Oral History Interview with Wayne Ferguson Part I

Kentucky Historical Society


Transcript Index

Search This Index
Go X

0:21 - Early life and exposure to the arts / University of Kentucky

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: anthropology; Appalachia; archeologist; army; ceramics; Chattanooga (TN); Cincinnati (OH); clay; Corbin(KY); divorce; english; Eva Henkle; G.I. bill; Great Britain; John Dorwin; John Tuska; New Jersey; polymer clay; special education; University of Kentucky

7:40 - Building kilns / Other potters at UK / Teaching workshops

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Adrian Swain; art education; David Middlebrook; Fenland school; kiln; Rob Barnard; Ronald Knight; teacher; workshops

11:18 - Influence of travel

15:41 - Artistic career / Aesthetic style

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: animals; apartheid; ceramics; function; Gary Larsen; gender; history; Kim Jong Il; social commentary; South Africa

22:01 - Influence and content of work

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Africa; animals; Berea College; Campton (KY); clay whistles; Edgar Tolson; Noah's Ark; ocarina; woodcarver

27:19 - Studio and process

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Brian Newton; coil; Louisville Clay Club; Nancy Smith; pinch; slab; wood fire kiln

33:22 - Technique and exhibits / Commissions

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Al Shands; Berea art fair; glaze; Japan; Japanese technique; Mary Shands

36:20 - Promoting work / Recognition / Social commentary

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Germany; Noah's Ark; O.J. Simpson; politics; religion; Rude Osolnik; Rude Osolnik Award; terrorism; website

41:55 - Rude Osolnik / Involvement with arts organization

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Berea (KY); Berea craft fair; Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen; Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft; Louisville Clay Club; Louisville Stoneware; poplar; wood carver; woodcarving

48:10 - Family support of artistic career

49:29 - Kentucky Guild

Play segment Segment link

Keywords: Indian Fort Theater; Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen; Rude Osolnik

57:13 - Mass production


WILLIHNGANZ: Okay. This is Greg Willihnganz interviewing Wayne Ferguson at his studio in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday, September 19th, 2008, for the Kentucky Craft History and Education Association. Good afternoon, sir.

FERGUSON: Good afternoon.

WILLIHNGANZ: Can you in one brief statement perhaps, give me an overview of what it is you do?

FERGUSON: Well, I’m primarily a clay artist. That’s my media of choice and always has been ever since I was a kid. My mother would make this modeling clay concoction for my brother and I. It was flour, salt, blue food coloring, and cream of tartar. And so, it was something that I could control and there weren’t many things I could control back then, so I stuck with it for ever since I was a kid. I’ve been consistently working in clay as a professional probably for 35 years or so.

WILLIHNGANZ: Wow. Tell me about your childhood, growing up and were you born here. Are you from…?

FERGUSON: No. I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Most of my family were from Tennessee or Eastern Kentucky or Southern Ohio. They were all Appalachian people who migrated to where the jobs were, up around Cincinnati, some of them, but my father was in the Army so we traveled around a bunch. Lived in Hawaii and Germany and all over the United States and Fort Irwin, California. And my mother was British, and when my parents divorced, we ended up in Northern Kentucky. That’s where my father’s mother lived, my grandmother. And so, that’s pretty much it. I’ve been a Kentucky boy since I was about ten, so.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay, and what brought you to Kentucky?

FERGUSON: Well, the, the disillusion of my parents’ marriage. My father was stationed in New Jersey, and so he loaded us all up on a big truck and there was a platter in there that says, ‘Welcome to Corbin, Kentucky,’ ‘cause that’s kind of where we ended up. We ended up in, up in Northern Kentucky. So, he just more or less dumped us off and started his new life.

WILLIHNGANZ: Wow. Tell me about your early education and any career choices you had other than art.

FERGUSON: Oh, yeah. I’ve done a number of things. No career choices though, except art. I’ve always known that that’s what I was going to be; and I’ve washed dishes in Alfalfa’s in Lexington, and I’ve cut tons of tobacco, and put up hay and, and carpentry work. I worked as an archaeologist in Arizona for a couple of years but, pretty much my career choice was determined I guess early on when I realized that you know, I was a creative person. I had some really strong influences in high school. I had an art teacher who, her name was Eva Hinkle, and she basically turned me around from a kid who was a runaway car thief…you know, always on probation, in trouble, in detention homes, and she finally got to me to the point where I had my third chance. And I was just about ready to get sent off to, at that time, to the big reform school outside of Lexington…was called Kentucky Village…and she went to the Judge’s house that evening, unbeknownst to me, and knocked on his door and said, ‘Judge Jolly, you don’t know me. I’m Eva Hinkle. I teach art over at Belleview High School and I’m just gonna beg you not to send this kid to Kentucky Village.’ And he gave me a fourth chance. And through her, you know, she would take my pieces and submit then to the scholastic art programs…the exhibits that they have…and she basically took a very destructive, confused kid and sort of brought out the, the constructive, creative aspects that she knew were there. But you know, she…this was her job…and I’ve got a report card over here that she sent me with some clay tools about four years ago, and she had kept that report card for years. But, I made straight A’s and she was just real proud of me, so.

