The following Q & A is edited from Brian Cooper’s interview with Marlene Serafine Gaudio for his senior art major project at Messiah College, Grantham, PA.
When I first heard about the project I immediately felt like I should interview Professor Gaudio. It made sense to me, Professor Gaudio is an educator whose classroom (at MCCC- Montgomery County Community College) I had been part of and is a working artist as well. I was immediately drawn in to the atmosphere of her classroom, which was studious but unrestrictive. On the first day of class she said one thing that stood out to me in particular. Professor Gaudio said that in order to be successful with clay you needed to become one with it. I had heard about the spirituality of art making in the past but this was the first professor who was actually demonstrating the significance of spirituality and art. When I had first set out to become an Art Educator it was my prayer to use the gifts God had given me to his glory. I didn’t know it then, but Professor Gaudio was shaping my future pedagogy.
Marlene Gaudio has multiple degrees in the field of art and education. Professor Gaudio has earned a M.A. Candidacy, Art History Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. She has an M.Ed. Art, Temple University, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, PA. In addition to this she has earned a B.A. Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA and B.S. Ed., West Chester University, PA. Professor Gaudio has been awarded for teaching excellence and features work in private and public collections around the world, including a Permanent Collection, Istituto Statale d’Arte per la Ceramica, Castelli, Italy where she served as Artist in Residence. She is a Senior Adjunct Faculty at Montgomery County Community College, Blue Bell, PA, where she has taught credit courses in Art History I, Art History II, Art History III, History of Graphic Design; 3-D Design, Ceramics I, Ceramics II, Ceramics III.
Professor Gaudio agreed to allow me to interview her over the phone after our in-person session was cancelled due to my pneumonia. I had this opportunity on Friday, Sept. 24 2010 and this is what we talked about:
Professor Gaudio, How and when did you decide you wanted to pursue art?
I was a late bloomer, so to speak. As a young adult, I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. It wasn’t until my senior year at West Chester University, before student teaching, that I took some art electives. Up until that time I had no formal training in art. I always loved to make things and, as a kid, I drew on my own, especially the Walt Disney characters. The first course was a stone and wood sculpture class and I absolutely loved it; I still use those hammers and chisels. That sculpture class made me realize that I had to further pursue art.
So how did you become interested in ceramics?
I would always pass the pottery studio on my way to the sculpture studio and think “hmmm I’m going to have to take that class.” It was my final semester at West Chester when I took a ceramics class with a wonderful teacher, Ed Stein. From the very start of throwing on the potter’s wheel, I had overwhelming experiences in which I felt God was telling me I was a potter. I was very open and receptive. I graduated and taught fifth grade for a year before I found my hands in clay again.
My mother and sister, who both had graduated from MCCC, said that there was a really nice pottery studio there, and that I should check it out. I audited an evening class and by the end of the semester, I was asked to teach. Of course I needed an art degree so I went to Tyler (Temple University) and got my undergraduate and graduate art education degrees and certification, thinking I’d teach art education K-12. But I set up a small studio and began teaching a full load as a part time instructor at MCCC, in the credit and non-credit divisions, and I have been teaching there since. I exhibited in galleries and won awards from the PA Guild of Craftsmen. Ten years later, when I was asked to teach art history, I pursued further graduate studies and completely immersed myself in that discipline.
Were you able to find time to do your own work during all of this?
Studying and teaching the history of art became all-encompassing. I was making very little pottery, and therefore exhibiting infrequently, for the 20 years that I was teaching art history I,II,III, IV. I got back into wood and stone sculpture. Ceramics, as you know, requires that one works within the drying stages of the clay. In 2006, I was asked to teach ceramics again; I believe that I really needed to honor that initial realization that I was born to be a potter. I decided to design and oversee an out-of-ground building of a really nice pottery studio, Mirthful Angel Pottery. So, now, I am a re-emerging ceramic artisan, in the digital age; and I love teaching ceramics again.
Where there any difficulties you had to overcome starting out as an artist?
Yeah, definitely as a ceramic artist, I encountered some difficulties in setting up a studio. I needed a space for really getting messy. The designated space had to accommodate some expensive equipment, especially the kiln. It’s not like you can just pick up a sketchpad and work anywhere in the house. You need a space for your wheel, kiln, spray booth, compressor, sink and auxiliary equipment. One must abide township code regulations. Then, you have to get the technical aspects down, glaze chemistry and kiln operation. Nowadays things are easier due to the technology available, like electronic controllers and pre-mixed glazes. I aim at a good fit of surface and form, with a quality of wholeness of the ceramic object.
Working in my own studio, I’ve been impressed, and challenged, with the tenet “discipline is freedom”. Organizing time and chores has to include a marketing component… when you want to make a livelihood from your work.
How would you defend yourself to someone who argued that ceramics is not a “high art” or a “fine art”?
Well, with my study of art history, my favorite area is renaissance art. I recognize the reason for that applies to my ceramic work. During the Renaissance there was no distinction between art and craft. The word art comes from the Latin ars: ‘skill and meticulous craftsmanship’, perfection. If you were a potter who was knocking out pieces without a sense of design, who wasn’t interested in elevating a mundane object to an object of beauty, something to be appreciated, with qualities of an art object, especially a very harmonious design of surface and form, I don’t think it could be considered art. If an object is functional, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be beautiful. I think there are many so-called artists just because they paint or sculpt who are not necessarily artists. I think there are very fine craftsmen who don’t necessarily identify themselves as artists. I think it’s a personal thing but there are overriding qualities that are exuded in really sound work regardless of utility. I think that a high pitch of craftsmanship and the aesthetic qualities found in paintings and sculpture may also apply to a utilitarian vessel. I make utilitarian objects that can stand alone and be appreciated… not necessarily used.
