Cincinnati is one of the best places in America to be an artist now because of a combination of low cost of living and a vibrant arts community.

By Emma Riva 

I loved the word “luster” long before I knew it had anything to do with ceramics. In technical terms from the ceramic arts, it’s an overglaze, meaning it has to be applied over a glaze-fired piece and requires a third firing. To add the sparkle of the gold particles, you have to put it through another blast of flame. I learned this and more about luster, fire, and clay at the National Ceramics Education Conference (NCECA) in Cincinnati, Ohio. NCECA served as a kind of luster for Cincinnati, a third firing that covered it in glitter. Liaison Pam Kravetz also literally dressed as a glittery disco ball at the conference’s concluding dance party. But we’ll get there. Mark Twain said that “When the world ends, I want to be in Cincinnati,” and while I’m not sure the world is ending yet, easily thousands of people came to Cincinnati for the National Ceramics Education Conference (NCECA) in March 2023. Which means you could read thousands of different articles. But not every single person came there as a representative for Belt, so, you’re stuck with me. Just one girl who came to Cincinnati without a car. I changed out of my sweatpants and into a dress in the airport bathroom and set out to document how this enormous artistic experience was going to play out in Queen City.

The head honchos behind NCECA 2023 are Pam Kravetz and Cal Cullen, two local arts advocates. It turned out Kravetz was also friends with my Airbnb host. “Our way of doing this is very different from NCECAs in the past, because we’re artists and activists ourselves and we wanted to create opportunities for all different kinds of artists.” Meaning that at NCECA, academics from the local universities, edgy DIY sculptures, function-focused kitchenware, and installation were all welcome. The sheer range of exhibitions—over ninety across the city—was staggering. Cullen expanded that “When we were growing up, we felt like there weren’t opportunities for artists in the city, so we had to head to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York. We felt we wanted to create a space to support young artists in a way that we weren’t supported.” But both were firm in one thing: That Cincinnati is one of the best places in America to be an artist now because of a combination of low cost of living, vibrant arts community, and “hug that Cincinnati gives,” as Kravetz put it. The city, coincidentally, has a rich history of specifically ceramics through the 140-year-old Rookwood Pottery company, America’s first woman-owned ceramic company. “It’s a small city with a big heart,” Kravetz said. And it’s a small city doing big things. Cullen spearheaded a nonprofit arts organization called Wave Pool, which focuses on how art can have a role in community development and social change. Wave Pool is wage-certified and able to support artists financially while also offering artmaking classes for refugees.

On Cullen’s recommendation, Wave Pool was the first gallery I hit after arriving in the city. I walked from Price Hill, once the site of an incline like my home city of Pittsburgh’s. From there, I walked downhill towards Colerain Avenue. My impression of the city mostly came from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and as the I descended through the hills and along the misty Ohio River, I could see how it was a site for the supernatural. NCECA proved to be an almost supernatural experience, too. You rarely want to find hair in a ceramic piece, but once at Wave Pool I was captivated by April D. Felipe’s sculpture. One of the highlights was Erika Nj Allen’s This Is Not A Coup, an installation room focused on the role of bananas in South America. As it turns out, The Cincinnati Enquirer was one of the outlets to expose Chiquita’s questionable business practices. It’s fitting, since food as industry is part of the story of Cincinnati, sometimes known as “Porkopolis” for its meat exports. And food is something of an analogue for ceramics, something that can be industrial, functional, beautiful, delicate, all at once. It raises questions about consumption. Haven’t we all looked at a perfectly plated meal and thought it was too pretty to eat? Ceramic works are different than paintings in that even the most beautiful bowl is an object with some function. In Allen’s clay, the bananas took on a new sense of movement and transcended their status as simply bananas, which lined up with the installation’s overall theme that bananas in South America were a cover for a more insidious social problem.

From Wave Pool, I went over to the ritzier suburb of the West End, since my Airbnb host was at Mark Chatterley’s show at Miller Gallery. On the way, I pass a sign that I swore said that Cincinnati was the “San Diego of the Midwest.” I had absolutely no idea what that was meant to imply. Miller was a sharp contrast from Wave Pool, however. In smaller city gallery scenes, it’s easier to see the divide between the more DIY spaces that view art as socially conscious and the higher-end decorative art market which is tapped into the business end of the art world. While at Miller, I got a crash course in Cincinnati’s art history and how the biennial FotoFocus festival paved the way for NCECA. I spent the rest of the evening with the art dealers and gallerists at Miller and then get into a Lyft where the driver is a woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury who used to be able to crochet and paint and play piano but can no longer remember how. I was struck by the different experiences with art, one with white wine and sculptures and the other with survival.

