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Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts

January 27, 2022

What a gift the glacier left

The word watershed (noun) means a time when an important change takes place. Over the years Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts, located in Newcastle, Maine has shifted and grown as changes were needed and I’d say most, if not all, were important to the organization. At its inception the focus was on bringing artists together to learn and create. And, for many years Watershed has offered professional development for educators, many of them Maine K-12 visual art teachers.

Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts story started thousands of years ago. There is an abundance of glacial marine clay from the mountains to the sea because at one point Maine was covered by a giant glacier. Watershed is located in Newcastle, a place that has an abundance of clay with a blue-green tinge. Clay can be found throughout our state along banks of rivers and streams and also in fields. Sometimes it takes time to locate; it can be very pure or filled with other components that need to be picked and sifted out. Fortunately, one of the resources that Watershed provides for teachers is a video depicting the exploration to find clay.

This blog post tells the story of Watershed with several topics; history, philosophy, educational opportunities, audience, pandemic – ups and downs, changes underway, and supporting Watershed. Some of the blog content is taken directly from Watershed’s website; some is provided by the founders, teachers who have taken workshops, artist working at the center, and some from staff. A great big thanks to Claire Brassil, Watershed’s Outreach & Communications Director for her assistance with this post.

Original studio space

HISTORY

The history of Watershed begins with the geological gift of clay found along the banks of local rivers in midcoast Maine. For much of the 19th century, the local community relied on vital income from the manufacturing of waterstruck brick (so called because it was made from a wet mixture of clay and water). Waterstruck brick had lasting historical appeal, and in the 1970s an attempt was made to re-establish its manufacture on the site that is now the Watershed campus in Newcastle. While the brick business folded after a year, a group of artists became inspired to make use of the abandoned factory and the tons of local marine clay left at the site.

In 1986, Margaret Griggs, George Mason, Lynn Duryea and Chris Gustin collaborated on a new vision for the brick-making factory—as a place for clay artists to live and work in community. The open layout of the facility encouraged the artists to approach their work with a new vigor and awareness, and the seeds for what would become Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts took hold.

Founders George Mason, Lynn Duryea and Chris Gustin

During Watershed’s early years, small groups of 10-12 artists would spend the summer living and working together on the campus. The first residents formed connections and friendships in a space that provided opportunities to create without hierarchy. Artists developed their personal work and envisioned new possibilities for a creative community. Watershed soon began to attract artists from far corners of the world who sought a creative environment in which to engage and explore. Today, more than 100 artists a year come to Watershed to create and connect with like-minded makers.

I’ve been fortunate to know Ceramic Artist George Mason for many years. In 1987 he created a Percent for Art Project at the new school building where I was teaching in Union. He is an amazing, thoughtful and kind artist. When I asked George what his vision was when he first came together with his colleagues, this was his response:

You know, this all started among friends inviting friends. We sensed a creative opportunity to find out what might unfold by just living and working together with no aesthetic agenda or expectation of result. Even before the name Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts came into being after the first season, this place was already a refuge apart from career; where the magic of relationship and creativity had the space to spark the unexpected.

PHILOSOPHY

Central to Watershed’s philosophy is a belief that the unexpected sparks creativity and that new people, ideas and spaces nurture the evolution of artistic practice. Our dual mission is to provide artists with time and space to explore ideas with clay; and to promote public awareness of the ceramic arts. Through residencies, workshops, public events, talks and exhibitions, Watershed supports the process and work of clay artists from around the country and world.

This video on youtube is very informative.

EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES, YES FOR TEACHERS

Watershed offers educational programs and resources for grades K-12 art teachers and students of all ages. From workshops and classroom-based experiences, to professional development and online tutorials, Watershed works to support ceramic art educators and the next generation of ceramists.

Watershed provides professional development opportunities; workshops, residencies, and resources. Teachers hone their clay education skills, develop curricula, and connect with other educators from around the state. Watershed provides newly created online tutorials, Digging & Processing Wild Clay and Raku Firing, developed by Teaching Artist Malley Weber.

Teaching Artist Malley Weber who created educational videos for Watershed

Upcoming workshops
Mold Making & Slip-Casting, March 3 – 4, 2022
Sgraffito Technique, March 25, 2022

Long time Teaching Artist and Maine Arts Leadership Initiative Leader, phase 6, Tim Christensen is teaching the Sgraffito Technique workshop. Tim’s thoughts on Watershed:

“Watershed has been so important to my development as an artist and teacher. We’re incredibly fortunate to have this facility here, in Maine. It serves as a gathering and sharing place for all of the acquired knowledge of the American, and to some extent the international, ceramic scene, at the same time as providing world class studio facilities and learning opportunities. If we think of art as a language, and the different techniques and styles available to us as our vocabulary,  working through Watershed allows me to say an entire range of things that I would be otherwise unable to express through my artwork. Having Watershed available to me in Maine means I have the opportunity to say anything I can conceive with clay.”