WILLIHNGANZ: So, what motivated your interest in your craft?

FERGUSON: Well, I think clay, that was always what I wanted to do, but then I, I was going to UK on the GI Bill…and back in the 60’s…and I walked through the Fine Arts Building. I had a friend who was making pots and I was just fascinated by that. John Tuska was the teacher and I never took a class from him, and I was actually never enrolled as an art student. I was a special Ed major and an English major. And anyway, I saw this person making pots and I ended up getting a work study position working for John Tuska, cleaning kiln shelves, and sweeping up the studio, and sitting in the gallery and just, you know, just simple things…and just all of a sudden I was surrounding by clay, wheels, people making sculpture, Tuska making figurative pieces and beautiful pots. And I also took an anthropology class. And it was intro to anthropology class. It was taught by a guy by the name of John Dorwin. I’ll never forget him. And it was a survey class. You know, you’re sitting there with 250 people in an auditorium bored to death and I had started making pots, hand built pots that were very primitive and I brought one in to show him one day. I said, ‘You know, I’m really trying to figure this out for myself. I want to figure out how to make pots like Native Americans made pots right here. I want to dig clay; I want to fire them with wood. I want…want them to be as traditional as possible.’ So he gave me a book and he said, ‘I tell you what. If you bring your pieces in and talk to me periodically, and don’t just flake out, you don’t have to come back to class.’ He said, ‘I will give you an A,’ he said, ‘but you have to prove yourself to me by, by not taking this, you know, opportunity and just kind of snuffling off.’ So, I would bring the pieces in and he’d talked to me about it and I got an A. So, that was really kind of a neat thing I thought.

WILLIHNGANZ: Have you worked in other media?

FERGUSON: Well, yeah. I paint a little bit; I do some mixed media sculptures. I do polymer clay pieces that are, you know…range from little self-portraits to little Ennis and Edna Clanihan, and two strippers in front of Boots Bar and Grill back in 1963 back in Lexington so. But yeah, I pretty much stick with clay that has to be fired. And in, to be more specific, I’m really into clay that has to be fired with wood. Going back to the more traditional ways of doing things.

WILLIHNGANZ: Name some, well; you’ve already talked about some significant teachers who contributed to your work. Did you apprentice with anyone?

FERGUSON: No, I didn’t. Actually, what happened was, at UK, a guy came in fresh out of graduate school. His name was David Middlebrook, and the first thing he wanted to do was build some kilns, which meant we had to go to Morehead. We went through the brickyards and salvaged a bunch of brick and, we started building some kilns that were rather large. They were oil fire, gas fire kilns. But there was a hardcore group of people. Rob Barnard who is from Mount Sterling, ended up going to Japan. He’s got a couple of NEA grants; a great guy. Ronald Knight, who is from Iowa, who I built kilns with for 35 years now. Adrian Swain, who’s a curator of the folk art museum, and a couple of other people. But we were the hardcore potters and so we worked together for probably about two years, and that’s all we did, was make pots. And lots of them. Big ones, small ones. And we would start going to some of the local craft fairs and kind of realized we could, you know, make a little money, so. That was the beginning.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay, so how much have others really contributed to the knowledge of your craft?

FERGUSON: I would say, you know, most of what I learned was pretty much through trial and error, building kilns, building kilns that didn’t work so well. But most of it was, was what you would call seat of the pants. Really didn’t take any clay classes to speak of at UK. They had a little, sort of unofficial group of clay people who kicked in some money and they got to use the studio, so, but I really didn’t take any, you know upper level art classes or clay classes. I took a drawing class and maybe a wood sculpting class but that was about it.

WILLIHNGANZ: Have you had any continuing education experiences like workshops or a week or two at a specialized art institute?

FERGUSON: I have taught numerous workshops. [Unintelligible] School a couple of times, workshops in elementary schools, high schools, you know, senior citizen programs. That, that kind of started back in 1974 and it just kept, it just kept sort of compounding. As you would teach a workshop, the word would get out and then you would be approached about another workshop. I was artist in education through the state arts council for about four years. I was placed in a school system in Western Kentucky in Marshall County for a couple of years, and eventually ended up working in two juvenile treatment centers in Eastern Kentucky: Morehead Treatment Center for Girls and Woodbend Boys Camp for boys in Corbin County. That has been really the focus for me. I’m probably 50 percent artist, as far as my time goes, and 50 percent teacher. Never got a degree, but I’ve managed to, to…through the years establish myself as a…as a teacher, and so the degree has really not been…it’s not been of any consequence not to have it. I would have liked to have, but it just never panned out for me so.

WILLIHNGANZ: Have you traveled either in this country or internationally, and if so, what impact has that had on your life and your work?

