- Wesley Harvey won the 20th Annual National Ceramics Competition Friday, April 11
- His piece, a flowered vase featuring a homoerotic scene, was deemed inappropriate for children
- The vase was turned toward the wall during the symposium
- Leopold Foulem, the juror of the competition, says the nonconformity of the vessel is why he chose it
- Harvey intends to further his education of ceramics with the prize money with a residency in China
- Harvey is a ceramics teacher at Incarnate Word
- On Monday the vase was turned back around
Hands held up to the sides of their mouths, patrons of the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts Friday spoke in hushed whispers, motioning to the back left corner of the second story exhibit room, where few stood in clusters eyeing a red, yellow, white and gold flower-covered vase.
Every now and then a brave soul would reach his or her hand behind the vase clutching an iPhone, quickly photograph the backside, then take a look at the cell phone screen. More mumbles and whispers would follow.
The vase, titled “Cupcake Eaters”, won first prize at the National Ceramics Competition over the weekend, besting some 110 other displayed items in the exhibition hall for a cash prize the artist hopes to use to complete a residency in China’s porcelain capital.
Were it not for the whispers, which traveled through the museum like a schoolground rumor, several may not have ever even seen the front face of the first prize, as it stood turned toward the museum wall. It simply was not deemed appropriate for the children in the hall.
“I use a lot of imagery from Tom of Finland, who has a lot of hardcore, homoerotic, gay imagery,” artist Wesley Harvey of San Antonio explained. An appropriated image from Tom of Finland can be seen on the side of the vase facing the wall, which features two detailed naked men and several cupcakes.
“A lot of my work is about queer theory,” Harvey continues, “which looks at the normative and deviant behavior, so kind of taking this deviant act and making it somewhat sweet, which is why the cupcakes are kind of falling from the one guy into the other guy’s mouth.”
Harvey said the vessel took a couple of months to complete, as he employs a method of “coil building” in which the vase is gradually built up by layers of clay strips. The silk flowers, he says, are representative of the culture in San Antonio, where fake flowers are commonly used in art pieces.
Speaking to his win at the National Ceramics competition, Harvey, a first-time entrant, says he was shocked to have won. Even getting the piece in the show was a compromise, he said, but he’s glad he chose to submit. The reactions from the San Angelo audience were interesting, he said.
“It’s funny walking by, because people don’t know who I am, and it’s just watching them peek around is really interesting. Some people are like, ‘we want it turned around!’” he said.
“It was a compromise to get it in the show. The director had called me and said, ‘Leopold (the judge) wants it in, but the board doesn’t really like your piece. Can we show it with the image against the wall?’ I was just so excited to be in the show, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, put it in the corner. I don’t care.’ I’m glad I made that right decision.”
Harvey’s mixed media creation consisted of stoneware, glaze, decals, luster, silk flowers and gold enamel. The theme of mixed media was fairly consistent throughout the exhibit, where several employed found objects, such as teabags and steel, and other materials to complete their pieces.
But regardless of how graphic or taboo the piece may be, ceramics competition judge Leopold Flourem says it’s the fact that the vessel doesn’t conform to the norm that moved him to select it as first prize.
“[I look for] how original it is, like a fresh thought, how significant it is an art piece, and how different it is from what is being made,” Flourem explained his judging principles.
“That was extraordinary because of its connection with ceramic history. This type of surface is mil fleur, I would translate that as 1,000 flowers. That is a porcelain surface,” he says, speaking of the vessel’s surface, “but that part is kind of anti-porcelain. If you notice, the top is brown, murky, and porcelain is slick and white.”
The surface of the image is also pitted, Flourem said, describing the style as “kind of negating the material”, which he says is an example of “sloppy craft”, a form in which technique is not an issue.
Flourem says that several of the pieces submitted for the show were “sloppy craft”, and motioned to other pieces that are termed “upcycled” for their use of objects primarily intended for other purposes.
As for the imagery, Flourem says the homoerotic theme is also consistent with historical ceramic artwork, citing similar Greek imagery and ancient Chinese artwork where illustrations are meant to portray sexual images.
“[The inclusion of the scene] kind of changed the narrative, made the narrative a little more political…I think all that made the piece very strong,” he said.
Joan Mertz, a local artist and art aficionado, says she has mixed feelings about the piece. “I was a little bit like, ‘Oh wow, it got first place,’” she said. “I saw it as this is a chance for San Angelo’s kind of ‘drawing the line in the sand’ of what we exhibit and how we tolerate it and process it to kind of get over it. “
Mertz says that she understands the educational emphasis of the museum and therefore the choice to leave the piece facing the wall, however says if it weren’t for the children she would have preferred to have it turned around for the exhibit.
Speaking to the judge’s decision on selecting the piece, Mertz said, “He (Flourem) didn’t really back it up except that he was already coming ready to salivate over it. But, I learned some wonderful things from him today about the duplicity of stuff he likes in art, referencing all sorts of art, but then, you’re always going to get the juror’s point of view, and that’s why it’s number one.”
Each year some 6,000 children come through the museum for educational purposes and Friday night several were present as well. Mertz agrees that omitting the educational essence of the museum would be detrimental to the community and would not help the museum grow, but was a bit torn on the subject of hiding the piece.
“I guess I’m sorry he selected it in some ways and we can’t show it. I think it’s better than him getting here and them saying, ‘Oh no, no, you can’t pick that one.’ I think that’s the ebb and flow of art today. Everything’s on the internet—how do you start defining what you like? It’s listening to people, it’s seeing it, and also, being slightly protected.”
That people are somewhat protected when it comes to his work is not new to Harvey, who is a part-time ceramics teacher at Incarnate Word University. “They sometimes don’t like my work, but I’m just part time,” he says. “They just prefer not to see it. You could say I wouldn’t show that piece in our gallery on campus.”
Harvey has been making art for about 15 years now, but first started in ceramics when he was attending the University of Indiana, where he received is Bachelor of Fine Arts.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do [when I was in college],” he said. “I took a ceramics class and was like, ‘This is pretty cool. I could take another class.’ It got to the point where my advisor was like—I was a math major—she said, ‘Maybe you should just switch, because you’re kind of taking class for no reason now and you seem to like ceramics.’ So I switched.”
After graduating from the University of Indiana, Harvey moved to Texas and completed his MFA at Texas Tech. Since then, he’s been working as an artist and part time instructor. With the prize money from the competition, Harvey intends to fund part of a 2-8 week residency in China, where he hopes to work on five-foot ceramic structures.
Harvey’s award-winning “Cupcake Eaters” will remain on display with the other entries of the 20th Annual National Ceramics Competition at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts until June 29. As of Monday, the vase had been turned back around to display the imagery in the exhibit room. Whether or not it will remain forward facing is as of yet unknown.
The 2014 competition juror, Leopold Foulem, hails from Montréal, Canada and is an internationally-recognized ceramic artist, instructor and scholar. Each year, SAMFA selects a different juror to judge the competition.