The next morning, I decided to go to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, on Pam Kravetz’s recommendation that famed ceramicist Roberto Lugo will be doing live demonstrations in his exhibition. The first thing I see in the museum is a man looking at a Kehinde Wiley painting like he wants to climb into it. I love to watch people look at art. I wonder what people see when they watch me looking at Kirk Mangus’s sculpture of a blue, multi-eyed biblical guardian angel. It’s in a glass case juxtaposed with a Tiffany window on the other side of the room. I linger for a while in the museum. The overarching theme of NCECA 2023 is Currents and wandering the city for the conference feels a little bit like being tossed back and forth by a current. Kravetz and Cullen told me the name was meant to connect to Cincinnati as being a city on a river, but also a double entendre to the idea of water’s current and the current moment.

When I did make my way to Roberto Lugo, I got a sense of ceramics as being a mixture of current as gravitational pull and current as present. Lugo’s pieces repurpose and refine aesthetics. There’s a “Crips and Bloods” lamp made out of the Rookwood Pottery form. Watching Lugo himself work at a table in the middle of the exhibit creates an intimacy not usually seen in a museum space. Museums usually feel like cold places you aren’t supposed to touch anything. But somehow, the presence of ceramics makes it feel more visceral and more intimate. As Lugo works, he talks about the projects he’s done with Bahamian, Cuban, and Haitian communities in Florida. “I wanted to tell local stories with my work and create images of joy. Not images of negative things,” he said. That same sentiment could be a treatise for writing about the Rust Belt—not denying the struggle and pain within a community, but not treating that struggle as the entire story.

Later, I ended up in Over-the-Rhine, which someone at Miller Gallery compared to a less expensive version of New York’s Greenwich Village. There are definitely echoes of my native New York in Cincinnati, something about the storefronts and the way people move about the streets, more so than my transplanted home of Pittsburgh. Over-the-Rhine is home to the Rookwood Pottery headquarters, where I got a chance to speak with one of the creative directors who remarked that the NCECA work is less traditional than what usual clients of the 140-year old company look for. I joined a tour of the factory, though, and despite Rookwood’s sleek exterior, its interior has a sense of humor. One kiln had Lisa Simpson’s face on it, and the tour guide referred to the company archives as its “Willy Wonka rooms.” On a board in one of the backrooms was written: I don’t care if Moses is at the front door with the Egyptians, do not unplug the forklift and Some days you make the mold, some days the mold makes you. One elderly woman said to the tour guide, “This is not as glamorous as it seems, isn’t it?” But it looked pretty glamorous to me, even with the clay and dirt and fire everywhere.

One of Kravetz and Cullen’s local initiatives with was “Storefronts of NCECA,” which allowed for local businesses to put ceramics in their stores. The result of this was more foot traffic for the businesses and more exposure for the artists, and on my end meant I spent quite a lot of time shopping. I killed time before heading downtown to the convention center where the nationally-juried exhibition for the conference was being shown by buying dresses, accessories, and cappuccinos in the stores of Over-the-Rhine. “We basically gathered every arts organization in town and told every single person about NCECA,” Cullen said.

When the sun went down and I did find my way to the convention center, I watched the joy and excitement on people’s faces as they engaged with the pieces and snacked on hors d’oeuvres. Stylized faces. Delicate flowers. Luster, glimmer, shape, the mark of hands. It dawned on me that this was art meant to change you and to be changed. It might be in an ordinary way. But it might be in an extraordinary way, too. Every moment I spent around ceramic, I feared breaking it. I kept thinking: I’ll step back and there will be that moment, that shatter, where it will all be my fault, I will have personally ruined NCECA and owe thousands of dollars and a million apologies. But I didn’t. I skirted around them. They weren’t high enough for me to bump into, anyways. Pam Kravetz had told me that there was a dance party at the Hyatt, so after making a few more circles of the dark Cincinnati streets, I went over to the Hyatt to try to locate her based on her description that she was “dressed as a disco ball.” This was, in fact, correct, as her husband had helped her make a round, glittery get-up that turned her body into a moving disco ball. I must have danced at the Hyatt for easily three hours—shout out to Jordan Butzine of Butzine Ceramics for being my dance partner. Having great moves means you get to be immortalized in regional art journalism. I returned to Price Hill simultaneously giddy and exhausted, the sweat of being in a room with hundreds of people making a less attractive glimmer of luster on my face. Being in Price Hill meant I could see the entire Cincinnati skyline from my Airbnb, and I felt what Kravetz called the hug that Cincinnati gives as I fell asleep.

