The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts

NCECA The resource hall is just one part of the event.

The resource hall is just one part of the event.

Diane Nicholson and Marv Kitshaw, of Muddy Fingers Pottery, visited the huge clay-fest that is NCECA. Diane reports…

Where, when, and how
In March this year, we had the absolute pleasure of volunteering at the NCECA annual conference in the USA. Each year, a different city hosts the conference and this year was the ‘Steel City’ Pittsburgh’s turn, in Pennsylvania.

Our trip started with a flight to New York to spend a few days getting inspired by the people, graffiti, architecture, museums and street art. We then travelled west, continuing our journey to Chicago to visit a trade fair as part of our business trip. As we supply tableware to restaurants and chefs, such as Tom Kerridge and Burberry, we want to start exploring the American market as an export opportunity.

After the trade show came a seven-hour road trip to Pittsburgh. Lots of lorry-spotting and coffees kept us going as we swapped shifts driving.

The Heinz factory, Pittsburgh.

We had booked a fabulous Airbnb about a 25-minute walk into town. We passed a children’s museum, a sports stadium, the Andy Warhol Museum, lots of public art including a big metal ball made from a scrap car, and across a range of beautifully engineered steel bridges on this walk in, which spanned the Allegheny river, on the banks of which sits the conference centre. Pittsburgh is also the home of Heinz tomato sauce, as well as many other industries, and is fiercely proud of its heritage.

Marv doing his bit as a volunteer security man.

Marv doing his bit as a volunteer security man.

The volunteers from Jarrow
For years it has been an ambition of ours to attend the conference and, after a large amount of research, we still weren’t 100% sure what to expect.

We applied in October to take a volunteer position. The organisers had contacted us in December, confirming our roles, and we had clear, regular contact with them up to the beginning of the conference and throughout. It had initially cost us a deposit of $40, which was returned when we had completed our shifts as volunteers. If we hadn’t attended as volunteers, it would have cost us around $250 for membership and the conference, so being the poor potters we are, we jumped at the opportunity to volunteer.

We already knew the conference includes talks, a resource hall, an expo area, exhibitions and the very popular cup sale, but we weren’t prepared for the size of it or the genuine, friendly and open attitudes of literally everyone we met!

Marv’s first shift was as a badge checker of the library (security in a yellow vest – chasing people who didn’t have a badge), and my shift was as desk assistant – checking volunteers in and out, and making sure they knew what they were doing. The volunteers who we were relieving explained everything we were expected to do, and we had a buddy as well as the organiser’s phone number in case we had any queries or issues.

We would definitely recommend working instead of just visiting, as it gave us a chance to interact with loads more people than we would usually do. The only problem we had was with my broad Geordie accent!

The conference was open from Wednesday morning to Saturday lunchtime, and shifts were spread out over this time. We only had to work 13 hours each over the time of the conference, so we had tonnes of free time to explore, and boy do you need it!


Inside the Airstream, which has been converted into a portable gallery.

The country’s top galleries – and a camper van!
We started in the main hall where the resource centre and expo were situated. The expo is where you are able to purchase exceptional, finished pieces from top galleries across the country. There were nine galleries exhibiting, and the work really was made and finished to such a high standard. Our favourites from this part of the conference were pieces by Mike Stumbras and the innovative use of an Airstream camper van as a portable gallery.

One of the reasons we were drawn to this conference is that it has a huge resources hall. We run four evening classes a week, and we also teach one-off workshop sessions at galleries and museums across the country. We are constantly learning new techniques and realise that we need to keep up with potters from the US. Bringing back some of their knowledge, and even tools, back to the UK will help us to keep our classes and workshops fresh, up-to-date and, more importantly, different.

Getting excited about wires….
There were potters doing demonstrations for various wheel companies, lots of stands selling texture tools, underglazes, decals, kilns, wheels… anything you could imagine, or need, was for sale. We buy our wires from Mud Tools, who had a stall at the conference, and it was great to see them in the flesh and talk with some of their representatives. We even bought some shorter wires than the ones available in the UK (why are wires so long over here?). We’re excited to start using them on some of our smaller jobs like our mugs and bowls. We have bought a dozen books on various subjects, but mainly functional pot books, with projects in them and decorating techniques. We’ve been making a lot of plain tableware over the past few years, so we were looking for inspiration for patterns and glaze decorating techniques to start experimenting with back in the UK. After experiencing the amazing galleries in the US, we have been reminded of our love for exhibiting our own work, so that is going to be something we concentrate on in the near future.
During the conference, there were pop-up events, one of them invited people to use the mini wheels that they had brought along. It was a really fun idea, and we would love to do something similar to get people turned on to making pots.

Queues at 5 am – for a cup sale!
With our heads bursting full of ideas we decided to head over to the cup sale to drop off the pot Marv had made for it.
The cup sale is a big feature at NCECA. Potters donate a cup, and there’s a sale during the conference –people queue from 5am to purchase the piece they have set their hearts on! All the proceeds from the cup sale go to the NCECA, which is a non-profit organisation that fosters global education and appreciation for the ceramic arts. Needless to say, all of the cups sold out.

There were around 15 tables filled with cups of every style imaginable. We had our favourites, but the whole thing had sold out by the time we arrived on the sale day. We took dozens of photos, and we have set up a folder on our Facebook page for you to peruse!

Marv dropping his pot off at the cup sale.

Just one of the many tables in the cup sale.



