Ceramics artist offers her pieces up as canvases in collaborative exhibition

Kate Menke is a high school art teacher and mother to twin 9-year-old boys, so naturally she decided to make enough ceramics to invite 25(-ish) local artists to paint on for a group art show.

“I'm the kind of person who wakes up at 2 a.m., wide awake with some idea. I had this epiphany to have a collaborative show. I don't know how it went to immediately involving this many artists,” Menke said. “But part of it was wanting to work with these artists who I love, whose work I collect. I wanted to see what it would look like, but I also wanted to create a community around a ceramics event.”

That event is the “Cross Over” exhibition Menke is curating, facilitating and showing in. The exhibition opens Friday, April 12, at the Vanderelli Room and continues through April 26.

“I get to work with my favorite artists, the artists get to try something new without any cost except their time and we all get to be together in this group show,” Menke said.

Sounds simple. Just come up with a plan, begin making molds and slipcasts about eight months in advance, discover that process is not going to work, settle on making a glut of vases, plates, mugs, hexagonal box tiles and little boxes out of a material you've never used before, provide the pieces to your artists along with instructions on the kind of paint to use and a color chart that indicates what the different colors will actually look like once they're fired, arrange alternate media for anyone who didn't want to work directly on ceramic.

“It was a complete learning experience, from the materials to the timing to the coordination. Every artist works differently, so you kind of have to guess and set up some guides and limitations. There was a lot of trust on their part that I was giving them something they could work with,” Menke said.

Menke has had to learn to trust herself as an artist, as well. After earning an undergraduate degree in graphic design, she soon learned the field wasn't for her. “I took a test that said I should be an educator or a travel guide. I decided on teaching,” she said. Menke returned to school and ultimately found her way to teaching art in Dublin City Schools, focusing on ceramics “because no one else wanted to teach it,” she said.

But still, something was missing, and Menke discovered what it was in a workshop for teachers at CCAD led by local artists Stephanie Rond and Cat Sheridan.

“They talked a lot about having an art practice, and I realized I didn't have one at that point,” Menke said. She soon undertook a process to create a pinch pot a day for a full year (yes, 365 pinch pots), learning “how to have a ceramics practice with no studio and no materials,” she said, only half-joking.

“I did not consider myself an artist until 2014. I was trying to figure out how to do it but didn't know how. Once I started every day, I got it. If you're not a runner and you start a 5K program, guess what? By the end of the program, you're a runner,” Menke said.

While not a runner, Menke had been a soccer player and competitive mountain biker, as well as a musician. These experiences informed her notion of practice, and applying it to her work as a ceramics artist began to take hold.

“I have my family, I have my art and I have my teaching. Those are the three pillars,” Menke said. “I was especially thinking of my kids, who were still little [in 2014]. I wanted to leave something behind for them, to show that I have a viewpoint, to show that I was finding myself again after being a mom. That was very important.”

And so she had confidence despite the scattershot process that led to “Cross Over.”

“My vision of what it would be is not at all what it ended up being. But it became so much more,” Menke said.

“I had always wanted to try different paints and different surfaces, to see how my work would look in a different medium,” said ink-and-watercolor artist Aina Turiaga, one of the “Cross Over” participants, adding that the opportunity presented itself at a time when she had been experiencing some block following a period of personal turbulence. “I wasn't sure how I would feel about it at first, but now I'm thinking about asking Kate to give me some more to paint.”

“I knew they could do it, but I couldn't have known how great it would turn out,” Menke said. “When you look at the work, you know exactly who made it even though it's not like anything else they've ever made.”