By Nikole Ann Gibbens
“When you’re not motivated and don’t know what to sculpt, just start working because clay always leads you to something interesting.”
This is just one of many inspiring things Jennifer Owen, a ceramics teacher at UH Maui College, says to get her students excited and focused during class.
Originally from a little rural university town in Connecticut, Owen began her ceramic art journey when she was just a child, forming the red clay wrappings from Gouda cheese into mini sculptures.
When she was in the third grade, her class took a field trip to Pioneer Village in Massachusetts where she watched a ceramic artist making pioneer equipment like candle sticks and ink wells.
What really caught her eye was the throwing style of the artist demonstrating a kick wheel. Kick wheels are potter’s wheels that are rotated by kicking a heavy disk on a vertical shaft. The technique is difficult to master and involves great skill in coordinating the feet and hands. “I remember watching him and thinking I want to do that,” Owen recalled.
Unfortunately, ceramic classes weren’t offered at her junior high or high school. During her freshman year of college, Owen tried to signed up for her first beginner ceramics class, but was put on a waiting list, which she didn’t end up making. By the end of her first semester, and after reapplying for the next semester ceramics class, her future ceramics teacher reached out to her and assured her a spot.
“From there, it all started,” Owen said. “I was hooked on wheel throwing immediately.”
Not too long after, she changed her major to art in order to work with clay as much as possible. While in college, she was distant from her parents, although her father was very supportive with her ceramics career. Eventually, Owen married an artist who became her No. 1 supporter—and critic. They have been married for more than 25 years now.
Owen’s ceramic inspiration was a friend, former teacher and mentor of hers named M.C. Richards. Richards inspired Owen by demonstrating direct expression into every piece she made. As an artist, poet and writer, Richards was an exceptional teacher and mentor to thousands of people. Owen first met Richards in college, and later on in graduate school. Sometime later, while on Maui, Owen asked her to come in and host a workshop for a month—and that’s when they became friends. Unfortunately, Richards passed away a few years ago. She left behind an impression that Owen will never forget.
Ceramic arts has taken Owen all over the world. While traveling, she would visit workshops and museums to check out all the different artists and pieces she could. All the background and knowledge Owen has gained by traveling has widened her perspective on ceramic arts and made her more open to other styles and techniques.
“I enjoy all techniques, I love variety. I think that’s why I became a teacher in the first place,” she said.
Owen has been working at UH Maui College for 18 years. She first accepted a job as a beginning ceramics class teacher, which she taught for her first few years. After a while, she wanted to take on a bigger role in the ceramics department. Owen now teaches three courses: Beginning Hand Throwing, Beginning Wheel Throwing and Advanced Ceramics.
Her favorite thing to do involves throwing wet clay on a potter’s wheel. “I love to throw,” she said. “That was my first love and I will probably never get tired of it.”
Owen prefers to alter a majority of her wheel-thrown pieces by cutting designs or altering the shape. She usually finishes up her pieces without glazing them. Glaze is an impervious layer of a vitreous substance that fuses to the ceramic body while being fired. Glazes are usually used for color, decoration and to waterproof a piece.
Owen said her favorite type of firing is salt firing. Salt firing creates an “orange peel-like” surface texture. Salt is thrown directly into the kiln, creating a reaction between the sodium in the salt and the silica in the clay.
Owen is highly respected and loved by many at UH Maui College. Her teaching techniques and kind personality make her classes stress-free, educational and a fun experience. With her background and knowledge, Jennifer Owen is an ideal ceramic arts teacher.