seeds of the work for years to come.”

Coming back to Alfred after three decades has had an impact on Gustin as well.

“Alfred is incredibly peaceful, really. I just didn’t have time to notice that back in the ’70s, but I realize it was always there,” he said. “In some ways it has changed, but so much remains the same, and seeing old friends who are still in the area, especially faculty, made that very clear. As I drove into town for the first time, I had a little trouble navigating at first, but of course things come back pretty quickly.”

One thing in particular caught Gustin’s eye on his first visit back to Alfred in preparation for the retrospective.

“I was in the new Collegiate Restaurant, which has the same feel as the old ‘Jet,’ and spotted what looks like the same creamer pot that was there three decades ago. My friend Arnie Zimmerman (MFA ’79) based a series of pots on that very creamer. Naturally, I had to take a picture of it and send it to him. Fond memories.”

See more about Chris Gustin and his work at www.gustinceramics.com


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