FERGUSON: Well, all the traveling I did as a kid, you know, with my father in the military. That was pretty, pretty major because we lived in the desert…the desert of California for eighteen months, and then I would end up living with my Aunt Audrey again in Williamsburg for a year while my dad was stationed somewhere else. But as an adult, being in the military I traveled, but after that, I think probably my biggest influence was I had some friends in Arizona, and I traveled out there and visited some potters in Mexico. A month in Ortiz, Mexico and there was one potter down there who in the 60’s started to teach himself to make pots. His name was Juan [unintelligible] and he couldn’t read or write so he would find these pot shards out in the field and he taught himself….

WILLIHNGANZ: He found pot….

FERGUSON: Broken pieces of pottery.

WILLIHNGANZ: Oh, shards. Okay.

FERGUSON: Yeah, and he would…he would…he was determined to teach himself how to make these pots and fire them, and he did successfully, and he was discovered by a guy, Spencer McCallum, who set up a kind of a…a foundation to foster Juan and…and keep him from making pots that ended up in like the second-hand stores and stuff, and that’s where they were. He found them in [unintelligible] New Mexico and he approached Juan and said, ‘Juan, if you would, let me buy all your pieces. Let me give you a stipend. Don’t make your pieces and take them to these places. Your work needs to be…you know…your work is really developing and…and this will give you the freedom to experiment and you wont’ have to…won’t have to cross the border with these pots. You know. I’ll take care of them.’ And he did. Well, and I went to visit Juan a couple times, and he had taught his brothers and his daughter, and his sisters, and his aunts, and his immediate family how to make the pots. Where to dig the clay, what minerals to grind up to, to paint on the pots, and we fired with cow manure, and they, they really took a shine to me because when I dumped out my little bag of tools I had pretty much the same tools that Juan had. Some polishing stones and some gourd scrapers and so I got along really well. But that was a major influence to go down there and, you know, I only went down there twice…never stayed for any longer than about ten days, but as I said, made a lasting impression on me. And then while I was down there I made some connections with a group of people at the University of Arizona. They were very intrigued by what I was doing because, you know, I could go out to one of those washes out there…one of these arroyos, and find clay and mix it with whatever materials I needed to to make it workable, and make and fire pieces that looked very much like the pieces that were made by the indigenous people that lived out there…the Pre-Columbian culture, the [unintelligible]. And I could also do some of the cliff dwelling type pots, the corrugated pots made from small coils. But, but that led on to…making those connections led on to being hired as a, as an archaeological assistant, which mainly meant pick and shovel work. But once you start, then they start teaching you more, and it got to the point where I could excavate and do all the drawings and measuring and catalog all the artifacts, and know what they were. But my skills as a ceramic artist…every time we would go to another site, I could usually take a hike, maybe go two miles and find a clay source. And I could make pots that, that looks so much like what we were unearthing, and I gained a lot of respect from the archaeologists who were out here. I, you know, I could go out there tomorrow and get a job.

WILLIHNGANZ: Tell me, if you can about the, the sort of arc of development of your career.

FERGUSON: Well, you know, its one of these things where, when you start out and you’re young, often times you’re very opinionated…very opinionated. So for me it was like I didn’t want to make work to sell. I didn’t sign my work. I would stay away from commercial glazes, you know. I had tunnel vision. You know, everything had to be pure. It had to be clay that was dug and fired in a pit, and I never had any money, and never had an electric kiln…and this went on for probably a dozen years and then eventually it was like, I needed color, you know. I’m making these urns and animals, and then I had to get an electric kiln and go to glazes that are commercial; and then after trying to figure out how to sell my work and I would say that, you know, it was almost, kinda like a complete turn around. I still do not sign my work. I figure, you know, that I’ve made enough stuff that people who know me know my pieces, but I’d say right now, the…my, my reputation as an artist as also been sort of a [unintelligible]. I will make, you know…I won’t hesitate to touch on sensitive subjects. You know, I’ll make a piece about the OJ Simpson trial. I’ll make a piece about global warming. I’ll make a piece about, you know, murder and mayhem and death and destruction because I feel like, you know, if you’re an artist you have, you have an audience and the audience can be, it can be expanded more if you’re, if you’re not just making pots. So for me, I eventually had to, to kind of delve into the scenarios or narrative pieces that, you know are, basically me expressing things that are going on around me and listening to NPR, you know, reading about the murder a young girl in Indiana in the paper. And so, these things, you know, they come through and they kind of stew in my brain for a while and eventually I’ll, I’ll get around to making a, an object that more or less has the elements of, of the whole story, so to speak.

WILLIHNGANZ: Does the function of objects play a part in your work?

FERGUSON: Yeah, it does. I don’t really make a lot of what you would call tableware, but I do like, I do like those kinds of pots and I really respect potters who make really comfortable pieces and they don’t have to be flashy, you know. I like subtle, wood-fired pieces, but for me, function is pretty much secondary. I’d say, for me it’s…I have to sacrifice functionality in the number of my pieces especially if they’re in animal forms, so they’ll be what they call reference vessels. You’ll have a spout and a handle but you would never pour any liquid out of there or drink out of it. But, that’s kind of what they are. They’re more about the form than the function.