On my last day in the city, I made a point to visit ADC (Art Design Consultants) where Pittsburgh-based artist M.K. Noonan, who was the was the reason I was at NCECA in the first place, was exhibiting. Noonan’s mixed media sculpture using a vintage suitcase, L’Appel du Vide, speaks to a feeling of foreignness and urgency. In their section piece, The Thick of It, Noonan hollowed out a fire extinguisher cabinet and creates a porcelain forest inside of it. Noonan’s work has always felt to me to have an undercurrent of anxiety, but not of the day-to-day—a pervasive, deeply felt anxiety inherited through blood. An incredibly hard thing to articulate. Something maybe only ceramics could express.

Within ADC sits a permanent installation called The Cube, a reflective space for reflection. It’s a glimmer of lights and mirrors and foil, silent yet glowing. Maybe I was just exhausted, but I sat down on the floor and found myself unable to get up. Something that had been on my mind was how for a long time, I had gotten comfortable with traveling to see art by myself. In The Cube, I sat and felt a profound aloneness I had never been able to sit with before. I am a lifelong lover of glitter and glow and being in The Cube felt like sitting inside of a diorama of my own head. Its beauty was breathtaking to me, and I longed to sit in it with someone else. The lights reminded me of the falling snow in the Cincinnati morning, catching the sunlight and glimmering just for a moment.  But that same snow whipped against my face as I trekked beneath train bridges and through auto lots, alone in my gigantic, vivid coat, sticking out like a sore thumb on the completely empty streets. I sat in The Cube and nearly wept. I found myself thinking: My whole adult life I have felt like a foreigner and have made the inside of my mind a beautiful, glowing place for me to feel at home in. But I want to share it. And the communal, dynamic nature of NCECA felt like a place to share with others. After wiping my eyes and heading back to Over-the-Rhine for lunch, I met up with Pam Kravetz, no longer dressed as a disco ball, and visited Cincinnati’s Stair House and the American Sign Museum. “Having things at this space allows people who wouldn’t usually see art see it,” Kravetz said of both. Stair House’s eponymous stairs are disorienting due to their lack of a railing on the way up, but on the way down, there is a railing, perhaps a nod to the fact that an upward trajectory is much scarier than coasting down.

We did a sort of speed run of the east side of Cincinnati, since Kravetz had a car and was able to give me a ride. At Core Clay, I re-encountered April Felipe’s hair sculptures, alongside the charming pieces in Adam Chau’s HEART series that replicate phone searches for words having to do with heart on small blue and white ceramic tiles. Queen of hearts, heart of the ocean, iron heart, and the band Heart. This, and Cathy Lu’s “ugly fruit” pieces made me think about what we gain by remaking objects in clay as facsimiles. How does an object’s essence change when it is no longer cells or chrome or metal but clay, the dirt of the earth, molded by human hands? I ran into M.K. and partner Madeleine Boucher at Core Clay. In all honesty, we were all a little delirious by then. At Queen City Clay, Montana-based potter Janina Myronova’s sculptures took a whimsical interpretation of Slavic folk art, and Kravetz summed it up better than I could with “You just wanna hug ‘em!”

The very last thing I saw in Cincinnati before an early bedtime for my four in the morning flight was Dynamics of Flow at the Carnegie Center in Covington, across the Ohio River and in the state of Kentucky. There I encountered a familiar face from when I wrote about the art scene in Denver, Marsha Mack. Mack’s work uses commercial labels from East Asian grocery stores—I first saw her work at RedLine Contemporary in Denver. At NCECA, Mack’s work leaned into a mixture of the commercial labels and her own depictions of types of fruit. The pastel color of Mack’s ceramic work is what makes it stick out to me. It takes the earthiness of clay and renders it smooth like plastic. Like the Carnegie buildings in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie of Covington is an anachronism of past glamor, seemingly a bygone of an era of excess in a region full of overgrown, abandoned concrete structures and gloomy skies.

A theme of NCECA, and a question of fine arts as a whole, is what is more important to know—the beauty of a finished product or the grit that created it? There is a dichotomy between beauty, refinement, elegance and flame, dirt, and mud. But the reality is that one only comes from the other. The luster only comes from fire. It’s a quintessentially Rust Belt idea, and perhaps why this region feels central to where fine arts are going next. I left NCECA full of luster, embraced by Cincinnati and glittering with the fire of creation.

Feature image courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Association. 

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UPan international online and print magazine that covers the intersections of graffiti, street art and fine arts. She is also the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel set in the Lehigh Valley. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.