The Crafts Center at North Carolina State University
Jennifer Siegel, Clay Studio Manager
Raleigh, North Carolina, is one of the fastest growing urban areas in America. Voted by Forbes Magazine as the city attracting the most families and the best place for business and careers, Raleigh offers a lifestyle rich in opportunity and enrichment. North Carolina State University is an integral part of the city’s growth, not just in areas like science, technology, and business, but in the arts as well.
The Crafts Center at NC State is a unique institution that builds on the university’s mission of making significant change in society. More than a university department, The Crafts Center serves the local community, offering a wide range of non-credit classes in a variety of crafts. Students can take courses in pottery, sculpture, woodworking, fiber arts, photography, lapidary, glass, jewelry, and metal arts. Located on campus, the center consists of eight separate studios, each well equipped in a pleasant work and teaching space. The student the studio users are an equal mix of college students, alumni, university employees, and local residents. Local guilds meet at the center, creating a vibrant arts community that has grown and thrived over the 60-some years that the Crafts Center has been in existence.
Jennifer Siegel, whose enthusiasm for creating with clay has infected the studio since her arrival over three years ago, manages the clay studio at the Crafts Center. Siegel studied ceramics at Anderson University before earning an Associate in Applied Science of Ceramics and Metal Sculpture at Central Carolina Community College in Siler City, NC. “This has been the perfect job for me,” she says. “I’ve never held a job outside of ceramics – my first job was glazing and loading kilns. I love to convey the connection with clay that I have developed to others.” She usually teaches a few courses each session, along with the multiple NC State student-only activities, but she most enjoys overseeing the operations in the studio, circulating among the studio users, and single-handedly firing all the pieces created at the studio. “We fire 20,000 pounds of clay each year,” she says, “and I have a connection with each piece. I can picture in my mind where each piece is in the process and can connect with the students individually about their works.”
Siegel’s studio occupies 2,400 square feet in the Crafts Center and it is bustling seven days a week. There are always introductory level courses each semester in addition to courses in glazing, raku, advanced throwing, and special projects. An excellent group of renowned local artists help instruct many of the clay studio’s courses. Siegel says, “This is an exciting aspect that we are very grateful for.” Registered students can use the studio during open hours, as can non-registered experienced students with a studio pass. Colleen Adair, a studio user from the Raleigh community says, “I’ve joined the Clay Studio at the NC State Crafts Center because of all the inspiring creativity that this environment has to offer. Having access to the cone 10 glazes, the gas reduction kiln, endless classes and knowledgeable instructors, like Jennifer, is priceless!” Siegel fosters relationships with the students, encouraging them through the frustrating early phases of learning. She explains, “When a new student pulls a pot off the wheel, I want them to see that this is just the beginning. There is so much more to learn and understand about clay.” She periodically offers a course called “Wheel Therapy,” in which she works with each student to help identify individual blocks that may be interfering with that student’s progress. “We really get into what the student wants to do on the wheel. We all have different methods and problems along the way,” she says.
Siegel’s contagious presence in the studio is backed up by an exacting dedication to expert technique. Her knowledge of materials and firing technique led her to seek out the best clays for the center’s gas reduction kiln. “I made 238 test tiles of different clays and glazes,” she says, “and narrowed it down to Standard’s 205, 762, 181, and 257 clay bodies.” Siegel credits the center’s solid group of community potters for their fine work. Raleigh boasts a good num
ber of pottery studios, but Siegel attributes the center’s firing style – cone 10 – and state-of-the-art facility to the higher level of potters that the center attracts.
The presence of community students and potters in the studio makes for a unique experience for university students. While there are non-credit-courses offered each semester exclusively for university students in the studio, the bulk of courses are open to all, providing an intermingling of ages, experience, and expertise. Bailey Knight, an NC State Junior in Art & Design who also works at the center, says, “The thing that always brings me back is the opportunity to be surrounded by positive artists who are always down to share their creative energy.”
For art students, the opportunity to interact with older artists is invaluable, but non-art students also find the center freeing and expanding. Wah Tran, an NC Economics and Nuclear Engineering major, ventured over to the center and took Siegel’s introductory class. “I immediately knew that Tran was one of those people who just gets it – gets that connection to clay,” Siegel recalls. Tran returned each semester and now teaches an introductory course. Tran’s experience speaks to the importance of integrating the arts into not merely education, but life itself. Tran says that he initially sought out the center for a “break” from the pressures of his academic life, but soon found that his work with clay enriched his studies in a way he didn’t anticipate. He says, “In our academic and professional lives, we’re so far removed from the end product of our work and, despite our tireless efforts, sometimes we lose sight of what we’re doing – our value-added propositions. The beauty of learning a craft and the facilities here is that you can step away from all that, slow down, and watch whatever it is you want to create take shape right in front of you.” The integrating effect was reward in itself for Tran, but his efforts earned him an unexpected bonus: one of his sculptural pieces, which he created in Siegel’s “Handbuilding 101” class – was selected to be included in the university’s permanent art collection.
As Clay Studio Manager, Jennifer Siegel says that the most important thing she wants to do is “to try new things, to take people out of their comfort zone.” She says that “people have a lot of shyness about their art and I want to help them break out of that.” Her fervent desire to foster a sense of sharing and educating has impacted countless students in the Raleigh area, improving the quality of life on both a personal and collective level. “We are open to all,” she says, inviting us to share in her amazement over how much 200 potters sharing so much space and knowledge can produce.
To learn more, visit www.ncsu.edu/crafts/index.html.