Leadership Profile

Artist-in-Residence, Art Students Pour Their Hearts into Clay House

Willi Singleton may be the new artist-in-residence at Cedar Crest College, but his work is certainly not new to those who appreciate pottery in the ancient Japanese tradition.
After graduating from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., in the early 1980s with a B.A. in visual arts, Singleton spent the next six years in Japan studying as an apprentice to several prominent ceramic artists. Since returning to the United States and relocating at the base of Hawk Mountain in Kempton, Pa., he has earned a living making functional stoneware using natural clays and glazes and using traditional techniques such as wood-fired kilns.

Willie Singleton

As an independent potter, Singleton travels regularly to Japan, New Mexico, and Washington, D.C., to show his art at exhibitions, and he has also held exhibitions locally, including at Allentown Art Museum and the Philips Art Museum in Lancaster. His business keeps him busy, but when he got the opportunity to join Cedar Crest for the 2012-13 academic year and try some new things, he jumped in and hit the ground running.
To illustrate the point, at the beginning of the fall semester he traveled 140 miles roundtrip, hauling 5,000 pounds of natural clay in his pickup truck in multiple trips for a project he’s undertaking with his ceramics classes at Cedar Crest. He returned the clay to campus, where his students added small amounts of sand and sawdust to make the clay more “moldable.”

Singleton and his students walked on the clay for nearly an hour on plastic matting set up behind Hartzel Hall in order to bring the clay to the desired consistency, and they are using the final product to make a clay house—a structure somewhat similar to a traditional Japanese tea house—this semester. Singleton used plywood and metal bracing to build a simple structure from a pre-existing structure on campus, and the students were each given a 2’ by 2’ area in which to create a three-dimensional design of their choice for the exterior of the structure.

Singleton is very interested in the connection between the completed pottery and the place in which it originated from an organic standpoint and wanted to impress this upon his students. Singleton’s classes have burned bamboo from his property at the foot of Hawk Mountain in order to make a glaze for the project, and they have dug clay from the banks of a nearby creek.

“It’s important to me that the students know how ceramics evolved, and I am giving them hands-on experience with traditional pottery techniques and natural materials to give them a better understanding,” said Singleton, noting that the collaborative aspect of the project was another clear benefit. “I’ve been amazed at how perceptive and responsive these students are.”

Robbie Matthews, a junior art therapy major, called the project “wonderful,” and said her sculpting of a woman with a flower behind her represents her recovery from an auto-immune disease she suffered a few years ago. Matthews said the flower signifies her renewed zest for life. She thinks working on the clay house will help her as she moves forward into her intended career.

Clay House

“This project actually brought me back to my beginnings,” said Matthews, whose art work in the past has included making clay pins depicting women's faces. “I want to be able to incorporate the use of clay into some of my art therapy sessions.”

Stephanie Tompkins, a junior new media major, said of her project, which is an owl and a half moon: “My Grammy has been collecting owls for a long time and I eventually grew into liking them as a kid. Also, here at Cedar Crest College, some of my friends call me ‘Owly’ because my eyes are so big. I had to put in a crescent moon because I love the symbol and it is a beautiful object. The whole process was exciting because we started from scratch. I enjoy that I can now see what everyone’s interests are from the project that we made together.”

Singleton said the clay house could serve as a meeting place for art students, as well as a place to have tea with cups made by ceramics students.