WILLIHNGANZ: Clearly your work contains a lot of messages about gender, about historical events and all of these sorts of things. How do you make those decisions or what makes you attracted to particular topics?

FERGUSON: You know, it’s, it’s really hard to say. I mean, there’s so many things, you know, that, that will sort of kind of trip that little switch, but often times it has to have a little bit of humor. I did a series of chess sets about twelve years ago and one of them was arctic animals verses jungle animals and, but I made another chess set and it was about [unintelligible] and so each character had their opposite. So you had the, the white South African in his bush hat and khakis and then opposite him was the black African, and he had on camo and an AK-47. And but anyway, what happened was, I could have made this a very disturbing piece but I didn’t. The most disturbing aspect about this piece was the fact that the pawns were all school children. And they were holding hands, reaching out…they had soccer balls…they had books. And you know, they were not gonna confront one another but the people that were behind them were sort of instigating this whole sort of oppositional, antagonistic mindset. But for me, like Kim Jung Il for instance…or Little Ennis. I like characters who can…I can make a, a piece that…it’s almost like a, my version of a Gary Larson cartoon perhaps. You know it’s…they’re exaggerated features and some humor involved, but I try not to be too, too heavy-handed. I like my pieces to have just a little bit of humor involved even though the subject may be disturbing and serious.

FERGUSON: What would you say are the major influences on the content of your work?

WILLIHNGANZ: Well, you know, its history, personal experience, you know, what’s going on in, in contemporary society. I got a piece sitting over there right now. It’s been…I’ve had it for probably 20 years. It’ll never sell, but you know, its just over there, and its this sort of temple, and its got a bunch of little objects glued to it…broken pieces of pottery from the southwest and skulls, and snakes and, and then there’s a couple of dead horses laying on their side with vultures, and around the base of the piece are a bunch of little Indians that look like they’re sleeping. They’re kinda laying down, but if you look really closely, some of them are missing their hands and their feet, and the title of the piece is Hernando Cortez Slept Here. So, I can take something like that and create an object that, you know, that, if you just, if you couldn’t read the title, a lot of people wouldn’t know what it was. But every now and then you find somebody who it really clicks and they go, I know, I know what that piece is about. But yeah, yeah, for me, a lot of times it can go back years. You know. It can be something, you know, about an incident that occurred in history two, three hundred years ago, or it can be something that happened yesterday.

WILLIHNGANZ: What…how has your work content changed over time?

FERGUSON: Well, it went from the beginning, pretty much vessel oriented, hand-built pots, harkening back to the, the cultures that made pots without a wheel…African cultures. I, I witnessed an African woman, touring this country at Berea college. I’ve got a picture on the door. Her name was Lottie Koally. And we all went down there and she built this, just magnificent jar using traditional techniques, and I was just, just, you know, captivated by that. So that’s what I try to do. I tried to make hand-built pots and I did that for a number of years and then I, I got to meet and to know Edgar Tollson, a wood carver from Campton, Kentucky, and I started making animals, and they were real little pinched animals. They were so basic but I just really…I, I saw his carvings and I knew that I wanted to do more than the vessels and so then my pots became anthropomorphic, you know. The vessels became the animals, but in the beginning they were just little hand-built sculptures probably no bigger than six or seven inches. And so, you know, what happened, you know, the contact with Edgar kind of led me to a direction that, you know, it kind, it kinda compounds itself. Its like, if I make five different animals, why can’t I make a Noah’s ark? And, I’ve done that…with seventy-five pairs of animals. And the other thing about animals too, my trademark for probably, well since about 1974, has been the little ocarinas, the clay whistles that you pick up and blow into, and you can play music. And so I’ve made a couple of Noah’s arks that were whistles. All the animals were little clay flutes. And then, you know, if I make a traditional Noah’s Ark, the one that we all think about that’s in the Bible, then why couldn’t I make a Native American Noah’s ark shaped like a canoe, you know? They have their own flood myth, and so then all the animals would be North American animals. They’d be bears and armadillos, and beaver, and elk, and coyotes, and wolves, and raccoons, and opossums so, I, I did that and then some other things. The influence from Edgar would be…I’ve done three vessels that were Daniel and the lion’s den. Vessels where, as I constructed the piece with coils…I would build on the inside, the lions den, palm trees going up the inside of the pot and I would make all these lions, and Daniel, and rocks, and little urns that I could put in there after it was fired. But it would all be viewed from little windows that I cut into the side of the pot. So you’d look through little windows and often times you’d see the person across from you looking through the window and I would make them in such a way that I would have these little, little birds perched in the trees, in the palm trees and a little protrusion would come through the pot and I would kind of carve ‘blow here’ and you would blow into it and the bird that was in the tree would whistle. So, but those were the kind of as a result of contact with Edgar, the Biblical theme.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay. This is your working environment right here, as well as your showcase?

