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Twenty-Two years of Feats of Clay

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Twenty-two years of Feats of Clay
By Leona Reber

Fine clay dust, sparkling like fireflies, floats within a sunbeam that slants through an upstairs window. The thump and swish of push-brooms sliding across ancient wooden floors and the sound of laughter echoes off walls. It is cleanup day for Feats of Clay and, for the twenty-first year, a group of energetic volunteers from Lincoln Arts and Culture Foundation are readying 2 floors of the historic Gladding, McBean terra cotta factory for the advent of one of the most prestigious ceramic exhibitions in California.

The historic factory has stood at the edge of the town of Lincoln, 30 miles northeast of downtown Sacramento, since 1875 when Albert Gladding and Peter McBean began producing architectural terra cotta from their namesake plant. Now, more than a century later, gardens worldwide display beautiful 1920’s era sculpture, benches and the like, and thousands of buildings all over the world have been decorated with art that has come from within these walls, and a group of plant artists have been honored by the Smithsonian Institute as the last of their kind. They were flown to Washington D.C. in 2002 to take part in their Masters of the Building Arts show, a high honor indeed.

It all began in 1987 when the fledgling board of directors for Lincoln Arts and Culture Foundation was seeking a showcase event to promote the Arts in Lincoln. Since the Gladding, McBean clay plant, known affectionately by residents as “the pottery,” was one of the largest employers of the area, it only seemed reasonable to focus on clay as their medium of choice for an exhibition – and they were thrilled when the owners of the factory enthusiastically accepted the idea that the show should be housed within their walls.

The first year respected artist, Ron Nagle, was chosen as juror for the inaugural Feats of Clay show, and most of the entries that dribbled in were from local artists, but, in successive years, word got around about the small town art show that was knocking the socks off of art and history buffs, and more than 1,000 entries were pouring in annually. Now, after 22 years, an artist’s resume is greatly enhanced if it states that they have had a piece chosen for display in Feats of Clay, and tens of thousands of people have visited the spring art show and marveled at what they saw.

So, not only is the display of 80-85 cutting edge, contemporary ceramics worth a look, but the historic factory, which visitors are not allowed to tour any other time of the year, is fascinating to see. In 2007, to celebrate their twentieth year, Feats became an international exhibition, opening the competition to works by artists from Canada and Mexico. The exhibition has earned the title of the most unique and photogenic show in the United States – possibly in the world.

Tour A is the original tour which weaves through the still-operating factory. Part of the exhibition is displayed in a retired half-round “beehive” kiln on the ground floor, and the remainder is a 100-year-old-wooden freight elevator ride away on the third floor.

An exhibit of huge molds, and examples of work done at the plant as well as photo murals, made from original glass and film negatives of the plant and its workmen greets visitors on the upper floor. Historic photographs and artifacts donated by Albert Gladding, great-grandson of company founder, are included. In a dusty corner office, plans and tools of the trade still sit as if the draftsman has just gone out for a coffee break.

Gladding McBean’s architectural restoration process is emphasized. It also visits the glazing and kiln areas to give insight into the total process of finishing a clay product.

New this year is Tour B, which, in addition to the main show, will visit the fitting shed where finished products are packed and shipped. It will also visit an exhibit of the drafting process – showing how a fragment is measured and scaled for restoration. A stop at the glaze library where samples of all glazes ever used at Gladding, McBean are kept.

Also new this year is the Photography Tour, to be offered early Sunday mornings. These tours will be limited in size, and will offer extended time in the factory and exhibits for photographers.

Art Only Tours, with Curator, Dick Ketelle, bypass the historic portion of the tour, and focus on the cutting edge entries. Ketelle answers questions and offers detailed explanations of selected artwork to those interested in ceramic processes. Ketelle is a well-respected ceramic artist and teacher.

Admittance to the exhibition is by docent-guided tour only. Tours began April 28 and continue through May 31.

Tours fill quickly, and, while walk-ins can often be accommodated, reservations are encouraged to avoid disappointment. Tours A and B are offered Sunday through Thursday, and are $12 each; Art Only tours are also $12 each. These 3 tours last approximately 90 minutes. The Photography Tour is offered Sunday mornings from 9-11:30, and is $35 each.

Due to insurance regulations, closed toe shoes are required for all tours, and no one under 12 years of age is allowed.

Call Lincoln Arts & Culture Foundation for more information or to schedule tours: (916) 645-9713.

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