I arrived at Arrowmont just having completed three years of graduate school. Now I am more than half way through the residency, our exit exhibition is installed, and I am heading to Minneapolis for this year’s NCECA! A lot has happened since I first moved into my studio here on campus…a lot of new work, new ideas, and new questions. When you’re in it, you can’t always see the progress that you’ve made. Initially I was a little bit excited and a little bit intimidated to be in full control of the work I would produce. And I think, especially after a thesis exhibition, I felt pressure to not just present art in a gallery, but to also present answers. But I didn’t have all the answers this time. I’m still not convinced I had them all before. And really, where is the fun in having all the answers? The body of work I produced this year at Arrowmont is made up of questions. I like to think of them as prototypes for bigger ideas and possibilities. By removing that pressure I felt to know everything about what I was making and deciding to use this year and this show to ask as many questions as I could, I created a new series of work exploring form and volume, as well as surface with low relief patterns and texture.
For many years before graduate school I had devoted the majority of my process to the potter’s wheel, which I made a goal to revisit and further my abilities to throw and alter more complex and voluminous forms. I spent time researching decorative ceramics throughout history, examining the patterns chosen, and tried to learn ways the artists called attention to the form by highlighting or contradicting it. Through creating this body of work I believe I gained a new understanding of the relation between functional and decorative form, and how I benefit from spending hours painting detailed, repetitive patterns on my forms.
But to say I came to these discoveries on my own would be a lie. I’ve had a lot of support and mentorship along the way, not just from teachers, mentors, and peers; but most significantly from students. Teaching is such a big part of who I am…I know that now. I taught before and during graduate school and my time at Arrowmont has presented to me a lot of opportunity to teach, share my process, and learn new techniques through it. I was fortunate enough to demonstrate for classes here and travel to ETSU and walk students through my process. I also taught several community classes at Arrowmont. It was such a valuable experience as an artist and an educator to design my courses and teach the local community. My six-week intermediate/advanced wheel class was my absolute favorite to teach here at Arrowmont. We focused on refining our throwing skills, learning tips and tricks, and made large and more complex forms.
I was also fortunate to assist Bill Griffith with his Arrowmont Pottery Party where I demonstrated how to do surface decoration techniques such as paper resist, sgraffito, imagery with tracing paper, and slip trailing. When I talk about how I came upon these discoveries with the help of students, what I mean is…as an educator we are always being asked questions. The amazing teachers I have had were the ones that never truly answered, but instead guided me toward my own discovery of the work. By teaching at Arrowmont, I was reminded that it was ok to ask questions. In fact, not only was it ok…but it was necessary. I didn’t need to have all the answers, I just needed to ask the right questions! Something that had been told to me many times before, but that I lost in the pressure I had put on myself. This little reminder gave me the confidence to work toward my exhibition, not with the emphasis on a particular theme in mind, or concept, or finalized body of work; but instead to create the work out of curiosity. To be a student in my studio where the work would be my teacher and guide me.
After my time here at Arrowmont I will be heading to Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana as one of their new Long-Term Residents. I feel fortunate to be able to take with me a new body of work and all that I have gained from my residency here. The ability to design classes for a variety of ages, to keep a project within budget, to predict the time I will need to prep, teach, and finish the work. These are all practical and valuable skills. But, what I truly believe I will be taking with me from my time here at Arrowmont is a new appreciation for those moments when I don’t know all the answers, and a confidence in my ability to embrace that in my work and move forward.
Stephanie Wilhelm was raised in the small town of Manchester, MD. While pursuing her BFA at Elizabethtown College, she was introduced to the tradition of pottery studying abroad in Mexico during her junior year. After graduating, she furthered her skills in ceramics by working for a production potter in her hometown and continued her education by earning a Certificate in the Ceramic Arts at Hood College.
For 6 years Stephanie found community and education within the wood-firing network around her and completed a yearlong apprenticeship with a wood fire potter. Four of those years she worked teaching classes and assisting visiting artist workshops at the Frederick Clay Studio in Frederick, Maryland. Shortly after, she completed a year-long Artist Residency at the Brockway Center for Arts and Technology in Pennsylvania.
Stephanie Wilhelm received the 2017 NCECA Graduate Student Fellowship for her research on Bon Fresco combined with ceramics, which she conducted in Italy, and completed her MFA in Ceramics at the University of Florida in 2018. Stephanie is currently an Artist in Residence at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.