FERGUSON: Pretty much. Yeah. Right now I’ve been working on a big wood kiln out in Oldham County. It’s taken me…I’ve been working on, about a month straight but I teach out there. We’ve got some students we’ve been working with, Bryan Newton and myself, we’ve got some students we’ve worked with for about ten years and some of them are in their 80s. And they come there every day. Actually one of them’s gonna have a one-person show at Louisville Stoneware in November. Her name is Nancy Smith and she just turned 80 and she is so excited about having this show. She’s just done some incredible work. But no, this is, this is my studio. It’ll range from a place where I do clay work to a place where I do some woodwork in order to build a foundation for a clay mural that I would hang on the walls so, this is my working space.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay, well, I want to take a little walking tour, but maybe later on. Let’s do some more of these. Do you use any, unusual techniques, have you evolved any unique processes?

FERGUSON: No, not really. Not really. I think probably the, the process that I’m most in tune with is the firing with wood and that is like, it’s almost like alchemy, you know. It’s something that you have to develop an eye and then a nose for, and you have to listen to the kilns, and you have to understand your wood, and which wood is the best wood that, you know…how finely it has to be split and you know, you have to keep your driest wood, you know, for the end of the firing. And you have to look at the smoke. And you can determine if you’re smoking too heavily and the atmosphere of the kiln will tell you when you need to let it clear out. It’s just…firing a wood kiln is alive. It’s like, I have, in my history, a number of my father’s relatives were river men. They were riverboat pirates and riverboat captains. And I know for fact, one of them, who was a sargeant in the 5th Tennessee Mountain Rifles from Chattanooga, was a riverboat captain. His name was Benjamin H. Ferguson and when I’m firing that wood kiln that’s almost the same process that he would have used when he was, his men were stoking the boiler to make that paddle wheeler go all the way up the Cumberland River to Burkesville. You know, it’s the same kind of thing. These people who did that kind of work, they knew their wood, they knew their, their, they knew about heat and fire and high temperatures, and so for me that wood kiln is like, you know, its almost like that Scottish Benjamin Ferguson who came over who was a blacksmith who begat Benjamin Ferguson, the riverboat pilot, who begat Thomas Ferguson the riverboat Captain or whatever. Well, here I am and I’m still that, I’m a continuation of that. The fire and the clay are like the fire and the iron that my great, great, great grandfather dealt with back in you know, North Carolina before they migrated to Tennessee.

WILLIHNGANZ: Wow. Do you work alone, or with others?

FERGUSON: I work in my studio alone but I love working with other people. It just excites me to no end to have two or three or maybe four potters…maybe teaching a workshop and sharing ideas and that’s the thing about the wood kiln. A wood kiln, the size of the wood kiln that I’m building, requires a team of people to fire it. And you’ll have fifteen, twenty people. They’ll all have pieces in the kiln. They’re all responsible for pulling a shift or two. They’re responsible for splitting and stacking wood. Early on, anybody who has an instrument will sit and play. I have a mandolin and a banjo and a Dobro and I’m not very good, but I can kind of pick a long so it’s a social event. But you know, most of the potters that are around here are studio potters. They work alone. But we have a strong community and we all get together and a lot of the people I know who are…who are studio potters don’t have teaching positions, you know. They’re not working at a university and they don’t have the support system that you would have necessarily if you were in a university situation, so we have to form our own support system, which is, in this case, the Louisville Clay Club. Probably about close to a hundred members. They range from, you know, beginners to master potters, you know. We all kind of support one another; help each other out, share ideas.

WILLIHNGANZ: What kind of tools do you use? Do you have a potter’s wheel at all?

FERGUSON: I don’t work on a potter’s wheel. Most of my pots are hand-built, coil-built, pinched…some slab work. I will think about a piece in my mind…and I’ve done this before where I will think about a piece a couple, three years before I make it. But what I do is, I visualize the piece. I visualize how big the piece is going to be, and when I know how big the piece is going to be then I know basically what, what process or tools you know, I need to do…to use to make the piece. But they’re all what they would call…you would call hand-built. I do throw on the wheel occasionally, and I’d like to throw more but I…I really…I really like to just handle the clay as it is rather than put it on a machine that spins.

WILLIHNGANZ: What effect has technology had on either your work or your work process?

FERGUSON: Well, as far as technology goes, most of the technology that…that…you know…I kind of get involved with, would be maybe some of the newer commercial glazes that kind of almost resemble [unintelligible] wood pottery glazes and art deco glazes. They really work well on some of my pieces. But that’s probably where I draw the line. There isn’t a whole lot of technology when it comes to firing with wood that’s new. It’s pretty much the same thing, you know. It’s a kiln design that was used in Japan, you know, 700 years ago, and same firing process. The same results more or less.

WILLIHNGANZ: Do you exhibit your work?

FERGUSON: I do. I used to try and exhibit in a lot of sort of juried shows. I’ve only really dealt with probably five galleries my whole life. I just…the marketing thing, the, you know…I’ve, I’ve dealt with some galleries that really don’t want to handle the more controversial pieces. They would prefer that I made lots and lots of small ocarinas that they could sell and, you know, its just one of those things were as years go by, I’ve taught more and exhibited less and dealt with galleries more infrequently…and I’m real comfortable with that. I’m very comfortable with that. I can make what I want to make and we have a couple of sales, the Clay Club. We have one in November and one in the summer, and I do maybe one in my hometown and that’s about it. I’m, I’m content to not have that pressure of making pieces to sell. I’ve got pieces that’ll never sell and that’s okay. Maybe my son or daughter will appreciate them, you know, when I’m dead and gone. You know, they’ll still be around.

