Hand-built humble beginnings 

This is a year for Rochester's arts and cultural institutions to celebrate big anniversaries. Both the Memorial Art Gallery and the Rochester Museum and Science Center are continuing their 100th year of operation. In addition, a younger institution, the Genesee Center for the Arts and Education, is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and in doing so, is looking back to its humble beginnings as a pottery co-op. At a time when DIY business culture is once again on the rise, the current exhibit at the Firehouse Gallery at Genesee Center celebrates work by the founding members of the Genesee Pottery Co-op, as well as artists who have been involved along the Center's journey to the present.

The title of the show is drawn from a fireman's code to return to the station, and refers to the history of the building, which was originally an 1895 fire house, complete with stables for the horses that pulled the fire wagon. The works in the exhibit are anchored by a timeline on the wall, which includes pictures, quotes, and exhibit postcards to tell the Genesee Center's 40-year story from 1972 to 2012. More than 160 works showcase the vast variety of pottery techniques as well as aesthetic tastes and conceptual concerns of the artists who have been instructors, members, students, and artists-in-residence through the years.

Originally founded by artist Maggie Smith in 1972, Genesee Pottery was a co-op based around one kickwheel, a kiln, an old bathtub for mixing clay, and a lot of DIY passion. The studio occupied the basement of 713 Monroe Avenue until 1974, when the building was purchased. The endeavor was launched with artists Art Devitalis, Harriet Heller, Susan McDuffie, Evelyn Lee, and others. With the passage of each decade, new talents joined and redefined the work produced at the studio.

Today, the Genesee Center for the Arts and Education includes the Genesee Pottery studio, the Community Darkroom, and the Printing & Book Arts Center, each with its own studio space and gallery, and each offering work space and facilities to members and a year-round schedule of workshops to the community.

One wall of the current show holds a wood grid of 40 cups, mugs, and chalices, from founder Maggie Smith's 1970's-era dreamy pastel-swirled chalice, to current resident artist Hannah Thompsett's modern slipcast cup. The grid of growlers shows off the diversity of style, technique, and personality that the studio's collective has injected into that simple object. Other works by Smith in this show include two tiles from the Wilcox Street door into the pottery studio, which are slabs of fired clay, each with a small frozen pool of pigment shimmering in the raw material.

After an internal schism, Genesee Pottery reopened as a public space in 1990, and through that decade increased its focus on offering classes and services. In 1991, the studio embarked on its first artist-in-residence program, with Phyllis Kloda, also a former Genesee Center board member and the current Associate Dean for the School of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at SUNY Brockport.

Her work is represented in this show with "Heavenly Dish," a confection-like vessel covered in ornate forms and lushly painted scenes of culinary indulgence, and with three different representations of winged Marys looking lovely and dolled up, playfully nodding to a dual meaning in the title. Former artist-in-residence, instructor, and studio manger Chea Peng's "Vase" is a massive, striking work with dripping, earthy texture, and capped with a thick coat of bright red glaze.

Not every piece in the show is a flashy feat of earthy engineering or mud made into highly decorative art. Many works, particularly early on, are rough-hewn, utilitarian, yet have a gorgeousness in their simplicity. "Vase" by the late Eddie Davis is the definition of earthy, a solid, raw form with crackled texture, balanced with a fragile, uneven lip and bits of shining glaze. Founding member Harriet Heller's "Vase from Kiln Fire" is another raw work which resembles a hunk of volcanic stone, a relic from another fire.

Each work holds some bit of fascination. Former member Jackie Boe's 1982 "Porcelain Jar" strikes a balance between a cream puff and a futuristic building. Former student and current studio manager Peter Pincus's contemporary "Cup" combines various textures and shapes in a simple and elegant manner. Former student, renter, and member Elisa Root's "Seated Woman in Purple" is a meditative, rough, pinched form with a splash of paint across her torso. Former artist-in-residence, instructor, and member Samantha Stumpf, is represented with two Raku tiles, each divided between a glazed part with detailing like frost, and an unglazed portion marked pitchy by the dancing flame.

In 2006, the Genesee Center hosted its first national show, "History in the Making," which included works by students across the country and was juried by Julie Galloway, director of the School of Art and professor at University of Montana, Missoula, and RIT professor Rick Hirsch. The current show follows an office and gallery renovation, addition of a gallery store, and a successful fundraiser last fall in which the community helped the Genesee Center fund a new kiln.

For me, the show holds fragments of so many memories of great shows held at the space, by artists such as former artist-in-residence Bethany Krull, whose "Porcelain Spider" reflects her ghostly work's focus on our dubious oscillation between fascination with, fear of, and control over other creatures. Former exhibiting artist and Nazareth professor Mitch Messina's work, "Cog," features three back-to-back-to-back figures, rife with rivets and seams, supporting a heap of boulders and standing on an industrial pedestal, part of the machine themselves.


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