Winthrop Middle School Art Teacher Lisa Gilman commented after the workshop she attended:

“Watershed nourishes the whole artist. They provide space and time for an artist to grow. They support the artist’s mind, body and soul. Watershed is a rare gem in today’s world. Not once all week did I miss technology or really even think of it. I was able to truly connect and grow as an artist and engage in deep thoughtful art making. Pure magic!” 

Vinalhaven’s K-12 art teacher, Heather White, comment:

“I’ve participated in countless professional development opportunities over the years, and my time spent at Watershed ranks at the very top of the list. The instructor and everyone on the Watershed staff was knowledgeable and encouraging, I got a lot accomplished in a short time, I’m going back to my classroom with new and fresh ideas, everyone I met was fun and friendly, and the food was amazing! Hopefully every art teacher in the state has an opportunity to go at some point!”

Teaching Artist Malley Weber demonstrates to a session with art teachers

AUDIENCE

Watershed’s audience is wide and varied. From artists who have different focus to teachers looking for learning opportunities to communities members who appreciate and wish immerse themselves and support ceramic programming. Some of listed below.

  • Artists who can work independently in a clay studio and come from Maine, around the country, or abroad take part in our residency program. We aim to foster community and connection among practicing artists at all stages of their careers, from students and recent graduates to established professionals looking for an opportunity to connect with other ceramists. Scholarships are available for all populations. For example in 2017 The Zenobia Fund was established for BIPOC artists, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)
  • Artists with some experience in clay who are looking to further their skills and knowledge. Guest artist and kiln firing workshops are available.  
  • Maine K-12 educators and students. The teacher education program prioritizes skill-building and technique-sharing in clay for Maine’s art educators. Teachers know their students best and can tailor what they learn at Watershed to suit their particular needs and interests. The teacher sessions also provide an opportunity for art educators who usually work solo to connect and collaborate. 

Watershed offers some programs for student groups as well. Art classes come to campus to learn about Raku firing. 

  • Ceramic art lovers & appreciators. While the bulk of our programs prioritize hands-on learning for artists, Watershed offers opportunities for the public to learn more about and appreciate ceramic work via exhibitions, artist talks, special events, and Salad Days, our annual fundraiser and celebration of ceramic work. 

PANDEMIC – UPS and DOWNS

In person Watershed programming was on hold during the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic. However, the timeline for the building of the new studio (see more under ‘changes underway’ below) was pushed forward and completed more quickly since the campus was quiet.

New ways for artists to create and connect became a priority and the following are some of the programs developed:

  • Online gatherings for artists around topics that mattered to them. For example a partnership was formed with The Color Network and Ayumi Hori to facilitate online conversations for artists who focused on racial equity, economic parity, and creativity during Covid-19.
  • Kiln firing opportunities for Maine artists during the summer were available since because they’re usually in constant use by artists-in-residence.
  • An outdoor sculpture exhibition called “Outstanding in the Field” (details under “past exhibitions”) supported clay artists and offered the public an opportunity to safely view work outdoors.  
  • A series of video tutorials for K-12 teachers and students (and others), created by teaching artist Malley Weber, on digging wild clay, processing wild clay, and raku firing.

CHANGES UNDERWAY and NEXT STEPS

During the last 20 years or so Watershed has been able to maintain and upgrade some of the facilities on the property. They built and fully insulated artist cabins, built a kiln shed, and updated Thompson Hall to name a few changes.

Phase 1, 2015-17: Included project planning, a feasibility student and conceptual facility designs. From this first phase action has taken place and so many wonderful and much needed changes have occurred.

Phase 2, 2018-19: A beautiful historic building, the Joan Pearson Watkins House is located about a quarter mile down the road from the main campus. Watershed purchased the house and the accompanying 20 acres, which abut the land that leads to the studio. It was renovated and restored and holds Watershed’s Barkan Gallery, which offers year-round exhibition, lecture, and event space. Watershed’s administrative offices and retail shop are also located in the house.

Phase 3, 2020: Studio Annex provides climatized, flexible space for adjunct programming and material and equipment storage.

