Sarah Millfelt, Northern Clay Center
Sarah Millfelt was born to act, yet never bought her Greyhound ticket to Hollywood. Instead, she opted to pursue studies at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she earned her BFA in ceramics and photography. After 10 years of managing a casual wedding photography business, while simultaneously climbing the ranks within Northern Clay Center as a staff member in various capacities, Sarah became the Center’s youngest executive director in October of 2011. Part firefighter, fisherwoman, farmer, and Wizard of Oz, most day’s you’ll find her fighting office fires, reeling in grants, methodically growing support for the ceramic arts and cultivating the community’s love of clay, and ensuring the organization maintains its brains, heart, and courage, as well as its reputation for excellence, diversity, and nimbleness in response to the world around it.
Sarah was the first non-maker to be celebrated in a social media campaign last year when #potsinaction through their #PIAbadasswomen campaign said of her, “Sarah has catapulted it [Northern Clay Center] to national prominence through her vision, charm, and ability to simply make things happen.”
In addition to her service to the ceramics community, she attempts to feed her love of all things Italian through annual visits to what she believes is her mother land, although ancestry.com confirms she may only possess small percentages of Italian make-up. Sarah is a mother to two, talented and beautiful boys, ages 13 & 15; she’s married to a local potter and professor, Mike Helke; she’s an obsessive gardener. When she’s not advocating on behalf of the ceramic arts or digging in the dirt, she can be found at Farrell’s Fitness, kickboxing daily at 5 am; reading cake baking books as feverishly as one would read romance novels; or in her kitchen baking up a storm and practicing her English accent, in preparation for potential inclusion on the BBC’s Great British Bake Off.
I hadn’t realized the scope and diversity of work to which I’d be introduced when accepting the LH Horton Jr Gallery’s invitation to jury the 2019 Visions in Clay exhibition. I was honored to be asked to review the over 300 work samples submitted for consideration this year. Having spent much of my life in the Midwest and some 20 years in service to the ceramics field through my work at Northern Clay Center, I was no stranger to some of the country’s (if not the world’s) most exciting and user-friendly pottery. But, as a former sculptor of figural and narrative forms, I sometimes find myself longing to live in a place where I’m surrounded by sculpture….and pots. Imagine my delight to finally get my eyes on the submissions for Visions in Clay and to see SO MUCH sculpture!!
What I ultimately selected for inclusion in the show was determined by a number of factors: what inspired, surprised or delighted me; an attempt to represent diverse styles, voices, techniques and influences; and consideration of the reality of the space in which this fine work would be installed. I was just smitten with the work samples as a whole so much so that at times I spoke aloud the words ‘this is an impossible task’ while at my desk, further perpetuating my colleagues’ opinions that I was talking to my imaginary friend…again.
My award selections:
Best in Show: really, this was a very difficult decision because I felt every artist was worthy of the Best in Show for one reason or another, but we live in a world of trophies and ribbons, so I began my reluctant review of the finalists. Ultimately, I selected Whole Chicken Drum Sticks by Kazuma Sambe for a combination of reasons. Curiosity was the primary of which. Just what is going on here and why am I suddenly hungry for take-out? I’m instantly reminded of a David Sedaris book about his experience with eating in China. While the chapter itself is dedicated to Sedaris’s lack of interest in any Chinese cuisine (to put it lightly), he does pay homage to China’s practice of using the entire animal in a meal—the literal subject matter of this piece. And Sedaris calls out Americans for their arbitrary rationale they use to justify eating one part of one animal or the entire animal and not another (eating horse vs chicken vs dog vs lamb vs fish vs tofu). What starts as an unfortunately entertaining, yet biased observation on food culture climaxes into a sort of lesson on not making assumptions, not judging another’s culture, and not instilling fear of otherness. Yes, all of this came to mind when seeing this piece. And, I just love the energy of this piece, the pop art-like qualities, the level of detailed carving and intricately decorated surface. This piece was so energized, so funny, somewhat disturbing and confusing and pleasing all at once!
2nd and 3rd Place were equally difficult to determine as they were as close to me as first and second chair flutes in my 6th grade band (I must have challenged first chair a dozen times and won half that number). Somewhat Sour Oblong by Lauren Clay, calls on so many things I enjoy: the possibility of containment (I’m in the land of pots, remember), the optical illusion of the way in which this piece was photographed (it could be well over 8 feet wide vs inches), the stripy effect of the clay ribbons, their reference to holiday ribbon candy, and the juxtaposition of those carefully attached ribbon candies to the clumpy and aggressively built vessel. Don’t even get me started on the color palette.
Tribal was so clean and well crafted, its message simple in the form of text, but overwhelmingly powerful with its pairing of clip art like images. In an age where so many potters are using text and screen printing and decals on their wares, I initially dismissed this piece, but went back again and again. I found a tension between the subtlety and directness of this piece, not unlike communication styles in the land of Minnesota Nice. I guess I could understand it on some level I hadn’t expected to?
The Potters Guild Founders Award was the easiest one to award, given Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice by Ryan Schulz, and its Dr. Suess-like teapot. It’s Bartholomew Cubbins meets The Cat in the Hat and it employs lively graphics, a tasty thick black glaze and loads of undulating curves and pull apart pieces. This piece in and of itself is a lesson in pottery making…or the need to pace oneself…??? I told myself the story of its making: the artist sketching out their next assignment, too excited about the making process to slow their thought process, which was moving way too fast for their pencil and paper. “I really want to make a statement piece about the oil spills and convey the visual of this thick and suffocating substance as it takes over any life in its path, but I really have all of these sketches I need to get out of my head, but man don’t I need a new sugar and creamer set to ensure my late nights in the studio are enabled with coffee and my favorite fixings, and so you know what? I’m going to put them all into one piece!”
In writing this statement, I was excited at the chance to go back again to review the entries for this exhibition (which I had secretly printed out so that I could have a record of these visual delights) and I was revved up with excitement all over again and continued to find little charming nuances to so many of the pieces submitted, including those that didn’t make the cut.
Thank you for this amazing opportunity.