Tea time for two

Cast in bronze, suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass share a pot of tea in a Rochester park near Anthony's long-time home.

Sculptor Pepsy Kettavong '95 captured these historical giants in their youth, engaged in lively conversation. Approachable. Accessible to 21st-century admirers.

"Our idea was to utilize history to get people involved," says the artist. "It's a social statement. A black man and a white woman are drinking tea together. A Laotian makes their sculpture. It could be a metaphor for American democracy."

Kettavong escaped Communist-controlled Laos with his family in 1980, when he was 8. After nearly two years in a Thai refugee camp, the family came to the Rochester area under the sponsorship of the Lakeville United Church of Christ. His childhood interest in making things out of clay led him to RIT, where he worked closely with Professor Richard Hirsch in the School for American Crafts.

"I came to understand the creative process and what enters into the field, what it takes to be successful," says Kettavong. "Hirsch teaches what he believes, and believes what he teaches."

After graduation, the young artist became studio manager for the prominent ceramics sculptor Jun Kaneko in Nebraska.

After two years, he was ready to move on. Kettavong stayed in Nebraska, doing odd jobs while pursuing his own ideas about art, ultimately taking a job as a designer at a ceramic tile company where he could build his own pieces after hours.

A 1997 show in Omaha of his large-scale, abstract, ceramic-and-wood pieces resulted in major sales and a big boost for his career. Kettavong returned to Rochester where he's stayed busy with public and private commissions.

The Anthony-Douglass sculpture, funded by corporations, private donors, foundations and the Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester, was in the works for about three years. It's realistic, a style Kettavong felt was correct for this project. His next major public work will be conceptual.

Whether abstract or realistic, "my intent is to communicate," says Kettavong. "The one thing I don't want is to be categorized."

The University Magazine, Spring 2002