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Faculty Profile: Sarah Gross, Visual Art

Thursday, January 25, 2018


New York City

Have you always been interested in visual art?

I’ve loved art my entire life. Growing up in New York, my mom took me and my twin sister to the Metropolitan Museum of Art all the time, since before I can remember. Once she looked away for a minute and we escaped from our stroller and crawled onto a Roman mosaic floor. Alarms went off and guards came running from all directions to see two babies in diapers happily enjoying the art. Later on, I would go there by myself after school, even doing my homework there. My connection to the Met is still very strong; I try to go for at least a couple of hours every time I visit my family back home.

What made you want to pursue teaching?

I started teaching kids and community clay classes right out of undergrad to make ends meet and discovered how much I loved it. Art making can be very solitary, and the community and conversations that arise in a classroom keep me excited, both about my students’ work and my own.

What classes do you teach at KU?

I teach all levels of ceramics, including the introductory class, Hand Building, Wheel Throwing, Mold Making and Slip Casting and the advanced ceramics class. I’m also developing a new History of Ceramics class which will use the Spencer Museum’s collection as examples and will draw connections between geographically and chronically disparate work through themes like Industrialization and Authorship.

Do you have a favorite medium to work in?

Clay. I took my first ceramics class when I was 8 years old so it has been nearly a lifelong commitment!

What professional experiences and areas of expertise do you bring to the table?

I have a broad array of experience making things out of clay, including functional pottery and ceramic sculpture, using all kinds of techniques. And to throw in the old story about walking to school uphill both ways in a snowstorm, I’m an experienced wood firer. One of the things that is really excellent about the ceramics program here at KU is our kiln facility out on west campus. We have five wood fueled kilns all built by students and faculty. These kilns need to have wood stoked in them every few minutes for the entire firing, which sometimes we will extend for days. Before I went to grad school I worked at a ceramics studio with a wood kiln. They didn’t have a wood splitter to make wood prep easy like we have here. We split all the wood we burned by hand. After two years and over 50 firings that probably added up to 100 cords of hand split wood!

What has been your proudest moment as a faculty member?

It’s hard to pick just one proud moment. I adore my students and get excited by all of their accomplishments. Firsts, though, are always a big deal. The first time you mix your own glaze or fire your own kiln, the first time your work gets into a show, the first overnight shift you pull at the wood kiln, I love it all.

How would you describe your creative process?

I tend to make installations composed of hundreds of individual pieces. My favorite way to work is to come up with an overall plan for a piece that is made of some sort of repeating ceramic “building block,” then I work like a dog for months to make enough pieces to cover a wall or a floor or fill a space.

What do you hope your students take away from your class?

I hope my students will leave with an appreciation for the potential clay has as an expressive medium and with an understanding of the important but overlooked role it plays in our lives. The history of ceramics is so huge and we actually know a great deal about our past because of ceramics. Yet with 20,000 years of ceramics behind us, contemporary artists are using clay in ways that we have never seen before! Finally, I want my students to walk away with a renewed sense of confidence in themselves as makers. I know so many people who don’t make things with their hands and don’t believe in their ability to express themselves visually. I think the act of making is extremely important, and connects us to our own individuality, and to all the makers who are, and were, and will be.

If you could give your students one piece of advice, what would it be?

Travel. Spend time in places that are different from the place you grew up. Get to know people who are different from you.

Describe your favorite KU memory.

It hasn’t happened yet, but that time I took a selfie with Big Jay and Baby Jay at Allen Fieldhouse.

Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world?

India, to see the Mughal architecture or Antarctica, to see the ice.

What research are you currently conducting?

I’ve been working on a large installation of tiles, glazed red and laid out on the floor like a 36 foot long red carpet. When you look closely, you see the nubby texture each tile is covered with is really casts of my fingertips. Titled “Consumption,” there are 700 tiles in the piece. It took 9 months to complete.

What sparked your interest in this research topic?

“Consumption” was inspired by the grandeur of Islamic architecture I visited in Spain and Morocco on a research trip last year. The tilework I saw there is a ceramic artist’s dream, and I wanted to use the opulence of sacred architecture to talk about pop culture, our obsession with celebrities and examine how VIP event aesthetics have moved into the lives of average people. It is a celebration and a critique at the same time.

How do you think your research will positively impact your field?

In the larger field of visual art, ceramics is a bit of an underdog. I think my work brings attention to clay as a medium for large scale installation art and celebrates the connective tissue between historical ceramics and contemporary art.