WILLIHNGANZ: Do you work on commissions?

FERGUSON: I do some commissions. Uh, huh. Yeah. That doesn’t happen very often. I did some really good collections. Al and Mary Shands, the Reverend Shands, probably has the best ceramic collection I would say in, well in the Midwest for sure. But he started his whole ceramic collection with a piece he bought from me at a Berea fair in about 1975. But, you know, it’s just, you know, its…commissions are few and far between. They really are.

WILLIHNGANZ: How much do you promote and sell your work?

FERGUSON: Very little. Very little. My daughter put up a website about a year ago and that’s pretty much it. You know, I don’t have studio hours, you know. It’s by appointment only. This is, you know, kind of my little retreat, so to speak and, you know, I just really would prefer to be back in there working and not have to open the door and sell things. So…and usually when I come back from a fair, I’ll go through and take all the stickers, the price stickers off of these pieces, ‘cause I just don’t…I like for people to be able to look in the window or knock on the door and I’ll open it. But, you know, I just don’t want to…I don’t want it to be a retail business. I’m just not into that.

WILLIHNGANZ: What recognition have you gotten for your work?

FERGUSON: Well, let’s see. I got an Al Smith Fellowship about 1984…an Early Times Fellowship a few years ago. I was awarded the Rude Osolnik Award two years ago. That was a big one ‘cause I knew Rude personally and the other recipients are just the, the highest quality individuals who make the highest quality work, who have made supreme contributions to the craft world in this state. So to get that award was probably the highlight of my career. I had a retrospective at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in ‘94 and that was more or less what, master makers so it’s kind of an unofficial recognition of me as a master craftsman. I traveled to Mainz, Germany, twice as part of the Louisville sister cities program. And got to work with another potter over there named [unintelligible]. I worked actually…both visits I worked in an after school program for kids just for the hell of it and so…but the whole program there was called, [unintelligible] or Art in the Streets, Art in the City…and there were artists from all of the sister cities, Spain and France and Russia and then of course Louisville. So those are just some of, some of the recognitions. I think, I never really sought like international or national recognition. You know, I’m, I’m content to be, you know…to have some sort of status amongst my peers that, where they respect me and accept all the hard work that I’ve done as a positive and a good thing. But as far as like, major name recognition? Nah. Although I’m in some books. I’ve got a teapot that traveled you know, extensively…was in a major exhibition. I’ve had pieces exhibited in, you know, the LA Folk Museum and just a lot of different places. But, you know, as far as my personal, the personal recognition…its like…regional and state is good enough for me.

WILLIHNGANZ: When you’ve gotten commissions, are they commissions to do socially, social statement type…?

FERGUSON: Nope, never. Nope, never. Usually it’s something like a Noah’s ark, or a Daniel in the lion’s den, or some animal form, or maybe a cremation vessel for somebody’s dog. I’ve done a few of those. But no, the political things are, you know…I make those and in general it’s just a matter of time before somebody you know, tunes into it.

WILLIHNGANZ: How much trouble have you gotten into making social commentary…?

FERGUSON: Not much. I have made some pieces that you know, probably would not have been exhibited had I not put my foot down and said, ‘If this doesn’t go in the show you’ll never see my work again.’ One of those would have been the OJ Simpson piece which was a, a bust of OJ with a whole lot of references to murder scenes. And then there were four characters that were standing there in business suits with their hand held out holding a briefcase, and they were all lawyers. And I cut a slot in the back of each of them for coins. But the heads were all pigs and jackals and ravens, and, you know…so that was one piece that might have stirred up a little controversy. I made a couple pieces recently that was that were about, about terrorism, and religion and you know, those, those kind of at times will…somebody will say maybe we shouldn’t put this out for the public to see and I’ve, you know…I’ve, you know…you see things on TV all the time and its all sensationalized. I can’t see a static object really being that offensive most of the time.

WILLIHNGANZ: Tell me about Rude Osolnik.