Do you do other work besides ceramic, and if so, what kinds?
I’ve always been a 3-dimensional artist. I do some preliminary sketching for what I want to make. I enjoy chiseling stone and wood. I’m working on a wood sculpture that I’m going to put in the next faculty exhibition.
Do you receive commissions for your work?
I occasionally do commissions, if the project interests me. I like the challenge of figuring out how to make something that I haven’t made before. My most interesting one was a baptismal font for a church. I’ve done dinner sets. I like the freedom of doing my own work without compromising my own style.
What is your favorite clay body to work in?
I prefer a white, toothy, stoneware. Porcelain is absolutely gorgeous but I like grog in the clay, so it has more standup strength. For years and years I was doing gas reduction type firing, I really do like the copper red and the celadon glazes that you get in gas reduction high firing.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m continuing my large signature vases with sculpted cherubs and flowers, which I love, since they are inspired. I am doing cone 6 electric oxidation firings. I apply underglazes and stains and layer glazes. The first colors that I see in the morning, the colors of sunrise and very soft pastels – creamy pinks and blues are very life affirming and is what I’ve been using on my vases. I’m in the process of planning some ceramic sculptural work. But I have a feeling I won’t really get too far along with that until after the holidays. I have an annual open house in my studio at the end of November-Thanksgiving day weekend. I like to have unique objects that people like for holiday gifts available for that.
How frequently do you exhibit your work?
My work is represented at three different galleries in the Bucks County area. These are art galleries that chiefly exhibit my signature vases. I exhibit annually at MCCC faculty shows. I open Mirthful Angel Pottery bi-annually to the public. Now that I’m all squared away with my studio and have developed a line of work, I seek wider representation.
I remember I had talked about my relationship with Christ and how that affected my engagement one evening during class, and you had mentioned earlier that God was really calling you. I have this suspicion, are you a person of faith also?
I’m a very faithful person. I’m interested in ecumenical dialogue. My Christian faith is everything to me. Every summer, I take a silent retreat at Cape May Point, NJ. It provides an opportunity to tune into my authentic self and clarify priorities as an active contemplative. It’s kind of funny to me that my work so far isn’t directly linked with subject matter that is very religious. However I think the more important thing is that it’s done in the spirit of being very life affirming. It’s not my style to impose my beliefs on anyone. I can’t imagine doing work that doesn’t have a positive overtone.
What advice would you offer someone who wants to exhibit for the first time?
Put the best possible work that you can make out there. Put something that you know you’ve done your best on.
What types of art are you most fascinated by?
I have a passion for art!-global, all media. I spend countless hours at art museums. My husband and I have a collection of original art work throughout our home that I really take joy in on a daily basis. We have a few 19th century table top bronze sculptures, which were executed so beautifully and are really stunning… One Michelangelo-esque piece was in the 1862 Paris Salon. On the walls, are graphic works by Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Chagall. The oldest pieces we have are two 1535 Albrecht Durer woodblock prints that are just amazing. Contemporary paintings are by artists we’ve met at the annual NY ArtExpo. And, of course, there’s a lot of pottery- Oriental, Italian majolica, and contemporary.
Is there a certain movement in art history that you draw inspiration from?
Definitely the Renaissance, it synthesizes Christianity, humanism and classicism; and explores proportion, perspective, and ideals of beauty.
Has your role as an art teacher been influential to you as an artist in any way?
Oh, absolutely, I love teaching. I’m always impressed by individual adapting of the demonstrated techniques. Creativity is part of the human experience. I think every human being has a creative gene. It’s really exciting to see students gain skills to express themselves. Classroom dynamics are very influential to me.
What is your studio space like?
It has great natural light, with big windows, one right in front of my wheel. The morning light is really fantastic. It is one level with two rooms, one is for production, and the other is for glazing and firing. For fuel economy, there are sliding doors that separate the rooms so I don’t have to heat my kiln room if I’m not in there. It has a high ceiling and feels spacious. It’s my creative sanctuary.
What kind of environment is ideal for you to create in?
I prefer an orderly and serene environment. My disposition, before I even get started, has to be one of calm, so I can be fully present. When I first started pottery, I would pray that divine spirit would speak through my hands and that I be selflessly one with the clay…that’s a nice approach.
Where do you see yourself going as an artist from here?
Since my pottery vocation is so sincere, I believe I have a responsibility to make a noteworthy contribution to the field. I’m putting things in order as far as being relatively self-sufficient in my studio and now the marketing aspect is something that I have to build. I know that I would like to do exhibitions of ceramic sculpture, not so much utilitarian. Many years ago before my art history stage I had done some nice -sized exhibitions at a couple colleges. I would like to do more of that and have more gallery representation. The vases were very inspired, and I think as I become more and more authentic to myself and to God and to his vision for me I think the work will evolve to project more profound subject matter that really does praise God more.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to have asked Professor Gaudio these questions. I have most benefited from the example she sets in the classroom. Her willingness to be used of God really shows through and I’ve seen what it means to be an objective teacher and still bring honor to Him; a question I’ve been seeking an answer to since I first started my college career. It has been so wonderful to experience the clay the way Professor Gaudio does and be able to relate to the spiritual aspect of art making. One of the things I will definitely take away from this is the knowledge that good teachers have a positive impact on their students lives; an impact that never goes away. It was very helpful to hear about the struggles that Professor Gaudio experienced, as these are things that I will know to prepare for in anticipation of my graduation and teaching career. I hope God will continue to bless the work of Professor Gaudio and speak through my hands as well!