Program Spotlight: MN NICE 5 Year Anniversary

Minnesota New Institute for Ceramic Education is celebrating its 5th Anniversary on Friday, March 8, from 6 – 8 pm with a reception for the Ideal Made Real: MN NICE exhibition. The exhibition is supported by Northern Clay Center and will be on view from March 8 – April 6, 2019 at the Vine Arts Center. The exhibition is part of the impressive roster of concurrent, independent exhibitions on display during the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference, March 27 – 29, 2019. 

If you haven’t yet learned about the MN NICE program, now is be the time to stop by the exhibition. Or, visit NCC’s resource table in the convention center during the NCECA conference to learn more about this unique opportunity, which provides an alternative to higher education with personalized professional development for early emergent ceramic artists. MN NICE is a rigorous program for artists who are serious about taking the next step in their ceramic evolution. The program is designed to respond to the changing needs of makers with high-level training and mentorship in ceramic materials, history and theory, and professional practice. Through innovative instruction and individual mentorship, artists build skills, knowledge, and insight.

NCC sat down with the MN NICE co-collaborator, program head, and primary facilitator. Ursula Hargens has extensive experience as an artist and educator. She is a three-time McKnight Ceramic Artist Fellow and has received additional awards and recognition from the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. Hargens taught ceramics at the University of Minnesota and currently leads an NCC-based initiative with Saint Paul College and Metro State.

NCC: In the past five years what lessons have you learned in your role as MN NICE Program Head? 
Hargens: One of the benefits of a nontraditional program like this is that it has a flexible structure. One of the things I’ve learned is to really listen to each group and respond to their interests and needs. I see leading this program as a creative act. The dynamic really changes based on the individuals in each cohort. I’ve become a lot more flexible as a teacher, in order to nimbly pivot to give them what they’re looking for at a particular time. Teaching in a responsive way is a skill I have personally developed as an educator over the course of this program. It makes the teaching dynamic exciting for me. The students really appreciate being listened to. The content of the program is not one-size-fits-all. I think it is very empowering to be listened to, to be respected, and to be taken seriously, in terms of developing themselves as artists.

NCC: Why do you think the path MN NICE is carving in the field of education is still significant?
Hargens: This program is a jewel. It provides an intense and rich experience I don’t see being replicated in the field. I think, because of the program’s scale, real relationships are made between affiliate artists, the participants of the program, and within the cohort. The personal relationship isn’t just about content or developing skills. It is really about making meaning through artwork and making meaningful relationships. Sometimes that happens in academic programs, but a lot of programs, designed for nontraditional students, don’t have the depth MN NICE has. This is why MN NICE is so special.

NCC: Has your concept of the ideal candidate for MN NICE shifted in this time? Why or why not?
Hargens: No, there hasn’t been a shift. I am less concerned with people’s technical skills and more interested in who they are as a person. I am more concerned about their openness to being part of the experience. They have to be curious. They have to be interested in clarifying their vision about what they want their work to be. It’s not about techniques or tips. It is about trying to figure out what you want to say as an artist, through pots or sculpture. Candidates for MN NICE need to be open to feedback, hearing what people have to say, and to being a part of a cohort and a collective. They need to bring an openness to being vulnerable about their work. They need to be willing to cultivate a perspective, which allows them to look back at where they’ve come from, look forward to where they’re going, and to consider how they want to interact with the larger world. It is very easy to get stuck on technique. The strength of the program is that it helps take all of the great technique and have it reflect what people want to be communicating through their work. 

NCC: What would you like to see happen with the program in the next five years?
Hargens: I’d like to keep increasing the applicant pool so I can really choose people who will work well together and support each other in each cohort. I would like to build connections between artists in the field or experiences post-graduation to build the networks. [MN NICE2 is a program that has grown out of the desire for alumni of the MN NICE program to continue networking with programming supplemented by NCC resources.]

NCC: Share with us your top 3 - 5 favorite moments from the program?
Hargens: One thing I am proud of is how the graduates are engaging with the larger ceramic community. Alumni have won major awards [like the Jerome Ceramic Artist Project Grant, regional commissions, recognition in national exhibitions, assistantships at national craft school, and some have gone on to graduate programs or artist residencies]; we have alumni with viable businesses, selling their work; they’re organizing exhibitions. It has been gratifying to see the alumni form a community that encompasses all the cohorts. They have built a network so they can create more opportunities together. They just had a Cone 6 exhibition [2232 Degrees Farenheit—When Less is More at the Lowertown Underground Artists Gallery in St. Paul]. 5 out of the 6 exhibiting artists were graduates from different MN NICE cohorts. There is a life beyond the actual program. The impact of MN NICE continues through the years, and creates tangible benefits for the artists. The program gives them tools. They take the tools and make things happen for themselves. They figure out how to build extended communities and new, meaningful, professional relationships.

NCC: Are there other aspects of MN NICE you want to make sure prospective candidates know about?
Hargens: We have a group of affiliate artists who work with the program. I have been pleasantly surprised to see how invested they are in the program each year. Almost every original affiliate artist has stayed with the program. And they are more enthusiastic than when the program began. Their feedback is always really great for students. The work exhibited is always very diverse from students – a testament to the fact that they are getting a lot of feedback from all of these great, talented, thoughtful artists within our community. I think it shows in the work, all of these influences from all of these different people; they take that in and incorporate it. Oftentimes, the affiliate artists are as excited about the cohort’s work. They’ll talk to me about the work and ideas of specific individuals. I am always grateful for the generosity with which they approach engaging with students. I hope that this program is giving them something back in return. My goal is to, even though affiliate artists are compensated, facilitate a holistic system that is self-supporting and sustainable.