Once upon a time, there was a ceramics program at Wesleyan.
The heart and soul of the program was a professor named Mary Risley, who joined the University in 1966 and stayed for 30 years. As the sole professor of ceramics from 1973 on (according to an Argus article from Nov. 29, 1995), she led the beginning, intermediate, and advanced level classes, channeling her great love of the medium and teaching into the program’s success.
During Risley’s tenure, the ceramics program was housed in the space now divided between the woodshop and the studio of Artist in Residence in the Art and East Asian Studies Departments Keiji Shinohara. Phillip Maberry, a renowned ceramicist who pursued a year of graduate studies at Wesleyan from 1975 to 1976, recalled the ceramics studio with fondness.
“It was just one big open space with wheels around the room… Everyone [was] working at the same time, and Mary’s little office area was over to one side, by the corner of the room,” Maberry said. “It was amazing; you could work there anytime. In those days, you had access to the studio at any time of day, 24/7. It was the most amazing place to work, really.”
While at Wesleyan, Maberry assisted Risley around the studio with tasks such as firing the kilns, which were located in a room adjacent to the main studio. He remembers the program as being generally well-equipped, with one large gas kiln and two or three electric kilns of different sizes. Maberry found Risley to be an exceptional teacher, and he remains enthusiastic about his studies with her to this day.
“[When] I was shopping around for a graduate studies program, and I was in Connecticut and heard about Mary and Wesleyan, [I] went over and had an interview with her,” Maberry said. “And immediately, I was like, ‘I have to go here; I have to work with this lady.’ She was so awesome, and the facilities were awesome, and it was everything I wanted…. It was an excellent, excellent experience.”
By 1995, the ceramics program had become tremendously popular. That spring, according to an Argus article from Nov. 29, 1995, Risley had to turn away more than 100 students registered for Ceramics I, a class with an enrollment limit of 20. According to Maberry, the program was beloved for making ceramics accessible to and enjoyable for all.
“Mary was incredible about technique,” Maberry said. “She knew every technique you could imagine, basically. Anything you wanted to try, she knew how to do it and how to get you there. It was just a world of ceramics right there, available to everybody.”
Yet when Risley retired in 1996, the University announced that it would be cutting the ceramics program. Although a new University president, Douglas J. Bennett, had been inaugurated only that September, the decision belonged to former President Colin Campbell. In 1982, as part of a university-wide reduction in positions, Campbell had resolved that the ceramics program would be eliminated as soon as Risley retired.
By 1996, the University was again under financial strain and welcomed the opportunity to downsize. Though ceramics was the only program in the Art Department to be cut, Risley’s position was one of 22 dispensed with under the academic plan addressing the University’s five-year budget for its curriculum.
The University’s shortage of funds was due in part to a nationwide trend in education at the time. In the fall of 1995, the Republican-controlled House and Senate had begun voting on aggressive cuts to student aid in order to balance the federal budget and reduce debt. One bill, for example, proposed that all colleges involved in federal loan programs pay a two percent tax outright, which for Wesleyan, according to the Argus archives, meant around $68,000, or five scholarships’ worth.
Because the federal cuts to student aid threatened Wesleyan’s need-blind admissions policy, Bennett vowed above all to uphold the University’s dedication to diversity.
“Now we are stretched to the limits of our resources. We will manage these resources efficiently, we will safeguard them for the future, and we will use our strength as a free institution to increase them—a cause to which I am enthusiastically committed,” Bennett noted in his inaugural speech. “As to Wesleyan as a university community, we will move forward, not backward, in our commitment to excellence, to access, and to diversity.”
Meanwhile, the University’s endowment faced internal struggles of its own, as The Argus archives demonstrate. As class size had increased over the decades, from 230 students in 1962 to over 700 in 1995, the pool of alumni had grown younger, poorer, and more difficult to reach. In 1994-1995, only 38 percent of Wesleyan alumni donated to the University, as compared to 63 percent of Amherst alumni and 67 percent of Williams alumni. To make matters worse, Wesleyan experienced a $750,000 budget shortfall that same year, after a record number of students chose to study abroad.
As a female professor in charge of an art program some dismissed as “craft,” Risley had been treated as low-priority by the administration throughout her career at Wesleyan. Unlike her husband John Risley, a member of the Art Department who was awarded full professorship 14 years after his arrival, Mary received tenure but held a “three-fifths” position up until her retirement (according to an Argus article from Nov. 29, 1995). As current Professor of Art David Schorr wrote in his eulogy to Mary Risley in 2000, it was only through persistence and skill that she ultimately managed to exceed the University’s lowered expectations.
“If when [Mary Risley] began there was discrimination against women on this man’s campus and discrimination against craft—thought by some to be a stepchild to fine art—you wouldn’t have known it to watch Mary Risley in action, to see and how she built and maintained a program,” Schorr wrote. “If early on an occasional fool thought her a faculty wife teaching pottery she had the last laugh: year after year the senior exhibitions in ceramics were consistently outstanding, sophisticated and original in vision and execution.”
In the spring of 1995, upon learning of Risley’s impending retirement, students circulated a petition to preserve the ceramics program after her departure. It received 1,400 signatures but was disregarded by the administration, as were similar efforts by the Art Department to retain Risley’s position.
Today, Risley’s legacy endures in the form of Wes-Ceramics, a student group that aims to bring ceramics back to Wesleyan. It was founded in the fall of 2013 by Hadley Feingold ’17, Anastasia Almyasheva ’17, Thienthanh Trinh ’17, and Brandon Waterman ’17, all of whom took pottery in high school and had hoped to continue in college. The group is currently in the process of obtaining funding and has reached out to other students through its Facebook page, which has already received 66 likes.
“Coming here, we were all very disappointed that there wasn’t ceramics here, and there didn’t seem to be anyone actually trying to get ceramics here,” Waterman said. “So we just kind of found each other and started to make it happen.”
In the meantime, the Art Department has embraced newer art forms; for example, according to Professor of Sculpture Jeffrey Schiff, the department has applied for the creation of a digital media position in the past but has yet to see it approved. Though Schiff mourns the loss of the ceramics program, he believes its elimination led to positive change in the department, namely through the allocation of the studio space to the woodshop and to Shinohara.
“We lost one good thing and gained another,” Schiff said.
Whether Risley would agree is impossible to say, but, as Schorr wrote in her eulogy in 2000, she was certainly disappointed by the fate of the program she had created.
“When with remarkable shortsightedness the Wesleyan administration decided to end the study of ceramics at Wesleyan, Mary continued to teach long after projected retirement, despite a bad back and hopes of more time for her own creative work, in order to buy time for the department to negotiate,” Schorr wrote. “But the administration was adamant. If today [at her funeral] I speak to celebrate her enormous accomplishment at Wesleyan, it would be dishonest not to mention her bitterness at seeing the program she had built crumble to dust.”