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A look inside the world of Frans Wildenhain




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A. Sue Weisler

Earthenware pieces are part of the collection.

Some stories are so compelling, so gripping and so resonant that they prove irresistible. Such was the case for me with Frans Wildenhain’s: an iconoclastic instructor, unconventional artist and genuinely innovative business entrepreneur. Wildenhain got my motor running three years ago.


Once ignited, the current exhibition, on view simultaneously in Bevier and Dyer galleries, “Frans Wildenhain, 1950-75: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-Century,” and the accompanying 256-page catalog, is the result (www.rit.edu/wild).


And there are so many good stories. For instance: while a GI, Harold Brennan’s inadvertent exposure to an understated ceramics exhibit has such a powerful impression that half a decade later he recruits the ceramist—Wildenhain—to become a founding faculty member at RIT’s newly ensconced School for American Craftsmen; twice-failed elsewhere, Aileen Webb’s vision still flourishes at RIT more than six decades later.


Or the “crack-pot” idea for an artists’ cooperative to retail their art results in a business—Shop One—that is mimicked internationally and has today been appropriated in name by RIT.


Or this: The immigrant from war-torn Europe personalizes and revives a long-abandoned medium for aesthetic expression—ceramic wall murals—earning a Guggenheim Fellowship.


They are stories of improbability mixed with irony and driven by inspiration. Craft, once considered akin to the basement hobbyist’s diversion, evolves to an art form meriting presentation at esteemed museums. Newly considered, crafts set auction price records, raise the craftsman’s status and elevate consumers to collectors and collectors to connoisseurs.


You cannot make this stuff up.


Because there are so many good stories and so much good art, and thanks to an aggressive promotional campaign, excitement for the Wildenhain Project reached international audiences, yielding boundless publicity for RIT. I had the happy problem of being inundated with requests for text and images by numerous large-circulation magazine editors.


So incessant and insistent were the media inquiries that one project partner began calling me Columbo: “Ah, there’s just one more thing…”


The Wildenhain exhibition is evanescent: 
it is here for six weeks, until Oct. 2, and then gone forever.


But from inception, the project was driven as much by research as by aesthetics, coupled with a dose of RIT boosterism.


Perpetuating the exhibit’s life is a book of original scholarship accompanied by photography every bit as appealing as are the physical ceramics. 


And 100 percent of the revenue from the exhibit catalog, when purchased through the Wildenhain website (www.rit.edu/wild) or at Shop One2, forms a fund that supports original RIT student research. Students must demonstrate their research meets two criteria: that their investigation focuses on some element of RIT’s broadly defined institutional history such as its personalities, colleges, degree programs, students, faculty, staff and organizations; and that their research employs archival sources as one element of their study’s method.


Unsurprisingly, the Wildenhain student research fund mirrors the scholarship presented in “Frans Wildenhain, 1950-75: Creative and Commercial American Ceramics at Mid-Century.”


The Wildenhain Project’s story is one of collaboration across campus with an equal number of external partners. It includes Robert Johnson, who donated his collection of Wildenhain pots to RIT in 2010, as well as students, staff and faculty from numerous disciplines. Full details, including events and a series of presentations by nationally recognized scholars, are on the website.


Only on its face is this Wildenhain’s story. It is also RIT’s story.

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A. Sue Weisler

Earthenware pieces are part of the collection.

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Bruce Austin, professor of communication, College of Liberal Arts