This Fall, the art department experienced a directional shift following the retirement of Professor of Art Syd Carpenter. Carpenter’s area of expertise was in ceramics, and because of her retirement, the department is no longer offering ceramics courses and is instead looking to branch out into new 3D art programs. Meanwhile, students still interested in ceramics are adapting to the changing art department and forming student-led ceramic clubs and classes.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Kestrel Valdez ’23, a leader of the Ceramics Club at Swarthmore, spoke about Professor Carpenter’s retirement.
“Last year, we found out that ceramics professor [Syd Carpenter] would be retiring in the fall. She’s an amazing, experienced professor for over 50 years,” she said.
Logan Grider, Associate Professor of Art and Chair of the Art department, explained that, because of Carpenter’s retirement, the department is looking to hire another professor who will teach ceramics.
“Syd was a terrific colleague and a powerful teacher so of course anytime someone of this stature retires it’s a loss. We are also mindful that every change of this nature presents an opportunity, in this case the disciplinary focus will broaden and we are looking forward to welcoming a new terrific colleague and powerful teacher to our department later this spring,” he said.
As a tenured professor, Carpenter’s retirement opens up a new tenure-track position. Valdez explained that, when a tenure-track professor in a certain department retires, the tenure-track position does not return to that department; rather, it is open to all of them. Thus, Grider explained, it has been critical for the art department to adapt.
“As is common with any small department or program, our curriculum has evolved and so we remain flexible in how we utilize our limited staffing resources. [Tenure-track] lines do not automatically return to a department or program after a retirement. You must make the strongest possible case to retain a line and this often means changing the nature of the position,” he said.
In order for the art department to continue to evolve, they have switched gears and begun to focus on 3D design, moving away from traditional ceramics classes. According to Grider, 3D design courses were in high demand following pre-registration for Spring 2023 — even higher than in past years. In response, the department is looking to hire a tenure-track position that would accommodate the high numbers of interested ceramics students.
“This year we are searching for a tenure-track line in Integrative Design and the Built Environment. We expect one of the roles [of] this new tenure-track position will … be to continue to incorporate clay in courses, but [also] materials and approaches will be expanded well beyond clay to acknowledge the larger, more complex field of 3D design, architectural studies and the built environment,” he said.
Valdez understands the art department’s need to adapt to keep up to date with students’ changing desires, but she also expressed her regret over the way the art department is seemingly being forced to change.
“It’s very unfortunate, I sympathize a lot with the art department because this is a very real need for them to support their students, and their students’ interests and career aspirations. It’s very sad that Swarthmore as an institution feels like it’s forcing its departments to make themselves [a certain way],” she said.
Although the primary reason for the department shifting the nature of the ceramics position is due to Carpenter’s retirement, Grider explained that there are benefits to changing the position, as it will enable the department to remain pragmatic and reconsider its curriculum in response to new student interests.
“The rationale for pivoting the position from exclusively ceramics is manifold. Beyond the concern about breadth, student interest, and addressing architectural studies more thoroughly, we are planning for future staffing needs in relation to our existing curriculum. With this position we are strengthening our architecture and design offerings,” he said. “Retaining ceramics as a sole stand-alone discipline would have ignored the demands of our current curriculum, the substantial student interest, and our future plan for the program.”
For students interested in ceramics, there are still opportunities available. To fill the current ceramics void in the department, former ceramics courses that were taught through the department are now being taught by students. This semester, a course called “Potter’s Wheel: Beginner to Intermediate Throwing” is taught by Gursimran Pannu ’23, with guest lectures and demonstrations from Jocelyn Auld ’23, Kestrel Valdez ’23, and Rivers Redclay ’23. In addition, Grider explained, the department has helped students charter a ceramics club.
Valdez mentioned that the introduction of the ceramics club and increasing accessibility to ceramics is one benefit of the shifting nature of the ceramics position in the art department.
“[When] there wasn’t a ceramics club … you could only make pottery if you were registered in the class. So now it is much more accessible to the greater student body. You don’t have to be in classes to have the opportunity to work with clay,” she said.
The only challenge for the club, Valdez noted, is figuring out a space to continue their work.
“There used to be three rooms [in Beardsley]: a glaze room, the main studio room, and a kiln room. The main room’s now a paint studio, and it wasn’t until the second or third week of the semester that they let us have one of these rooms,” she shared.
This problem is likely to continue into next semester because the current ceramics space will be occupied for storage.
“There’s currently a storage space in the basement of Whittier that they need to turn into a classroom. They need to move the stuff in that storage space into the ceramics studio we have right now … So it’s unclear if we’ll be able to find another space on campus [where] we can have a studio … [and] if you can’t have a studio on campus that’ll really limit what ceramics club would be able to do here ” Valdez said.
However, Valdez remains optimistic about the future of the ceramics club and is thankful for the support they have received so far.
“The art department has been supportive in trying to help us find another space on campus that could be a permanent space for the club,” she said.
12/1/22, 8:36 p.m.: This article has been amended to change the headline to better reflect the contents of the article.