Phase 4, 2021-21: Windgate Studio is a 7,500 square foot studio, weatherized and ADA-compliant, supporting an expanded residency and workshop season. Features include a state-of-the-art filtration and ventilation system, spacious glaze area, custom spray booth, plaster room, and a single-level floor plan offering a seamless transition between studio and kilns. 

  • Supports artists working on commissions or large scale projects.
  • Brings (inter)nationally-known guest artists to lead workshops.
  • Provides opportunities for student groups to make and fire work.
  • Enables Watershed to collaborate with partner organizations.
  • Offers space for artists to create and connect throughout the year.
  • Tap into limitless potential!
Recently opened Windgate Studio

Phase 5: Campus Commons design and construction2022-2023. The Commons will replace the existing Thompson Hall. The plan includes comfortable dining facilities, a commercial kitchen, and weatherized housing for staff.

SUPPORTING WATERSHED

After reading about Watershed you might be wondering how they’ve been able to accomplish so much. Like anything successful they’ve had a vision, commitment from amazing staff and supportive board of directors and advisors. And, they’ve had donors (small and large contributions) who have contributed generously to the mission and success of Watershed. Their Capital Campaign called ‘Watershed NOW’ is creating spaces that inspire bold artistic practice and community. LEARN MORE.

There are opportunities to support Watershed with donations to the scholarship fund, the capital campaign, and the annual fund. Occasionally, Watershed seeks volunteers for specific events and projects. 

Watershed is well-known in the national ceramics community but has perhaps less name recognition in Maine. As capacity for year-round programming grows, Watershed plans to offer more ways for Mainers to connect. 

Co-founder Lynn Duryea shared her remembrance and thoughts on Watershed:

It really was Peg’s vision that got Watershed going. She was a long-time seasonal resident of the area and an investor in the brick factory. When it ceased to be financially viable, she really wanted to see artists use the space, did a lot of outreach and research to see how that might happen, contacting clay programs as well as individual artists. She knew George and ultimately convinced him to try the pilot program in 1986.
George invited artists he knew and who had been recommended to him. He invited me because I was working on large-scale planters for a Percent for Art installation that couldn’t be executed in my Congress St. Portland studio. He knew Chris and invited him to come with his students at Swain School of Design early in the fall. 
I was still working at Watershed when Chris came with his students. It was conversations that came out of that week that moved us forward. I don’t recall that we were looking too far down the road – as it were. I don’t know that we were thinking we were laying the groundwork for what would become a major institution in our field. We definitely saw the potential of a group of people coming together to work in what was then a very raw space, just to see what might happen collectively and individually. Watershed has always been about community – people working together on an equal footing regardless of their reputation, status, age, etc.
Watershed in its early years was about as grass roots as you could get: a group of artists and a small board of directors figuring it all out.
And it has worked. The growth has been organic, uneven and amazing, particularly amazing in the last decade. Fran (Rudoff, executive director) has worked wonders – along with a very dedicated staff and board. In no way did we envision the specifics of Watershed’s programming today in the fall of 1986, but we knew something significant could happen. And it has, by putting one collective foot in front of the other for all these years, never giving up on the ideas and potential.”

NEXT STEPS

Hopefully you’ve read to the end of this long blog post. And either learned about a new place in Maine or reminisced about your own experience(s) at Watershed. It’s a beautiful gem where thousands have traveled to, learned, and left with a full heart. When I think about the co-founders (in their 30’s at the time) who were brave enough to take a chance, I am reminded of Vincent van Gogh’s words: “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything…”

I am grateful for the help Watershed’s Outreach & Communication Director, Claire Brassil provided in putting together this blog post. As for the future of Watershed, Claire’s thoughts below:

In the spring, we celebrated the building’s completion and collectively reoriented after such a rapid metamorphosis. The studio can contain any program we dream up. But … how will Watershed’s limitless future take shape? As an organization known for its scrappy rough edges, what will it mean to nurture the best parts of our original identity while making the most of our shiny new vessel? These coming-of-age throes find us wrestling with invigorating yet challenging questions of who we’ve been and who we want to become.

The shape and scope of Watershed’s next chapter will begin to emerge over the coming year. I feel confident that my colleagues, the board, and our greater community share a collective passion for refining and growing this unique place. Watershed is a quantifiable physical space: 54 acres, 7,500 square feet of studio space, 31 dining room chairs, 15 bedrooms, 11 kilns, and one gallery. But in an equally real sense, we are an experience, an idea, and a respite during an era when few places affirm that creative practice and artists matter.”  

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