A lesson in kiln-conversion
Over the course of the conference, many lectures take place. Some, we missed as they coincided with our shifts, or we were too busy talking about pots and lost track of the time! We did, however, get to see a couple of lectures on glaze chemistry, and the one that inspired us the most was titled ‘electric to atmosphere,’ by Geoffrey Kunkler.
We currently do a lot of raku firings in kilns that Marv designed and built a few years ago, and we are just discovering what else we can do in it with Hiki Dashi and Saggar firings. We have an old, knackered electric round top loader that we are storing ready to be made into a reduction kiln. The lecture was perfect for us, as it went through the process of turning electric kilns into reduction kilns and covered all the successes and failures that Geoffrey had. We talked to him afterwards about the similarities and differences with how we currently fire, and he invited us to join his Facebook page. This was great, as we already use social media for pottery groups and pages to keep in touch with potters across the world. We will be posting pics on our Facebook page too, if you’re interested in following our progress.


A throwing demonstration in the resource hall.

A shard from Tyneside
The projects space is an area given over to ceramic artists to create and present works that incorporate clay in time-based, performative, relational or responsive works. This year, we visited one of the ceramicists who was creating a mural called Unity Shards. It is built from clay shards created and donated by artists all over the world. We lost one of our cups in transit, so Marv contributed a piece of hiki dashi pottery. The mosaic mural will be permanently installed in a city garden in Pittsburgh.


Ceramics is actually funded in schools
Another ‘free to the public’ part of the conference is the exhibitions, and one of these particularly took our interest. It’s called the National K12 Ceramic Exhibition, and it showcases the best ceramic work created in K12 schools. The majority of these works were created by 12 to 15-year-olds, and it was really impressive!

It seems that ceramics is still promoted in schools in the US, and funding and energy are put into encouraging the next generation of potters.
There were also lots of groups of people from schools and colleges attending the conference, which was encouraging to see.

Although we had only seen a very small percentage of the lectures going on at the exhibition centre, on top of the lectures, exhibitions, networking opportunities, critiques, galleries, cup sale, projects and maker spaces, day fab lab, (which we sadly didn’t have time to experience), we decided to head outside of the venue into the city.


K12 student work.

K12 student work.


City-wide ceramics
Each year, the host city for the NCECA gets heavily involved in all things clay-related. NCECA fringe events take place in a huge variety of venues across town. From libraries to pubs, florists to mattress showrooms, there were over 80 venues showcasing a huge range of ceramic art. NCECA even runs bus tours around the city venues every day, it’s such a massive part of it.

There was no way that we could see all of the exhibitions, but we looked through the brochure and found the ones which were within a two-mile radius. We visited an exhibition in a gallery downtown and (of course) one situated in a pub about half-an-hour’s walk away.

One of the pieces from the Latin American Status exhibition.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust at Penn Gallery was showing ‘Latin American Status’, with contributions from six artists sharing stories of inclusion.
We wanted to see this, as for several years, in our own work we have been concentrating on tableware and want to start thinking more about statement pieces. It also means that we can start looking at making decorative glazes. Another part of ceramics that we love is glaze chemistry, so it’s exciting to look at different textures and colours to inspire our new work.
The next exhibition we went to visit was held at Threadbare Cider and Mead House. ‘Pallatiative Pour’ was a juried international exhibition featuring vessels related to spirit consumption. This one appealed to us for obvious reasons! We enjoy a little tipple every now and then, and we also make drinking vessels. The pots here were so well made – and quite reasonably priced too–  but we made do with a pint and a pickle platter as there was no way we could guarantee that any purchases would be in one piece by the time we got home after two car trips, three flights and a coach ‘journey!’ See the photos for our favourite pieces from the show.

The Threadbare exhibition ‘Pallatiative Pour’.

One of the pieces from the Threadbare cider house.

On the walk back to our Airbnb, we saw so many interesting things, Pittsburgh is such a vibrant, creative and colourful city that it’s hard not to be captivated by all the interesting things there are to see. There were ceramic wall pieces decorating concrete stairways, and on the sides of roads, mosaics and plant pots made the area an interesting place to walk around. One place we absolutely have to mention is Randyland. Randy Gillson bought Randyland on a credit card in 1995. Every day, after waiting tables, he came home to paint and bring happiness to his neighbourhood. He filled his yard with mirrors, murals, buckets of rubber rats, plastic flamingos, deckchairs, brightly painted doors and a psychedelic staircase. The whole house and yard were a riot of colour, and after talking to Randy for only 10 minutes, you are left with immersed in what goes on in his head every day! It was such a lovely end to a jam-packed few days.


Being potters, we also managed to sneak a bit of local clay back home in our suitcase, and have already processed it ready to paint as a slip on a bird feeder to send back over to the US to one of our Airbnb hosts.

A mosaic on a stairway in Pittsburgh.





Pittsburgh street art – made from an old scrap car.











And next year…
NCECA is being hosted in Minneapolis next year. We have already started planning a possible project that could take us there, and are looking at potential AirBnBs in the area. We would love to go back, and there wasn’t a thing that we would change about it. The conference is a clay lover’s paradise, and the talks make it especially valuable for those teaching in ceramics. All-in-all, we would highly recommend it, and we look forward to telling you tales from next year’s show!

More details can be found at:
Muddy Fingers Pottery
FB: @muddypotters
07590 803081 or 07904 686890


NCECA 2019
The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts
NCECA’s 52nd Annual Conference: March 27-30, 2019
Minneapolis, Minnesota