By now, you may have heard or seen the news about the massive cuts at West Virginia University. I fear this is symptomatic of greater underlying issues attacking the arts nationwide. I’m convinced what is happening at WVU is the beginning. As the news broke nationally, I heard from many friends and colleagues that their universities and colleges are in a similar predicament of "academic transformation". The proposed cuts to thirty-two undergraduate and graduate programs at West Virginia University (WVU), nine percent of majors, and sixteen percent of full-time faculty (169+ full-time faculty positions slated for termination) have focused mostly on the humanities, liberal arts, and creative arts. They recommended that ceramics, printmaking, and sculpture be eliminated as areas and that art history be discontinued. These draconian cuts will affect all our schools in art, music, and theater, as well as other valuable programs at the university.
Ceramics plays an important role in art, culture, and civilization. In ceramics' 30,000+ years of continuous history, it is one of the few things that humans have ever invented that is truly archival. Ceramics tells the story of who we are and is an intangible part of human culture. Ceramics allows us to connect with our past, present, and future. Without going into much detail, in addition to what we normally think of as art school lessons in theory and art history, I’ve applied my learnings in chemistry, math, geology, critical thinking, critical writing, archeology, anthropology, engineering, construction, programming, etc. in my teaching and studio practice.
Morgantown, where I teach and call home, was founded as a pottery town. It was one of the earliest post-colonial potteries west of Appalachia. Founded in 1785 by John Scott, Jacob Foulk, John Thompson, and Francis Billingsley, Morgantown was a major pottery center in the Monongahela Valley, producing salt-fired crockery. These grey-ware, cobalt-slipped, and salt-fired crocks were created in towns like Morgantown, New Geneva, Greensboro, etc., mimicking the blue and white porcelain from China, and shipped upriver on stern wheelers, like the ones piloted by a young Samuel Clemens who learned to captain in our area, to Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio River to towns like Cincinnati, Louisville, and down the Mississippi as far away as New Orleans.
Our classes are full of art majors. The School of Art enrollment is near its historic high from twenty years ago. We had the highest freshman enrollment class in ten years in the School of Art this fall. The School of Art has had robust enrollment to the point where we can’t accommodate any more students. It’s the other areas of the university that never met the university growth projections that are hurting everyone, as well as wasteful capital projects, etc. Bear in mind that the arts have continued to occupy a fifty-plus-year-old building that is antiquated, which has forced us to rent space off-campus. What is also troubling is that as they eliminate many programs throughout the university and merge our college with journalism, they are proposing to shift programs like fashion design, etc., to the School of Art, which will increase our enrollments with fewer faculty.
What shocked us was that ceramics, printmaking, and sculpture were not among the initial areas to be reviewed. The argument currently being made by the administrators is that all the schools were under review regardless of whether the areas of emphasis were listed. They plan to reduce our school of arts faculty from twenty-two to fifteen. The School of Art has more students than the School of Music and the School of Theater, yet we are being asked to eliminate as many or more faculty than the other two schools. My director went as far as to propose that we use our endowments to self-fund the school’s budget so it would not cost the university a dime, but that fell on deaf ears as well.
I believe the arts are an integral part of any education, but most notably part of the human experience, especially as an education at West Virginia's R1 flagship land-grant university. The mission of WVU is to create "a diverse and inclusive culture that advances education, healthcare, and prosperity for all by providing access and opportunity; by advancing high-impact research; and by leading transformation." As a land-grant university in a poor state, many of the students in WVU's ceramics department are first-generation college students from rural West Virginia. Many of the graduates stay and work in the state and help grow West Virginia's economy and cultural wealth. One of our former BFA students broke a five-generation cycle of working the coal mines to become an established, well-known sculptor in the state.
When I first arrived at WVU seventeen years ago, I asked my intro classes if any of the students had clay experience in high school, and one student raised their hand. I found out from a study that there was only one art education teacher who concentrated in ceramics in the region. Today, we have over two dozen art educators in the state and South West Pennsylvania who have graduated from our program. Last week, when I asked the same question about clay experience in my intro class, two out of three times, students raised their hands and said they had taken ceramics in high school. WVU Ceramics has graduated countless successful alums – too many to name – who are currently active in the field as studio artists, faculty, gallery owners, designers, etc. WVU Ceramics has also facilitated numerous international artists and helped springboard many successful careers through the WVU China Ceramics Program.
With the help of my current and former colleagues, Boomer Moore, Jen Allen, Shalya Marsh, and Kelly O’Bryant, the WVU ceramics program has offered diverse special topics classes that are of tangible importance to anyone earning a BFA or MFA. These include, but are not limited to, kiln building, local clay and glaze chemistry, mold making, ceramic history, figure modeling, etc. We have the only dedicated 3D Ceramics Printing and Ceramics Production Methods Program academic lab in the country where we teach our students designs and skills used by industry. When the students come to the realization that a hydraulic RAM press, a jigger jolly, or a 3D resin printer is another tool like a pottery wheel or a slab roller, it opens their creativity to an infinite world of possibilities.
