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Ceramacist David Hiltner and the anticipation of uncertainty

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When David Hiltner says he's passionate about ceramics, he's not just talking about making clay vessels. He's talking about the science behind the glaze, the technical work of building a kiln and the careful construction of community. He's excited by the adventure of trying something new—and then perfecting it.

Since 1993, when he received his B.F.A in Ceramics from Wichita State University, Hiltner has been on the trajectory of someone who isn't afraid to take calculated leaps to get closer to his goals. He followed his undergraduate work with an M.F.A from Syracuse University in 1997 and then held several professorships, including a position at his alma mater in Kansas. In 2005, after some saving and a lot of research, he moved his family to Red Lodge, on the border of Yellowstone, and opened the Red Lodge Clay Center.

It took some sweat and uncertainty, but 12 years later, the center is a nationally recognized nexus for professional ceramic artists. Its ever-multiplying programs include residencies, visiting artists' workshops, conferences, an online store, a clay store, community outreach events and exhibitions.

David Hiltner opened the Red Lodge Clay Studio in 2007.
  • David Hiltner opened the Red Lodge Clay Studio in 2007.

Somehow, with so much else on his plate, Hiltner hasn't stopped creating his own art. His work has evolved from beautiful-but-functional cups and jars to more complex and abstract sculptural pieces.

"I love the process of creating ceramics," he says. "It's very repetitious, and the more you do it, the better you get. Also, you can make anything out of clay. You have a pretty wide latitude to express yourself with this particular medium."

Hiltner went to college initially to study business. His grandfather began a welding supply company in 1940, and Hiltner had been an active participant in the family enterprise throughout his youth. When he discovered ceramics, his path took a turn, though the business lessons he learned never left him.

After a few years of teaching, Hiltner began looking for an ideal location to house a ceramics space. It had to be able to make money, but also be an appealing destination for visiting artists. And it had to be somewhere he could pursue his other passions: hunting and fishing. He and his wife, who is also an artist, decided on Red Lodge, where they went to work creating a 6,800-square-foot studio full of kilns and wheels, a gallery in a historic downtown building, and a collection of furnished houses and apartments for resident artists.

"One of the reasons we started with the residences is that the commerce side of art is often ignored in academia," Hiltner says. "Academics are more interested in concepts and in developing work, and commerce can be taboo. Here, artists learn about how to market themselves, how to price art, take inventory, all the things we do to make a living as artists."

Programs at the clay center, all of which are privately funded, seem to hinge on two goals: bringing art to the local community and enriching the national community of ceramic artists. Aside from more traditional residency programs, Hiltner also began an Artists Invite Artists series, in which one ceramics artist brings a group of artist friends together to create and share work. In addition, the Advanced Student Project Network program is aimed at discovering and educating up-and-coming college-age artists from around the country, who not only work together at the clay center but also tour notable ceramics studios across Montana.

Hiltner’s “Pheasant Cart” will be part of an opening exhibit at the Radius Gallery.
  • Hiltner’s “Pheasant Cart” will be part of an opening exhibit at the Radius Gallery.

With a few staff members and resident artists working 20 hours per week to help out, Hiltner still has time to make his own art and help raise his two daughters. He also makes time to get outdoors, traveling around the area to hunt and fish—experience that plays into his art.

"In Ted Leeson's The Habit of Rivers, he talks about the impassioned anticipation of an uncertain thing," Hiltner says. "That's art and hunting and fishing to me. Will the glaze pool in the right places? Is this the right decision? Is this idea going to come together?"

Like the clay center itself, Hiltner's art is the product of pushing himself, even—maybe especially—when he's not sure how it will turn out. His most recent work includes playful, bucolic sculptures with repeated images drawn from the landscape. In one piece, a silo-shaped container covered with freshly plowed rows is topped with the elegant shape of a pheasant. In another, the twists and turns of fish come together to form a whimsical trophy. In a third, ears of corn, each topped with a rubber nipple, fill an old wooden Coca-Cola crate—a mischievous comment on the pervasiveness of corn syrup in our food.

"I don't want my work to be preachy," he says. "I want it to have some humor and have people ask questions. This is a tongue-in-cheek way of poking fun at things. If the work has people asking questions about it, that's what makes it successful."

The Radius Gallery hosts an opening reception and artist talk for David Hiltner and artists Hadley Ferguson and Bobbi McKibbin Fri., Jan. 20, from 4 to 7 PM.

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