1870 — 1970 Ceramics Myers School of Art, History of Ceramics Program, Myers School of Art AkronAll the Difference

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I have been thinking about writing a history of the ceramics program at the University of Akron for several months but now that I am starting on June 25, 2006, I feel that it is a daunting task.  I’m not an historian and I would feel much more at home in my studio.  However taking stock is important at this time. Ceramics as a discipline has become more sophisticated and at the same time more diverse.  The first comprehensive text for teaching history of craft, “20th C American Studio Crafts” written by Bruce Metcalf and Janet Koplos is due out in fall of 2009.  The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts   http://nceca.net/ and the American Craft Council   http://www.craftcouncil.org/ each included panels on craft criticism during their most recent national conferences.  Garth Clark, perhaps ceramic’s most well known historian and prophet is predicting that the specialized teaching of ceramics may become a thing of the past because of the blurring of boundaries between traditional art forms.

In 2001, CODA (Craft Organization Development Association) published an economic impact survey in 2001.  According to the survey ceramics contributes 19% of what was estimated to be a 14 billion dollar a year craft industry.  At the same time there is more evidence from writers such as Richard Florida and Daniel Pink, that artists (including ceramic artists) are more important to the economy than most people have ever suspected.  To some extent the ability of schools like the Myers School of Art to continue to receive support from the state legislature and from the Akron community depends on knowing what has been successful.  In other words we need to know how our alumni are doing and to what extent we have been able to have a positive affect on their lives and careers.  Perhaps the more important question is:  “how can we continue to have a positive affect?’ This history intends to be a record not only of who was here and when but of what happened.  It can include feedback from  you.  We hope that any factual errors we have made will be gently corrected and most importantly, that anecdotes from those who participated in the program will be added.  I urge everyone who has a part of the memory of this collective experience we call the ceramic program to contribute to this history.  Please email me with corrections and additions at dwebb@uakron.edu    Each of you made a decision at some point in your life to become an art major.  Many of you spent a lot of time learning the art of ceramics.  That decision to take the road less traveled has, I hope made “All the Difference”    As we look toward the 2007-2008 year, the Myers School is poised for exciting developments and this seems a good time to take stock and record events and facts that could be lost.

Buchtel College

Let’s go back to the first art classes taught at the forerunner of the University of Akron, Buchtel College, founded in 1870.  Every student who applied to Buchtel College had to submit a drawing (part of a liberal arts education).  There was no art major but art classes were offered in “the old Buchtel College Art School”.  A number of notable Ohio artists were students or taught at the Buchel College.  Among them was May Fairchild Sanford who studied for a year in New York City under William Merritt Chase. Stanford joined the faculty of Buchtel College in l900.  The following year she was put in charge of the Buchtel Art School.  Fannie A Parmelee was a teacher of “ornamental branches” at Buchtel College in 1874 and 75.  Gertrude Lewis was a china decorator and art teacher.  In January 1893 Lewis was engaged as a pottery decorator at Kirkham Pottery Works located in Barberton.    By the 1920’s the art department was headed by Jane Barnhart- the only full time faculty member.  She was an alumna of the Buchtel College Art School, Boston School of Design, Cleveland School of Art, the Art Students league of New York and Columbia University.  Barnhart earned her bachelor of education degree form Akron University in 1928 and a master’s in the same subject in 1930.  In about 1921 Barnhart visited John Singer Sargent who was working on a commission for Harvard University.  The commission was to paint two murals depicting Harvard men killed in World War I.

Emily Davis

In 1945 Emily Davis became chair of the art department.  Davis was the only full- time faculty, however Rena Nancy Cable and Jane Barnhart also taught part time. The art department was housed in Phillips Hall, an Italianate home, built in 1881.  It was the oldest building on campus.  When Phillips Hall was torn down to make room for a new engineering building the department moved to a temporary home off campus. (This temporary home may have been a Quonset hut left over from the war.) Finally in the spring of 1950, Emily moved the art department to a new home located on the top floor of the library annex.  There was a new ceramic studio with a kiln, a spray booth, damp boxes and an air-brush complete with a ventilating fan.  For the first time the department had adequate space for displaying finished art works.

“In the best artistic tradition the walls of the department are done in pastel colors, aqua in the offices, yellow for the halls and closets and green or gray for the classrooms.  The woodwork is blond and so are the modern style tables and chairs.”—The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) 25 February, 1950

Emily taught everything:  weaving to interior design students, drawing, painting sculpture, collage, mural painting, graphic design and ceramics; everything required by the art education majors. P.R. Miller, Akron’s junkman artist was her student and ceramics lab assistant.  He gives Emily credit for mentoring him through school.

Owed 2 Emily
A wize N’ Wizzend Woman
Sitting behind a Very Cluttered desk in a Very Cluttered office,
In a Very Cluttered hallway
With Very Cluttered rooms
Full of Very Cluttered things
And many Cluttered people
With Very Cluttered minds
In a Very Cluttered town
In a Very Cluttered world
And She
Said to Me,
“We adore chaos because we love to produce order”  M.C. Escher
Said I to She,
Who’s HE—Said She, NOW
The learning can begin!
She pulled out a Kent
(with the micro-nite filter)
Fired it up, engulfed 3 liters of carcinogous, ionized tobacco vapors,
And in a thoughtful hesitation,
EXHALED the entire cloud,
At my face, and said,
“Learning cannot take place unless curiosity is present,
You have shown curiosity.
Now, go find out, yourself”

And off I went to discover the Wisdom.

Emily Davis was—
A Wise, Educated Matron of the art world of Akron in the late 60’s

—P. R.Miller December 2006

During Dr. Davis’ tenure the BFA program was begun.  The class of 1958 commissioned Dr Davis and Malcolm Dachiell, the school’s sculpture professor to create a glass mosaic that was installed in the stairway of the Gardner Student Center.

Detail, Mosaic, M. Dachiell and E. Davis, 1958, relocated to the new Student Union, 2003

In 1968 or 69 the art department moved to Schrank Hall South.   Michael Vatalaro was in the class that began as freshman in 1968.  Michael believes that he and his classmates who graduated in 1972 were the first to receive the BFA degree from the University of Akron.  Between 1970 and 1971 Emily hired seven new faculty. Tom Webb a recent graduate from the University of Michigan was hired to teach sculpture when Malcolm Dashiell died.  Donna, Tom’s wife was still enrolled in the University of Michigan’s, MFA program in ceramics when they arrived in Akron. Dr Davis continued to teach ceramics and weaving until fall of 1970 when Larry Calhoun (MA University of Iowa, 1961) was hired to teach ceramics.

University of Akron Ceramics Class of 1970

Jean Appleby, Mike Vatalaro, Scott Zahr, Carol Kuruc (only eyes are visible), Bill Neuman, Peg Averill, Larry Calhoun, Pat Jolley and Mary Maxwell.
(Please let us know how to complete the list of names for the caption)


“In 1970 I took an independent study class from Dr. Davis.  I wrote a paper on Marcel Duchamp.  Dr Davis criticized the paper for not being creative enough.  It was so interesting for a young hippie graduate student to receive that kind of encouragement from a  tough, chain smoking, administrator who was completely at ease being the boss of her growing and mostly male faculty.   At the end of the day Dr. Davis would often be seen checking the classrooms and studios, especially ceramics to make sure they were all secure. If you wanted to compare Dr. Davis to some kind of animal, it would have to be a bull dog, she was pugnacious and determined.  She was also appealing and loyal. Dr Davis retired as chair of the Art Department in 1973.” – Donna Webb


This article was written by: Donna Webb

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