Started by my visionary predecessor, Bob Anderson, WVU has the oldest study-abroad program to study in the famed porcelain capital of Jingdezhen, China. We have continued to expand programming in China and have taken countless students and visiting artists to study for short-term summer and fall semester programs. For many of our students, this is their first time traveling on an airplane to a foreign country. Just imagine a student from rural West Virginia who has never been to a large city, and the first city we land in China is the twenty-six-million-person city of Shanghai! The impact that travel has on our students is as profound an experience as they will have during their time in school. If these cuts are implemented, we plan to run one last trip this summer to China.
WVU Ceramics works to donate at least 500 bowls per year to help raise money for the Mon County Empty Bowls project. The department even hosts an annual bowl-a-thon where anyone from the community can come in and help make bowls for the cause. From funds raised in our bi-annual pottery sales, we support free workshops, demonstrations, and lectures to the public throughout the year, fund student trips to NCECA conferences, provide summer student scholarships to attend workshops and support the China Ceramics Program. In our tenure at WVU, the ceramics program has ranked in the top 20 ceramics graduate programs across the nation, but what is more important is that the students' lives have been positively impacted by our program.
West Virginia University's Ceramics program works in partnership with organizations like Manchester Craftsman Guild in Pittsburgh, which inspires urban youth creativity, learning, and personal growth through the arts in higher education and provides scholarship opportunities to attend the university. The first recipient of the William E. Strickland scholarship, a young woman of color who graduated from Pittsburgh Public Schools and completed her BFA degree at West Virginia University, has received many accolades and has been named one of the emerging artists in Pittsburgh.
The initial proposal to eliminate ceramics, sculpture, and printmaking areas of emphasis will be detrimental to exposing future art students' mastery of the craft, which is defined as a comprehensive knowledge of a subject. The tactile learning that happens in the studio is specific to these mediums and cannot be replicated online or in lectures. Mastery happens in the process of making art. Studies have shown that oxytocin hormones are released into our bodies as we touch materials like clay, which impacts our brains. The creative process of artmaking positively heightens our somatosensory, motor, and visual areas in ways that passive learning cannot. As one student commented last week, what is an art school without these programs?
My colleague and friend, Lisa DiBartolomeo, whose entire World Languages, Literature, and Linguistics Program is slated for elimination, stated, "I don’t think anyone is ever really prepared to lose their job, no matter where they work, but academics might be even less prepared than most. And I honestly thought I was safe…" and I felt the same way. As the endowed professor in art actively exhibiting internationally and overseeing a nationally ranked ceramics program with the oldest China Ceramics Study-abroad program and the only fully dedicated 3D Digital Ceramics/Production Methods lab in the nation, I naively believed that the seventeen years that I dedicated my life to improving the quality of education for our students would be recognized and not punished. Attempts to qualify our research, student successes, and core values of our land grant mission seemed to not matter. My friend, the sculpture professor, who has dedicated thirty-five years of her life to teaching, mentoring, and leading our school, now faces termination rather than a retirement party because this flawed process has decided to quantify and de-personify the process into a business decision. The community we have spent years building, which reaches far beyond the reach of our town and our state, will be impacted by these decisions.
Since the news broke about the budget crisis and the drastic measures that are now being proposed at WVU, I want to thank all of you students, alumni, friends, colleagues, and strangers who have reached out to offer support and help. You have reaffirmed that what we do matters and that art matters. Unfortunately, what is happening at WVU is not isolated, and I’m afraid it will continue as educational policies and priorities begin to shift in an era where publicly funded universities continue to receive less and less support from state legislatures. In the meantime, please spread the word and continue to keep the focus on these draconian measures that are affecting the arts.
If you care about WVU ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, and art history, please write an email, tweet, text, or post wherever and everywhere.
Written by Shoji Satake
Shoji Satake is the J. Bernard Schultz Endowed Professor of Art and Ceramics Area Coordinator at West Virginia University. He is a Japanese-born American artist and professor and the incoming president of the National Council on the Education for Ceramic Art (NCECA). He is also a member of the International Academy of Ceramics. He resides in Morgantown, West Virginia, with his partner and fellow potter, Jen Allen, and their two children.
In light of the current budget crisis at West Virginia University (WVU) and the recommendation to eliminate the ceramics, sculpture, printmaking, and art history departments from WVU’s College of Creative Arts, Jennifer Allen created a Save WVU Ceramics website. The intent of this site is to act as a library of pertinent information, letters of support, testimonials, etc., regarding the impact that the WVU Ceramics Department has had in the state of WV, the town of Morgantown, and in the global ceramics community.
Please consider adding your voice.
