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September 20, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Sitting on a shelf next to Bill Wilkey is what looks like a gas mask (actually a particulate respirator), several kitchen whisks, a tiny wooden oar, scrubbers, scrapers and a chainsaw. Everything is covered in white clay powder, as are the floors, the walls, the table and Wilkey himself.
“I don’t mind getting dirty or getting sweaty doing something like chopping wood or wedging clay,” Wilkey says as he uses his cheese grater-like clay shredder to cut details onto a terra cotta flowerpot he’s making.
Wilkey, 26, is an MU graduate student in art with an emphasis in studio ceramics. In other words, he’s a potter. A good one, too, according to a growing number of fans around the Columbia area. His ceramics have been featured at Columbia Art League’s Art in the Park, Bluestem Missouri Crafts and MU’s Bingham Gallery receptions.
“We like his forms,” says Laura Bullion, a partner at Bluestem. “We like the use of his glazes. He does really fine, functional work, but it has an edge to it that makes it different.”
Wilkey says the guiding philosophy behind his work is to make his art beautiful yet useful on some level. “For me to make artwork, it isn’t necessarily complete until it’s at someone’s home in the kitchen cabinet or on the dinner table or on the shelf above the fireplace,” he says.
When the Bingham Gallery asked him to craft a set of dinnerware to use at its receptions, Wilkey didn’t hesitate.
Hannah Reeves, director of Bingham Gallery, came up with the idea in the spring to replace the gallery’s old dinnerware with functional artwork. The new pieces allow visitors to get hands-on, quite literally, with student creations.
“Making an impression by having this beautiful commissioned set of dishes — in my opinion — that’s a better way to display part of (the gallery’s) permanent collection than to have some other artwork in display cases that are only seen by our own students and faculty,” Reeves says.
This month, Wilkey finished shaping and glazing the mixed collection of porcelain dinnerware, 36 pieces in all, including serving trays, vases, toothpick cups and a ewer. Each piece has Wilkey’s style stamped on it.
“I would say his pottery has two things at the same time working,” says Bede Clarke, Wilkey’s graduate faculty advisor. “It’s very well crafted and has a lot of attention to detail, but the overall quality of the work is kind of rustic.”
There’s more to pottery than spinning clay on a wheel. To make a piece, Wilkey first has to make special clay, then wedge and knead it, then throw it and mold it into the desired shape. Next he adds texture, generally some stylistic diagonal lines, and bisque fires the result. Finally he glazes it in the kiln to decorate it. It takes a month to mold, fire and glaze, but his clay lasts about a semester.
Wilkey thrives on challenges. In fact, that’s what drew him to pottery in the first place.
“When I tried pottery (in high school), I failed,” he says. “I failed to throw a lump of clay into a usable shape. So because of that failure, I strove to succeed at it. I still find it challenging to this day.”
Indeed, during the hour-long interview, Wilkey cracked and ruined both flowerpots he was making. He simply shrugged it off and paraphrased the artist Chuck Close. “Close was asked how he came to success, and he pretty much said, ‘Just show up,’” Wilkey says. “Yeah, just keep showing up.”