No one would have guessed the boy playing in the mud during recess would go to grad school, become an art professor and sell some of his ceramic creations for upwards of $65 each.
“Mud and boys go together,” Professor of art Dr. Philip Dunham, said. “(I) immediately fell in love with mud.”
Dunham has been at the university for the past 22 years. He teaches ceramics I and II, 3D design and sculpture.
“There is a parallel perception in my teaching to address a number of problems that focus on formal and psychological issues while stimulating the students to consider and clarify tactics of learning on their own.”
During the past 10 years, Dunham has been working to perfect a method for creating unique ceramic crosses. Each cross has intricate swirls or flowers. Once the clay has been formed and becomes “bone dry,” it undergoes the firing process that turns the clay into stone.
Dunham said, “When you fire, if you don’t use your technique properly, things can go wrong.”
Five pieces Dunham donated were auctioned during family weekend. The $245 raised went to the Crusader Parent Organization, which purchases items such as the big screen TVs in the Mabee Student Center for the use of students.
Administrative assistant of Student Affairs Joy Childress said, “To me, (the crosses) make me think of how God is with us. We’re all cracked clay in His hands, and He can take something that is cracked and make something unique and beautiful out of it.”
The most common problems in the process are when air bubbles are captured within the clay, or when the clay is too thick or too wet when it is fired.
“It will explode … and you will lose your pieces,” Dunham said.
When he began making ceramic crosses, he was trying to better his own skills. Because the firing process is particularly risky, he had to learn to take chances.
“The technique I had to study on several different types of approaches … in order to see what my percentage of danger would be in firing.”
Students in Dunham’s ceramics class agree that the technique takes time to develop.
Senior psychology major Meghan Bray said, “So far, my favorite piece to do is the cross. It’s so hard, but it still looks kind of cool … when it’s not sitting next to Dr. Dunham’s.”
Sometimes molding the clay takes patience.
“It’s very frustrating when you have an image in your head, and you can’t make your clay look like that image,” Bray said. “I imagine that it’s very frustrating when your sculptures blow up in the kiln.”
Making a single piece can take several days from designing the work, molding the clay and waiting for it to dry only to risk it all during the firing process.
“There’s no guarantee that they’ll make it … because you have to fire them twice,” he said. “The first firing turns them to stone. The second firing is the glaze firing.”
Each of the firings is a 12-hour cycle with a 12-hour cooling cycle before and after.
“So you have 48 hours just in the firing,” Dunham said.
Senior art major Joshua Newman said, “I actually like watching him make them. That’s more interesting to me .… The way he does it is really interesting.”
The thrill of constructing is what keeps sophomore art major Krista Troy going.
“I love the feeling that you’re actually creating something,” she said, “I just love it. I guess that’s the art major coming out.”
From molding clay to hardened stone to the beautiful glazed finish —it is a wild ride.
“(It) is that edgy feeling you get when you did it. It’s kind of nice actually, but it’s scary,” Dunham said.
When creating ceramics, people have to be willing to risk the clay mold in the fire.
“If they come out, so be it. If they don’t, I don’t live in the past or the future too much, anyway,” Dunham said. “I’ll go ahead and live with it and just do another one.”