FERGUSON: Well, Rude was a really interesting guy. He…you know, of course he was from the Berea area. He was a wood turner. His tools, his materials, you know, were you know, fairly simple, and he specialized on…you know…working on the lathe. But, the thing about Rude was he was just so open and supportive and willing to talk to you. He always took the time, at like Berea Craft Fairs, to come by and visit. And he was all about preserving this heritage that we have in this state of…and it…it goes back to just the way people lived, you know. If you lived in Estill County on Furnace Mountain Road in 1935, chances are good you plucked a goose for goose down for a quilt. The quilt was made from clothes, old clothes that were cut up. If you needed a dipper, you grew dipper gourds. If you needed a bowl or a large pan to, to put bread dough in to rise, you carved it out of poplar and so, all these things that were hand- crafted, even though they were simple objects and simple processes. You look at them and they’re sculptured, they’re beautiful, you know. Those big bread rising trays that are carved out of poplar are just exquisite, and you can see all of the tool marks and the way the person hewed the piece out of a solid piece of wood. Well, Rude was, Rude. Sorry. Okay. [Telephone rang]. Well, once again Rude kind of, he was a continuation of that whole honest craft aesthetic, you know. Things that were made by, by people who were skilled but they were not necessarily part of the academia, for instance. But, you know, he was well-versed in all of the terms that you would use to describe a beautiful crafted object. But I think the thing that most people understood about Rude was his approachability, you know. The fact that, you know, he…he would…like I said…he would just take the time. He would come by and visit everybody at the craft fair and he always, always had time to, to listen and to, to give you advice. And you look at his pieces and…you know…you see that here’s a person…and it doesn’t happen with every craftsperson. Here’s a person who, who understood the wood. Who saw the things in the wood before they were probably even put on the lathe, you know. He could determine by observing a, a piece of wood that came off a big knotty…off a gum tree. He would probably in his mind, you know, visualize that piece and pretty much know that that piece of wood was going to be made for a specific thing, you know. But he really knew his materials. He really…it was really connected with his materials and you know, I just never saw anything that Rude did that, that was, sort of jumped on any kind of a bandwagon, you know. Being influenced by something that was sort of contemporary and hot, as they say, and cutting edge, you know, he, he never needed to go there. Never.

WILLIHNGANZ: What organizations do you belong to, art organizations?

FERGUSON: Well, I, I used to be a member of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. I’m a member of the Louisville Clay Club. I’m a member of the Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts and other than that, that’s about it.

WILLIHNGANZ: Are you active in those organizations?

FERGUSON: To a point, yeah, I am. I’m gonna be kind of…I’m gonna be the person who’s going to be organizing and, and sort of guiding a group of non-clay artists through a, a dinner works show that’s going to be at Louisville Visual Arts Association. But what makes this more unique is we’re going to be going down to Louisville Stoneware and using their materials and their forms, and trying to make pieces that are really different from what they normally make at Louisville Stoneware. So that’s going to be coming up in January. We should…we’ll probably be getting started pretty soon, but that’s, ah…but I’ve curated a few shows. But you know, most of what, you know, my connection with most of these organizations will be when we get together for our…for our summer and our fall sale which is…the fall sales right across the street at the Clifton Center and just kind of, you know, whatever tasks I’m assigned, you know, we all share. That’s about it really. I’m not a member of the National Ceramic Educators Association, you know. I don’t go to any of the sort of job market events that are…if you have a master’s degree of a BFA, since I don’t. I don’t come through that sort of a system. There’s, you know, some of the organizations that one would normally be associated with if they were teaching in a university, I really have no connection with.

WILLIHNGANZ: Have you family been pretty supportive of your art?

FERGUSON: Yeah, very much so. My mother was always supportive. My father took a while for him, you know. He was a product of the depression and you know…hardscrabble. You know, Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky environment where he was passed around, you know, when he was a kid. Basically he was, you know, a warm body that they could work as hard as they wanted to, but he, he would have preferred early on that I found a vocation where I could have made a lot of money, cause, you come from the depression, money and objects are pretty important and you know, that was…when I see my father now, I know he’s really proud of what I’ve done. But it took him quite a while to figure that out. Now, my brother, on the other hand, he, he was an artist too, but he, he worked heavy equipment. He was a crane rigger and finally when he retired, which was just a few years ago, he became a woodworker. He makes birdhouses, and bat boxes, and little Japanese tables, and he grows bonsai trees…and so, yeah, my family has been very supportive.

WILLIHNGANZ: That’s great. Let me ask you just a few questions about the Kentucky Guild for Artists and Craftsmen. How long were you a member of that?

FERGUSON: Well, I was a member probably for…I’d say about…probably close to ten years and they, they had a gallery in Lexington, and then they had a show twice a year at the Indian Fort Theater, which I just really loved. We would all go down there and it was almost like family get togethers. Then they quit having it at the Indian Fort Theater and I just kind of fell out. It just wasn’t…it just didn’t have the appeal it had early on for me. So, then I have felt really badly because, you know, I really should continue to support that organization. It’s a great organization. There’s some really good craftspeople that are you know, involved with it.

WILLIHNGANZ: Has it helped your career?

FERGUSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, well, yeah. It sure did you know. I mean, just…it was kind of the sounding board to whether or not people wanted to have my objects. And, I was making these ocarinas and selling them for like $5 a piece, and basically firing them in a hole in the ground with wood and you know, I just couldn’t believe I could come back from a three day event at Indian Ford Theater with $500. It was like, oh, my gosh, you know, we can, we can live. .

WILLIHNGANZ: Was this formative for you in terms of being a new artist, being able to connect with the community you hadn’t connected with before?


WILLIHNGANZ: Yeah, being part of the….