Excerpts from the Save WVU Ceramics website:
"The WVU ceramics department is a key tool in helping WV artists hone their craft and add to the cultural and economic heritage of our wonderful state. The arts in West Virginia are part of the fabric that makes our communities great and have also helped support the region financially. WVU has always been an extremely important way of nurturing the heart, soul, and wallet of WV. To cut it is shortsighted and devastating." – Sandra Frank
"I honestly would not be the man I am today without the CAC, now the School of Art & Design, that has several programs (ceramics, among others) on the chopping block because of Gordon Gee’s poor management of West Virginia University. In 1991, I moved to Morgantown as an undecided art major. Dabbling in theater (puppetry) and graphic design my first year, I was lost with no clue as to what to do with my life. As a BFA candidate, students HAD to take several art electives. Thank God for that. I stumbled into the ceramics department after not touching clay since elementary school. I took one class, then another, and soon declared ceramics as my major. Bob Anderson, my professor, persuaded me to take the K-12 Art Education minor, which was only an additional year. In that ceramics program, I became a welder, a plumber, a carpenter, a glaze chemist, a mold maker, a tile maker, and a potter. I learned how to build and fire wood kilns, that would later come in real handy. I traveled to China, the porcelain capital of the world, to learn ancient techniques of pottery making, decoration, and kiln firing. I was exposed to a whole new language, culture, and food. I made friends halfway around the world that I still keep in touch with today. My experiences at WVU led me to the biggest adventure of my life. In 2001, I traveled to Nagarno Karabagh to work as the site supervisor on the revitalization of a Soviet-era village pottery. I lived in a tiny village high on a mountain for two years. Working with the locals, we put a roof on the existing building, poured a concrete floor, built kickwheels from scratch, located and dug local clays, and then used a horse to mix our clay. We enlisted the help of a veteran potter to help us build a traditional bottle kiln. I taught four guys to throw traditional vessels for wine, water, butter making, and stews. We filled and fired several kilns in my time over there. I learned another new language (Armenian), culture, and cuisine. Upon returning from that adventure, I was hungry for another. I applied for a similar position in Kabul, Afghanistan. And while I was not selected for that one, they did fly me over for an interview. Again, I got to meet local potters, craftsmen, and artisans. I experienced yet another new culture and cuisine firsthand. I led a group of students back to China in 2006 to take part in the same program I had participated in twenty years prior. I got to see the crazy developments in the Chinese economy that had occurred in those two decades. I came back and worked as a production potter, throwing salt-glazed stoneware for WVU. I learned how to use a jigger and ram press, tools of the trade for companies like Homer Laughlin's Fiestaware. I'm still learning new skills after twenty-five years in the program. And after all of that, I still had that K-12 Art education minor. And I’ve been working with kids off and on for over twenty-five years, including the last thirteen at a small private school. I’ve made my bread and butter teaching art and ceramics. "Unimportant" disciplines that they are attempting to cut from WVU’s massive budget are the ones that open doors in life. You never know where life will lead you. I’m so grateful it led me into that dirty, dusty ceramics room in 1992. Keep sharing, signing those petitions, and making some noise. These programs change lives. I am proof." – Jeff Ryan
"I am one of many dozens of professionals who personally benefited from the initial WVA China program at Jingdezhen led by Professor Rob Anderson in 1996. I shudder to think that such outreach could be stymied by present plans to eliminate funding for the arts." – Jack Troy, potter
A Note From the Editor
In considering publishing this "Letter to the Public" from Ceramics Area Head, Shoji Satake I want to emphasize that Studio Potter takes the risk that all faculty have exposed themselves to by speaking out with great consideration and intentionality. We are outraged, but we care deeply for the people this cut affects; our ceramics community at WVU needs impactful and purposeful letters of support. WVU ceramics program has had a period for signing petitions - the petition is now closed - however, you can send testimonials and letters of support to the following form: "Fill out this form to add your voice to the fight."
There is also a vote of "no confidence" happening on September 6th, 2023 against the president of WVU; initial reports state that WVU needs at least 700 faculty - of the 1,463 - to show up for a quorum. However, according to the WVU union, only full-time faculty are considered for the vote of no confidence; the current statistics available on the WVU website for full-time faculty are 1,130, which means 565 would meet the minimum number of members of an assembly that must be present at the meeting to make the proceedings of that meeting valid. Of the quorum, only a majority is needed for a vote of no confidence (fifty-one percent), which equates to 283 votes in favor of no confidence. This will be a critical fulcrum point that could determine the fate of multiple programs at WVU.
Readers are encouraged to email letters of support to the WVU union, and all full-time faculty.
You can also send letters of support to:
President of WVU: Gordon.Gee@mail.WVU.edu
The Board of Governors: Valerie.Lopez@mail.WVU.edu
Dean of the College of Creative Arts: Keith.Jackson@mail.wvu.edu