Graduate ceramics student crafts sculptures for MFA group show


Ceramics grad student Ryan Osborne (right) talks with his mother and father, Maureen and William, at the Masters of Fine Arts Show on Thursday evening April 3, 2014.

Audrey Fletcher

In a two-bedroom, one-level house converted into a studio at Ferrum College in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Ryan Osborne created 15 ceramic vessels.

He was participating in a two-week intensive course on ceramics and was excited about the physicality of the medium. He began pushing the boundaries of the clay, creating more dynamic pieces, trying to defy gravity with top-heavy forms.

“I was hooked after that,” Osborne said.

Today, at age 29, Osborne, always clad in jeans and a button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, is a graduate student at Kent State University. At the end of 11 years of schooling, he is one of three ceramics master’s students presenting sculptures at the Masters of Fine Arts Thesis Group Show.

The exhibits opened April 1 in the School of Art Galleries, and a reception was held Thursday.

Involved in art through school all his life, he got serious about it in high school and took every course offered to him in his hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee. He then went to Ferrum College, where he received his bachelor’s in studio art with a concentration in ceramics.

He began working on his MFA show called “Biomorphia” in January.

Four weeks before his show opening, Osborne sits in a narrow aisle in the ceramics lab at Kent State University.

Graduate students each get their own nook within the space. Osborne’s is halfway down the main aisle and it is his home for 12 to 16 hours each day. Everything around him is covered in clay dust.

A worktable sits to the left side of his nook and shelves line the rest. He sits on a stool. The shuffle of people’s feet and the movement of furniture in other nooks fill the space, but the shelves block any view of the other artists. Osborne doesn’t speak to them. He is soft-spoken and shy, focused on his work.

Two large sculptures sit on his dusty table. Each is about two feet tall and is made up of organic curves. They sit on turntables, so he can work on them at any angle.

His pieces are top heavy, with cones and domes jutting off in different directions. He wants each piece to feel intuitive and spontaneous, but with an organic feel. They are biomorphic forms — pieces that suggest the form of living organisms.

Isabel Farnsworth, one of Osborne’s graduate faculty advisers, said people generally respond positively to his work.

“The work is quiet in a way but pulls you in through the power of sculptural form and the engaging surfaces,” Farnsworth said. “The forms create a familiar and comforting feeling. The body is evoked.”

Osborne likens his work to that of artists Jean Hans Arp and Henry Moore. Critics often point the similarities out to him and accuse Osborne of simply copying their work.

“No,” Osborne said. “It’s just similar.”

The bottoms of the two pieces on his desk are wrapped in plastic, in an attempt to keep them moist. He unwraps the plastic and sprays the clay with water.

“Right now the problem I’m having with this piece is the bottom getting too dry before the rest of it because I’m going to have to go back in and start smoothing it out again,” Osborne said.

The successful completion of Osborne’s work is all about timing.

Because each piece is so top-heavy, it is important before he adds additional clay that it is dry enough it won’t snap under the weight, but not so dry he can’t make changes.

Each of these pieces will take him about four days to complete. He works on two at a time, so that he isn’t wasting time as one dries.

When Osborne isn’t in the ceramics lab, he is working in the KSU art gallery or teaching Ceramics I. But this semester, teaching has fallen to the wayside as he’s focused on preparing for the show.

Leading up to the show, Osborne meets with Farnsworth to discuss how he plans to present his pieces. They discuss not only finishes for each piece but also placement of the forms once he gets them to the gallery. How close should the pieces sit? How will the placement affect the feeling of the works? Should each piece have it’s own pedestal or should all of them sit on one shelf?

Farnsworth said Osborne is reserved and quiet, but also thoughtful. She said his strengths are tenacity and excellent craftsmanship.

“And a vocabulary that is unique to him — a language, if you will — that he has created through his work,” Farnsworth said. “A language of beauty and flowing biomorphic form.”

Two weeks before the opening of his show, Osborne has moved his work to the back room of the ceramics lab. He has more space than in his nook, and as he works, a ceramics class listens to music and chats behind him.

Osborne is working on two more large pieces. As he smooths the clay on one of them, he decides he needs to add a bulbous shape to the top of it. He likes to add elements that make each piece more dynamic and accentuate the form he has created.

He draws an outline on the piece where he wants to dome to go, cuts an air hole, and then begins kneading clay to get the air bubbles out. He makes a coil and builds more coils on top of it.

He smooths the inside of the dome as he does this, quickly turning the beehive shape and adding more and more clay. To date, he’s used about 350 pounds of clay on this show.

He scores the edge of the dome with a fork and does the same on his form. He attaches the piece, using his thumb to merge it with the piece. He does this without a hitch.

Another piece with a large cone shape that Osborne created sits off to the side. He’s decided it looks too much like an ice cream cone and that he will scrap it.

As he walks to the kiln to check on some of his other pieces, he carries it with him, getting the beige clay on his black coat. He walks into a room where there is a pile of clay scraps on the floor. He throws the sculpture at the wall, watching it break apart. The clay falls onto the pile beneath it.

He calls this a stress reliever.

He walks to the next room, a cold, dark space where the gas kilns sits. He opens the one that houses the two pieces he was working on two weeks ago and uses a flashlight on his iPhone to see to the back. One of his pieces is cracked at the bottom.

“Well…I didn’t like that one as much,” Osborne said. “I hope the other one is okay.”

The cracked, now unusable, piece means more work for Osborne — he still wants to create as many pieces as possible.

Wasting no time, he closes the door of the kiln and heads back to his workspace.

At the formal reception of his MFA show, Osborne mingles between the 31 pieces he completed. He finished the rough draft of his thesis the night before and had his oral defense that morning.

His work is staged on solid white pedestals; some in clusters, some alone. People congratulate him and tell him his work is marvelous.

Two pieces painted in bright colors stick out from the others. They cracked during the firing process, but Osborne wanted to salvage them.

“I still really liked the forms, but I knew if I would have fired them again the cracks would get worse,” Osborne said.

Other than a few other pieces cracking, Osborne didn’t face any setbacks in the final weeks of preparation. He’s relieved he is finished.

For the rest of the semester, Osborne plans to finish up the paper work for his thesis, look for a teaching job after graduation and keep making more sculptures.

Osborne’s work, along with the work of Shawn Kerns, Junji Miyazawa, and Nick Skowron, can be seen in the School of Art Galleries through April 4.

Contact Audrey Fletcher at [email protected].