It was with great sadness that I saw from NCECA that Val Cushing died last weekend. I did not know him well, but thought his work was superb and on the few occasions we talked he was so helpful and a delightful person to talk with. I set out below the extracts that NCECA have sent of others recollections of this great potter and teacher.
Val Cushing was my teacher. How lucky was I!
He shaped me. He helped develop my ideas about clay, my sense of line and volume. He taught me skills and explained vast quantities of technical information about glaze materials and firing techniques. He helped me see.
He was quiet and understated and generous beyond belief. He set a tone for a kind of sharing that goes on in the ceramic community, always available to lend his expertise to all of our many glaze problems and the broader questions that come up in studio life. Val gave me a good foundation at Alfred. Then, continuously, throughout my career he impacted my path. Over the years I would catch glimpses of ways in which Val quietly supported me, behind the scenes, showing my slides to students, putting in a good word here and there, sending letters of encouragement, inviting me to help co-curate his retirement show from Alfred. I felt his pat upon my back and took strength from it.
I will miss him in the world, and feel a debt of gratitude for all that I have gained.
Hearts filled with sadness and gratitude, NCECA mourns the loss of our dear friend, founding member, Past President and Fellow of the Council, Val Cushing who passed away on November 17, 2013. Born in Rochester, New York on January 28th, 1931, Val Cushing entered college on a football scholarship and received his BFA in 1952 from the School of Art & Design in the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. After serving two years in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to Alfred and received his MFA in 1956. Although his full-time teaching career began that year at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, his professor at Alfred, Charles Harder, recognized Val’s natural gifts as a teacher and encouraged him to return to Alfred in 1957. Val continued to teach pottery and technical courses focused on clays, glazes and related subjects until his retirement in 1997.
Val Cushing’s strong interest in human welfare and dignity speaks through his clay. Val supported student efforts that would infuse positive, constructive energy in the community. His teaching was, however, not merely philosophical. Val believed that students must acquire practical skills as well as creative thinking patterns. His inventive course offerings in raw materials for the ceramic artist were highly respected. This contribution in the critical area of clay and glaze technology reached far beyond his classroom. Perhaps the strongest view for me was when I realized that for Professor Cushing, ceramics was not the end but the means in which he could facilitate a student’s search for his or her own truth. Val’s knowledge and strength could be conveyed to the student with a gentle nurturing. There was in Val a magic sense of the individual’s needs.
Val’s passionate interest in pottery was informed by his love of nature and music. He drew inspiration for subtle variation and integration of form and surface from the landscape, flora and the human figure. In music, particularly Jazz, Val responded to the way an ensemble could exercise dynamic variations on a theme through mastery of skills that provided access to free improvisation. Val’s insistence on working in series to exhaust endless iterations of a form from a same sized ball of clay was one way that he brought a sense of swing to the practice and teaching of pottery.
It was truly a blessing to have known Val Cushing and such a high honor to call him my teacher and friend. Say goodbye to the last living link to the origins of the College of Ceramics at Alfred. Those of us who trace our roots through Val to Dan Rhodes to Charles Harder to Charles Fergus Binns are privileged to have known this great man. Our last conversation was about helping the Craft Potters Association of Nigeria to develop their glaze technology and firing techniques. His enthusiasm for the project was at the same level as when I first knew him almost 50 years ago.
Globally aware and continually engaged, Val taught in England, Norway and Spain as well as in summer programs at Alfred, Penland, Anderson Ranch, Peters Valley, Haystack and Maui where he taught for six weeks as the first artist-in-residence at the Hui Noeau. In more than 250 lectures, workshops and demonstrations he delivered throughout the United States, Canada, Ireland, England and Japan, Val made the world a friendlier more thoughtful place. His pottery received many awards and honors, in well over 200 group exhibitions, and solo shows. He is represented in the collections of many public and private museums and galleries in the USA – including the Smithsonian, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Cooper-Hewitt, and the Everson. He is also represented in Canada, England, Taiwan, Japan and Hawaii.
Val was a mentor to all who invited him into their lives. He took my son Jared under his wing as a freshman at Alfred with a 24-hour open door. His keen sense of observation was second only to his wisdom and compassion. I will remember Val for his kindness and empathy in the face of my family’s own personal tragedy. I was a better person having known him. He was a humanitarian and I will always be honored to have been a member of his circle of friends.
Val was most proud of his wonderful family and his commitment to teaching. Alfred University and NCECA honored the significance of his role as a teacher. He was also recognized as a Fellow of the American Craft Council and of NCECA for his service to the organizations and the expanded field that in so many ways he helped to create and shape. The impact of his creative research and expansive awareness vision was extended through an individual artist’s fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; a Fulbright Fellowship for teaching and research in Manchester, England; and artist-in-residence grants at the Archie Bray Foundation and the University of Wolverhampton, England.
As a maker, writer, teacher and guide, Val’s life expressed ceramic art’s consummate aspirations to synthesize social, formal, expressive and utilitarian concerns in the most eloquent manner. Many of these ideas and experiences were captured in a 2001 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Following retirement, Val continued to work in his studio, recently loading a firing with long time friend Dick Hay who shared this reflection:
As I was talking with Val two months ago, he told me that he had just finished glazing one-hundred-and-sixty-two of his works and now wanted to load his kiln…. The following morning three of us began loading the kiln, working five hours and then shared one of Elsie’s delicious dinners. The next morning we loaded for another five hours. Put the door in. Started the kiln… I did this not because Val was my teacher… or a renowned artist, but because he was my wonderful friend of forty years and he needed a little help. As I left my house for the drive to Alfred, I was remembering with all of the conservations that we have had. I couldn’t wait for the talk that would take place as we loaded the kiln.
Val’s life was blessed with his loving and supportive wife, Elsie; four creative children, Erik, Karen, Mark and Nancy; and seven grandchildren. His wife Elsie cherished the manner in which Val shared with his children the integrity and dedication of creative life. The thoughts of painter Arthur Dove echoed these values on Val’s website, “I should like to enjoy life by choosing all its highest instances to give back in my means of expression all that it gives to me.”
Val Cushing in his studio, 2002
In celebration of Val Cushing’s life, beginning tomorrow, NCECA will be offering its members a special opportunity to purchase his Spirits of Ceramics for only $10 plus shipping. Contact NCECA.