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The Clay Art Center Embraces its Community

Artwork by Kathy King
Artwork by Kathy King

Although the creation of functional pottery vessels began around 10,000 B.C, people began fashioning clay figurines as early as 24,000 B.C.  This makes ceramics perhaps the oldest, most elemental art form: earth, plus water, hardened by fire.

Westchester County is home to an established and well-recognized center for the creation and study of this art form, aptly named the Clay Art Center (CAC), which is located in Port Chester.

While its exhibitions are vibrant and soul-satisfying, the Clay Center is much more than a gallery space for accomplished ceramic artists. Each show is a stepping off point for artists to go out into the community and into local high schools, where they examine art as a platform for self-expression and activism by discussing topics like self-identity, race, and gender. The Clay Center likewise invites the community into the visual and tactile playground of its gallery – to feel the clay, and to learn how to manipulate it for their own artistic expression.  The Center is both an educational community and an artistic hub.

The Center opened its doors more than 60 years ago, and for many years provided space and resources for a community of artists to pursue their diverse work.  In 1997, when the Center was about to close due to of financial struggles, artist Reena Kashyap purchased the facility with the goal of expanding its reach to the local community.

Explains Kashyap: “It would have been devastating for the center to close, because there was nothing quite like it in Westchester. To survive, I knew we had to have a mix of activities that were not solely centered on the artists working there.”

In 2006, the CAC was incorporated as a non-profit organization, with a mission to create an environment that supports ceramic artists of all ages and abilities. Today, in addition to accommodating some 50 professional artists with studio space, CAC provides programs for at-risk youth, educates youth and adults in classes and private lessons, hosts workshops and symposiums led by nationally-known artists, and participates in therapy programs with other organizations such as Alzheimer’s Association, Hope House and Gilda’s Club.

Kashyap emphasized that “clay has been used since the beginning of time and, once fired, it is indestructible. That’s why it can tell us the stories of past civilizations.

Clay also evokes a special emotion in us; we all remember touching dirt as a child. As a medium, it is very versatile and helps us to express our ideas, emotions and thoughts.”

Under the direction of Executive Director Leigh Mickelson, CAC now presents four core exhibitions every year, each connecting to a central theme. The Center’s 2018 theme is “Four Degrees of Separation,” for which each exhibition will focus on an aspect of social connection. Its 2018 season launched with Me, Myself and I, an exhibition that features more than 40 established and emerging artists. This show, which runs through March 24, is a collection of vessel-based works (for example plates, bottles, vases and tea pots) that express each artist’s unique self-awareness and identity.

Carol Vartuli is a writer, speechwriter and educator.

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