FERGUSON: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, for one thing, it’s a juried organization and this is, this is a funny, funny story. This is directly, has, you know, its all about Rude. The first time I got…I submitted to the, the organization, the, the Guild, I got a letter back saying, ‘You’re work is inconsistent, erratic and doesn’t appear to be done by the same person.’ And I was absolutely furious. But I was no more than a student, and there were a number of us who were basically students and, you know, they made the right decision. You know…it’s like…but I couldn’t see that…you know, ‘cause I was…you know…once again I was kind of…had tunnel vision and all this other stuff. And I waited awhile and then I submitted and I got in. But it…between that time I ran into Rude and man, I just let him have it. I said, ‘What’s the matter with these people, Rude? Now here I am, you know, they’re accusing me of submitting someone else’s work aren’t they?’ And he says, ‘No, they’re not. That’s not it at all.’ He said, ‘You know, you’re trying a lot of different things and you submitted, you know, several pieces that just didn’t relate to one another.’ He said, ‘You know, work on a series of pieces where, you know, you can…you can see the progression…you know…that they can really understand…you know…that you’re kind of…you’re problem solving and…you know…you’re making a piece and not resolving all of the, the questions about that piece on that piece. You’ve got to make another one where the first piece is just a lesson to make the second piece better, and then a third piece is the combination of what you’ve learned on the first two pieces, and then you get to about six of those pieces,’ he said, ‘then you’ll have two that are really good, maybe one.’ But that was…that was how Rude thought.

WILLIHNGANZ: Mmm, hmm. Wow. Have you seen a lot of changes in the craft world over the years you’ve been involved with it?

FERGUSON: I Have. I’ve seen a lot of potters and I’ve seen a lot of potters come and go. Some, some recently. The potters here, I think that you know, were such a strong influence by the, Tom and Ginny Marsh down at U of L, so Louisville has just a, a fairly large community of clay artists. But I’ve seen a lot of, a lot of really good, young clay artists develop in very…you know…just, amazing processes and finishes and sculptural pieces. And you know, I’m coming from a hollow form, coil builder background. Some of the pieces that I see that are being made now are just phenomenal. Very complicated, time spent, museum pieces, basically, but, I’ve seen a lot of, a lot of changes and sort of the appreciation for hand-crafted objects is still there. I think there’s a little bit of a renaissance going on in the ‘70s, you know. Craft fairs were a big deal and you know, there were kind of a sort of tie-dye, Technicolor, music…little bit of the hippie element going on.


FERGUSON: Yeah, but I think appreciation for, for, you know, well-crafted objects is still there. In spite of, you know, economic factors right now that would deter many people from wanting to get into it. You know, I question myself about it all the time, you know. Here I am building a big wood kiln, you know. What’s my carbon footprint, you know, but I think in some cases, you know, there are some cases, you know, where its part of human nature to create these things and to make them permanent. And you know, you know, the amount of wood that we burn, basically, right now, is all wood that got blown down in the last storm, you know. Now they’re dumping it off by the truckload. So, I’m looking at it as, it’s just part of the cycle and, you know, it’s an affirmation of the human…the human spirit to make these things and these objects, and to make them permanent. And, you know, somewhere down the line, somebody’s going to unearth these pieces maybe, and they’ll know something about me. They’ll know that I’ve cared about the way I put a handle on a piece and was observant about the proportions that a, that a manatee would have even though there are no manatees around here. So, I think, even though I question myself about firing things and I’m cognizant of, you know, a lot of things that are going on in the environment, you know, burning five quarts of wood to, to make a, three or four hundred objects permanent is a drop in the bucket when you consider what’s going on in the Amazon rainforests right now or clear-cutting in Washington State.

WILLIHNGANZ: What do you feel about sort of semi-handmade objects? I mean, look at Louisville Stoneware and they don’t mass-produce but they do sort of semi-mass produce.

FERGUSON: You know, I, I, I respect those people. I respect the people down at Bybee. Bybee, you know…they’ve gotten into mass production. A lot of their pieces are jigger thrown and slip cast. I just wish sometimes that they would look back at the pieces that were done 75 years ago and every now and then say, you know, let’s, let’s make a series of pieces that were like those older pieces. Because they were crisper and they weren’t sort of that design that was changed over time, you know, to become more easily fashioned by semi-machine processes. I know potters, studio potters who have ram presses to make certain things and I don’t hold it against them as long as they don’t say that this is wheel-thrown. Their competition is Pier One, you know, and if they don’t have, you know, some means of increasing production to compete with those things that are at Pier One and Department stores, you know, they have to go that route, so. You know, and it’s if you read any pottery books, by the, the old potters, [unintelligible] Hamato and Jamal [unintelligible], they all say the same thing. Mass-production is no excuse for poor design. You know.You still have to be able to, to, to, to have some integrity in the pieces that you know, if it’s, if it’s mass-produced it doesn’t have to be something that is a lesser aesthetic necessarily.

WILLIHNGANZ: That probably finishes up my questions. I wonder if we can walk around and shoot a little bit.

[End of Interview Part I]