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Through intention, serendipity, and a dedicated commitment to ceramics education, Keaton Wynn, in collaboration with some equally committed educators in China, created a remarkable educational experiment in Lanzhou, China that began at Georgia Southwestern University in 2012.

What started as a three-year research grant in 2013 transformed into building a new ceramics studio at Lanzhou City University, establishing the only degree-granting ceramics program in a province of almost 26 million people and creating a faculty exchange and artist-in-residency program. Keaton and his Chinese collaborators made this while maneuvering a labyrinth of government and university bureaucracies and teaching full-time at Georgia Southwestern State University.

This remarkable story begins in 2012 when Georgia Southwestern State University hosted Wang Jianjiang as a visiting scholar from Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou. During that year, Keaton and Jianjiang worked on a project to address Jianjiang's interests in contemporary cultural issues in Western China while drawing upon the area's ancient historical importance, which is defined as Dunhuang Culture. Dunhuang was the gateway to the Silk Road, the initial migration point of Buddhism to China, and near the center of the Majiayao Neolithic ceramics tradition. 

Lanzhou is the capital and the largest city, with 3.8 million people, in Gansu Province, alongside the Yellow River. This area of Northwestern China was an integral part of the Silk Road's history and what is known as Dunhuang Culture. Dunhuang is known for Buddhist sanctuaries and frescos.

The Chinese government awarded Keaton and Professor Wang a three-year grant through Northwest Normal University in  Lanzhou to develop a research center to produce contemporary artworks that responded to Dunhuang Culture. This was an experimental project to develop works that honor the past.

During the start-up phase, Professor Wang left his position at Northwest Normal University and took a job at Southwest Shanghai Normal University in Shanghai. The project was moved to Lanzhou City University which launched a new collaboration with the head of the College of Art, Dean Zuo. This experimental program took physical form with Dean Zuo's support and guidance. In the summer of 2013, program participants built a ceramics studio and surveyed and tested local clay and glaze materials. Keaton wanted to use local ceramics materials as much as possible. During that first summer, while the studio was being completed, Keaton taught Contemporary Western Art History and an Art Installation course. 


Teaching these courses led to a successful exhibition of site-specific installations at the university gallery with work by student group collaborations titled “Awake.” With the success of the courses and concluding exhibition installation came a very positive series of discussions that led to the creation and funding of the Artist in Residency program. 

Although progress was made, there is the reality of navigating institutional bureaucracies. The university agreed to sponsor the residencies from a different line of funding separate from Keaton's original grant. He was told to start the visiting artist selection process. After completing that search, conferring with the dean and faculty about the pool of applicants, and notifying the selected artists, Keaton was informed that the funding had yet to come through. Keaton was then faced with the unpleasant task of advising the artists and readjusting his research plans.

During the summer of 2014, Justin Hodges, a former student of Keaton's, received a travel grant from the University of Cincinnati, landed in Lanzhou, and started producing a body of work, which concluded with an exhibition. The quality of Justin's work convinced everyone at LZCU that an artist’s residency would be valuable. That summer, as Justin produced a body of work and learned about Gansu culture, Keaton collaborated with faculty and students in setting up the ceramics studio. The most exciting and profound thing was the meaningful art production and improved skills of students and faculty. Dean Zuo, a painter by training, became more deeply involved in all aspects of the venture. He even devised a term to describe a new aesthetic and philosophical view of ceramic art in Western China. It was a departure from looking to the past and looking for a creative and innovative way forward: Post Painted Pottery Culture. The university enthusiastically acquired electric wheels, installed two fiber electric kilns, and used a pug mill. Glaze and clay body testing continued, studio assistants were employed, and ceramic students were enrolled in classes.

In the summer of 2015, the Gansu provincial government recruited and funded two artists for eight-week residencies. The first two artists were Matthew Courtney, a ceramic artist from Philadelphia, and metalworker Amelia Toelke. The residency consisted of an introduction to Dunhuang culture, visiting Buddhist caves and temples, museums, and historical sites relating to the Silk Road, an intensive six weeks of studio production, and an exhibition at the end. While working in the studio, the residents were encouraged to interact with and mentor faculty and enlist students to help fabricate their work. Two well-trained studio assistants were invaluable in managing the studio, loading and firing kilns, making molds, and various other tasks.

Only one member of the art faculty was fluent in English, painting professor Zhang Min. Truthfully, the success of the whole Artist in Residency program and Keaton's research grant hinged on Min's willing, enthusiastic help and exceptional translating skills. Min translated for us and helped the visiting artists navigate the Chinese language, culture, and everyday hassles. The whole project would have come to a complete stop without her.

The second round of resident artists in the summer of 2016 included ceramic artist David Hooker and two former students of Keaton’s, Katie Whittle and Sam Hendley. They produced a body of work that was well received by students and university officials alike in a newly renovated art gallery. I was part of the 2017 round residencies along with returning artists Matthew Courtney and David Hooker. Building on the previous resident cycles by interacting with faculty and students in a very positive way, producing an eclectic and diverse body of work. For me, my residency experience was a positive disruption in my own thinking and creative process. I definitely received as much from the experience as I gave.

