At age 19, Cary Esser flew alone from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Kansas City, a place she’d never been. “When I got off the plane,” Esser recalled in a recent interview, “I just walked up to somebody and asked, ‘Can you tell me how to get to the Kansas City Art Institute?’”
Esser had been accepted into KCAI’s prestigious ceramics department. She not only found her way there, but 22 years later, in 1995, she became the first female chair of the school’s ceramics program. Esser replaced Ken Ferguson, the legendary ceramicist who had been in charge of the department for decades.
Changing the status quo wasn’t easy.
George Timock, who recently retired after teaching ceramics at KCAI for 43 years, was Esser’s teacher and then her colleague. “From the beginning,” Timock said in a recent interview, “Cary was such a good student that I let her use my studio and kiln. Does that tell you anything?
“Ferguson ruled the department with an iron fist. The department is a different place now. Cary has a gentle voice and calm manner. But don’t let that fool you; she’s also serious and demanding. She’ll come in and say: ‘Hi y’all! Now get back to work.’
“She also brings intellectual curiosity and scholarship to the table,” Timock added. “She writes wonderfully well—you should see all the red marks she makes on papers! She’s a great teacher and mentor, and the students constantly win awards.”
In the past decade, KCAI ceramic students have secured numerous Regina Brown Undergraduate Fellowships annually awarded to three students nationally by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. They have won Windgate Fellowships, given to 10 seniors in art annually by the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design in Asheville, North Carolina, and are featured regularly in the “Undergraduate Showcase” in Ceramics Monthly magazine.
As an undergraduate, Esser was one of the only 15 percent of ceramic students who chose to make sculpture rather than utilitarian vessels. Now the ratio in the department is 50:50. By emphasizing the conceptual, the socio-political and the technological aspects of her craft, Esser ushered in a new era for the department, ensuring its relevance as students wrestled with the knotty global concerns sweeping through all the arts. In the 21st century, the art world as a whole has had to expand greatly to accommodate a more diverse group of players, and the “clay world” is enjoying increasing prominence.
Teri Frame is an assistant professor of ceramics at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who has taught and traveled internationally. She incorporates performance, video and digital art with her ceramic sculpture. Frame graduated from KCAI in 2005, where she worked extensively with Esser.
“On a personal level, she is a fantastic person, compassionate and non-judgmental,” Frame said in a recent phone interview. “At the same time she encourages an intensive and rigorous work ethic. She’s so highly intelligent and really understands the field; she raised the bar and caused me to reflect more deeply about my art. And she wanted you to push things as far as you could.”
“What is beautiful about ceramics is how rich a medium it is,” Esser says. “I love functional ceramics, which are about the human community coming together, whether for dining or ornamentation in the home. But ceramics also fully embrace fine art.”
Esser continues to relentlessly push her own artistic boundaries and process as well as those of her students. Architecture, in its myriad manifestations, has generally been her touchstone. When she first moved to Kansas City, she was fascinated by the ornamental terra cotta designs on the facades of old buildings in midtown and downtown. Like a number of young artists, she was weary of the anti-beauty and political sensibility that was so dominant in the 1980s and 90s.
Notably, Esser was one of the first ceramic artists to play with the design-rich, international history of tile and grillwork in her own compositions. Besides researching centuries-old ceramic recipes, she also experiments wildly with materials and glazes, combining the cutting edge with the traditions of her ancient craft. Esser’s art is as improvisational as it is studied.
She typically works in series. Whether minimalist or baroque in sensibility, her various versions of tiles have a living, breathing presence, and she has created installations on tables, walls and the floor. Esser is a master of colored glazes, but in a recent series, “Parfleches,” all the works are eggshell white. Comprised of multiple layers, with some sheets of clay so delicate that they resemble lace or shattered facades, these artworks make reference to vulnerability and protection simultaneously. They are heartbreaking and unforgettable.
Esser is working on another series now, titled “Veils,” while teaching, designing an exhibition at the Belger Arts Center for NCECA, and preparing to install her art at five different galleries and museums during the annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference in Kansas City this week.
She remains as optimistic, intelligent and restless as the 19-year-old who found her way to Kansas City more than 40 years ago.