A passion for the tactile arts

Gary Erickson, 1974 RCHS grad, recounts ceramic art, travels to China

Gary Erickson posing with a giant porcelain teapot during one of his recent trips to Jingdezhen, China.  Photo supplied
Gary Erickson posing with a giant porcelain teapot during one of his recent trips to Jingdezhen, China.
Photo supplied

When Gary Erickson thinks about how his interest in hands-on, tactile art began, he remembers his dad’s shoe repair business in his family’s Rush City home.

Erickson, a 1974 graduate of Rush City High School, is an adjunct professor at Macalester College in St. Paul and a well-known ceramics artist.

Back in his junior high and high school days, he was a kid who had an interest in working with his hands.

“My dad would say, ‘Gary, were you playing with my tools again?’” Erickson remembered about the times when his father, Larry Erickson, would notice things in his basement shop were amiss. “I’d be making hockey sticks by grinding them on his sandpaper and ruin the paper, or I’d be sewing bases for playing baseball. I learned some of his machines. He was a craftsman.”

After Erickson graduated high school, he though he might become a cartoonist, but the school in which he wanted to enroll had a two-year waiting list.

So Erickson decided to work for a while and save up enough money to buy a car and then go to college. But when he had the car and some spare money, his interest in becoming a commercial artist had waned.

He decided to enroll at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids to complete his general education courses. Toward the end of his two years there, he found his passion.

“My last quarter at Anoka Ramsey, I took my last ceramics class, and really connected with the material,” he said. “It was something about working three dimensionally — it was more comfortable for me. My mind can visualize three-dimensional objects.”

After graduating in 1978, Erickson decided to further pursue the field at Hamline University, from which he graduated in 1980.

After Hamline, he attended the most prestigious ceramics school in the country: New York State College of Ceramics in Alfred, N.Y., graduating in 1985.

Exhibitions, teaching 

Since his time in graduate school, Erickson’s work has been featured in dozens of exhibitions.

He noted that when he makes some of his pieces — which are often inspired by nature — he’s not necessarily looking to produce pieces that will be easy to sell, like bowls, pots and cups — ceramics that people are familiar with.

“When you find someone who appreciates your aesthetic and wants to bring it into their life, it’s the most wonderful thing because it comes full circle then,” he said. “It has a life beyond your making.”

He added that he understands art is very subjective, and offered a story to illustrate that point.

He said about eight or nine years ago, he entered a piece into the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. The piece won an honorable mention.

About half a year later, the piece was bought by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. to be part of the institution’s permanent collection.

“It couldn’t even win first prize in the Minnesota State Fair art show, but the most prestigious national gallery in the country wants it for their collection,” he said with a laugh.

In 1984, Erickson began his career in education as teaching assistant at New York State College of Ceramics. Since that time, he’s been an instructor at seven post-secondary institutions, the most recent being his position at Macalester, where he’s taught since 1995.

He said he thoroughly enjoys working with the students — especially helping them to break the stereotypes that ceramics is “just about bowls and cups.”

Being an adjunct professor also allows Erickson time to produce his own work, which he does mostly at his studio in Minneapolis.

Travels to China

Since 2005, Erickson has taken nine trips to China, to learn how to work with clay that has been refined for about 1,000 years.

The clay in that region, Erickson noted, is different from anywhere else in the world. It allows artists to make porcelain pieces that are astounding in their size and scope.

“The geology of the clay is very unique, which creates a structure within the clay that goes to a scale that you really can’t do other places,” he said. “They are making vases 16 feet tall. Our clay would just collapse or crack. They have tiles that are 4-by-12 feet long, 3/8-inch thick, and perfectly flat – in porcelain, which is (fired at) a very high temperature. That tends to warp. If I make a tile that’s 6-by-6 out of porcelain that’s flat, I’m very happy.”

This piece comes from Erickson’s “Porcelain Yin Yang Series.”  Photo supplied
This piece comes from Erickson’s “Porcelain Yin Yang Series.”
Photo supplied

Upcoming shows 

Erickson has two exhibitions to showcase the pieces he’s made in China over the course of years.

The first “Experiencing China: Jingdezhen Porcelain Spirals” exhibition is Nov. 21 to Dec. 18 at Concordia University’s H. Williams Teaching Gallery in St. Paul.

Public receptions for that show will be 5-7 p.m. Nov. 21 and 6-9 p.m. Nov. 23.

Erickson’s second exhibition of the work is in January at Mankato State University.

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