The residency program continued in the summer of 2018 with Keith Ekstam, Patsy Cox, and Pricilla Mourtizen and in the fall with Renata Cassiano and Matthew Courtney. The project's long-term goal was to expand the residency program to where there would be artists at the university for 8 weeks during the fall, spring, and summer semesters. The year-round plan started in the summer of 2019 with clay artists Shuana Merman and Harriet Caslin, but they hit a snag. First, there was a reorganization of provisional and federal government offices that funded the residencies, and then they changed the application process for grant funding. Lanzhou City University hired a new president who was not quite as supportive of the visiting artist program as the previous one. These changes had already slowed the project's expansion, and then COVID happened.


There were no residencies in 2020 and 2021. During the summer of 2022, the university launched an experimental online course working with ceramic artists in villages including Andy Moon, Craig Hartenburger, Keaton, and Dean Zuo. They taught an online class with a 14-hour time difference, technology issues, and translators. Dean Zuo was committed to providing financial and cultural benefits to the students and village communities in the province. The results of the online project were difficult to measure because it was hard to keep the students engaged at times, and there were technical issues with the video feed. The goal was to find a way to create sustainable ceramic projects that improved the villagers’ lives financially and aesthetically.

"The engagement with villages was an attempt at stimulating ideas for the preservation of rural communities. The villages we interacted with were not producing any ceramic work.  During the project, LZCU faculty, LZCU students, and the visiting artist developed ways of bringing attention to these communities and potential collaborations, such as ceramic containers to be sold along with the local production of vinegar. Rural China is experiencing the same dynamic of urbanization and a shrinking rural population as we are here in the US. As people leave, infrastructure crumbles and poverty rises.  The projects were a type of “think tank” for generating support for villages." – Keaton Wynn

From the Chinese end, one of the stipulations for the artist-in-residence program was an emphasis placed on designing for industry. In that pursuit, Dean Zuo fostered corporate collaboration and sponsorships. This program was expanded in 2022 to create ceramic development projects in selected villages as a course for Lanzhou City University students. During my residency in Lanzhou City in 2017, we all met with several corporate sponsors, and we had a wonderful time working at a ceramic factory. The factory management gave us free rein of the place. and fired our work for us. We had a formal meeting with management, more like a banquet, concluding with a ceremonial signing of an agreement to continue collaborating.  

Working within the structure of these residencies, there was always the background of adjusting to cultural differences, language barriers, and large government bureaucracies. During the residency, artists created new work in response to the region's unique culture and history, worked with local students and studio assistants, and collaborated with faculty. It was daunting but energizing to participate in the artist residency and create a new body of work. 

This year marks a decade since Keaton's collaboration with Gansu Province and Lanzhou City University, and this grand experiment has arrived at a decisive moment. Dean Zuo is committed to continuing the project, as is Keaton. The artists have been selected for the summer of 2024. Keaton has put together an exhibition of work by ten past resident artists that will be part of the official National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts exhibition tour in Richmond, Virginia, this March. He will present at the conference to showcase the project's positive results and the fantastic work produced by students, faculty, and resident artists. This cross-cultural educational project has many benefits for the people of Gansu province. Still, the project requires continued support from the various governmental bodies involved to be truly effective and lasting. The program created the only university ceramic studio and degree-granting program in Western China which is currently going through a review and adjustment process. The survey of clays and ceramic materials and the development of clay bodies and glazes using the province's local materials are also substantial assets. Several of the program graduates have gone on to have careers in ceramics and are building kilns and studios in other locations in Gansu Province.

Si Yuanqi is a graduate of Lanzhou City University's ceramics program and was my studio assistant when I was a resident artist there in 2017. He was well-trained, resourceful, curious, dedicated, and a creative problem solver. He was invaluable in helping me get my work made and fired for the residency exhibition. Si Yuanqi furthered his education at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute and is making pottery. He has been commissioned to build wood-fired kilns for other communities and institutions in the area. This international exchange has expanded the knowledge and skill base of faculty and students alike. It has led to greater self-confidence, a sense of purpose, and an expanded world of possibilities.

"Beyond the factory and some specific sites, there is limited ceramic production in Gansu province.  There have been some efforts by individuals from this region to start studios, but there is no official educational structure to support ceramic education.  The studio at LZCU has gone from nothing –  no faculty had any experience in ceramics – to this current system that was developed from the ground up in collaboration.  Jingdezhen is an amazing place, but it also makes the development of regional ceramics difficult. It has shaped the minds or made a bias that if ceramics is to be done, it should be done in Jingdezhen.  Our effort is trying to change this and make a more regional and local voice possible." – Keaton Wynn