Wayne Higby remembers Val Cushing
(Editor’s Note: Colleagues, students, and alumni lost a beloved faculty member and friend this past week when renowned potter Val Cushing, professor of ceramics emeritus, died. Wayne Higby, professor of ceramics and Robert C. Turner Chair of Ceramic Art, was moved to put some of his memories of Val in writing.)
Remembering Val Cushing
By Wayne Higby, Nov. 18, 2013
“Alfred University Ceramic Art Division faculty meeting, fall 1973, with Ted Randall, Bob Turner and Val Cushing - I sat in disbelief. What did I think I was doing there in the presence of these heroes of American ceramics? The challenge to live up to their achievements was daunting, but energizing. They embraced me and never wavered in their support. It was tough. I was blessed.
“Through Val I became connected to the living history of American ceramic art, which began to build into a ground swell after World War II. Val could tell you about the visionary Charles Harder of Harder Hall and about Dan Rhodes who wrote the books we used to build the foundations of our technical practice. Val could tell you about his experience with the profoundly inspirational Marguerite Weldinhain who came to America from the German Bauhaus on a tidal wave of gifted European intellectuals who traveled to America to escape the horror of war in Europe. These individuals enriched our culture beyond measure. Val could tell you how Marguerite, a German woman artist, changed his life.
“Working with Val inspired me with the feeling that I was connected to this history, that I was becoming part of this history, that I was living this history, that I had roots in a practice that was deep, mysterious, magical and important.
“Val came from Rochester, NY to Alfred University in 1948 on an athletics scholarship. Here he discovered a tool: the wheel, a material: clay - AND some inspiring teachers. His life gained focus. Val became a passionate student of functional pottery returning to Alfred for his MFA in 1954.
“In 2001 Val recorded an interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. I recommend it. This interview is comprehensive and full of ideas and opinions. It is a catalytic document that is mind expanding. In this interview he mentions that in the 1950s he probably knew the name of every potter in America. Today, of course, that would be impossible. Why? Largely because Val devoted his career not only to studio pottery, but to teaching as well. His teaching became bedrock for generations of aspiring potters. Today, the ripple effect of Val’s devotion to education can be felt not only in America, but also around the world.
“In 2010, I traveled to Paris for a meeting of the International Academy of Ceramics. In returning home, by necessity, I went through the U.S.A. immigration procedures. I handed my passport to the officer of the day. He glanced at it; looked up and said: ‘Are you Wayne Higby the ceramic artist?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘You live in Alfred, right?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Then you must know Val Cushing!’ I smiled; he continued: ‘I love that man’s pots.’
“Val Cushing’s legacy as a great potter and teacher is woven into the fabric of American Art. Our memory of his contribution is fundamental to the story we will tell and retell about the immortals of ceramic art.”
Wayne Higby, Robert C. Turner Chair of Ceramic Art
November 18, 2013
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