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Celebrating Relationships Through Art

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Artist
Nov 30th, 2019

article by APRIL CLARK HONAKER | photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK

Megan Smith enjoys the idea of sharing joy and love with others through her work. She considers her pieces love letters – not in the traditional sense – but in that every piece has a little bit of her soul poured into the clay.

Love letters. These words call up images of swirling, handwritten script on paper and thoughts of true love and passion. Although they’ve now become virtually archaic, there was a time before the internet and cell phones when lovers used them to express their most heartfelt and intimate thoughts. In the last two years, ceramic artist Megan Smith has revived and broadened the idea of love letters with her art.

Last year, after preparing work for an exhibition at the Garrett House in Monroe, Louisiana, Megan had an epiphany. “I finally figured it out,” she said. “It was an ah-ha moment.” As she reflected on all the work she had put in and what it all meant, she realized that while she was making things, she tended to be thinking of someone specific. To honor that realization, the resulting exhibition was called “Celebration” and was about celebrating her relationships with people.

But soon Megan realized there was even more to her process. Not only was she thinking of people while she worked, she was pouring love into her work. This realization came when she decided to make a special mug for her uncle to thank him for supporting her from the beginning. He had bought some of her early pieces and assured her they were perfect, but she felt the need to make something “nice” for him. The mug she made included the words “love always,” and when she finished it, Megan thought, “This is a love letter.”

Since then, she has tended to think of her works as love letters, and she’s created them with those she’s closest to in mind. She’s created bowls with colorful pennant flags as love letters to her husband and said, “The love I feel for him is like a celebration—like a homemade party.” She’s also created love letters for her mother, grandmother, other family members, friends, students, and even herself. Although her love letters are not love letters in the traditional sense, they are all made with love. “Every piece is a little bit of my soul poured into dirt,” she said. “It’s like giving people love from a distance.” At the same time, there is a level of closeness that comes with each piece, especially the functional ones we use to hold coffee or our chicken noodle soup. “Mugs are one of the few things you touch with your mouth during the day,” Megan said. There’s intimacy in that.

Even though a customer may not know the story behind a piece, Megan said, “They can write their own story when they take it and use it.” Megan loves to make things, and she loves the idea of sharing joy and love with others through her work. “It’s that idea of pouring love into a vessel,” she said, “and I like to see them go off to homes and live their lives.” In the process, she believes the piece comes to hold meaning for her and for the customer. “Loving people is one of the greatest things you can do,” she said, “and I get to do that through my art and my teaching.”

In addition to being an artist, Megan is currently in her fourth year as an instructor of art at the University of Louisiana in Monroe. But before she was an artist and teacher, Megan thought she would become a musician. She always loved art but spent most of her formative years focusing on band and playing the flute and piccolo. “I just knew I was gonna be a musician,” she said. Even while she honed her music skills, she was making art from an early age, and her family was carefully paving the way for whatever creative endeavors she wished to pursue.

When she was very small and living in Ohio, her mom made sure they visited the Toledo Museum of Art every week. Her parents also gave her art sets when she was little, and when she was in junior high, they gave Megan her first set of oil paints, which she used to copy Bob Ross’s paintings from TV.

Megan’s grandparents were also creative types and excellent role models for her growing creativity. “I was always surrounded by people making things,” Megan said, “so I was always making things.” Even today, she finds herself inspired by the people around her and by her family lineage, which is full of makers.

Despite her strong love of music and dreams of being a musician, Megan found herself continually drawn to art. But for most of her childhood, it was just a natural part of her life. She hadn’t really considered it as something to seriously study, much less as a potential career. Then, in high school, she decided to take art as an elective, and that’s when her plans began to shift.

Recognizing her talent, the teacher recommended her for Advanced Placement (AP) art classes. Heeding the advice, Megan found her talents challenged by Kyle Clark, a teacher with an infectious passion for art who held his students to a college-level standard. It was his class that caused Megan to change course in college.

Initially, while in college at the University of North Texas, Megan decided to pursue drawing and painting, not ceramics. In fact, when she was required to take a 3-D elective and found herself in an introductory ceramics class, she struggled a lot. “I just could not do it,” she said. She even considered dropping the class, but her instructor, a graduate assistant named Garret Pendergrass, would not let her quit. According to Megan, it took her a long, long time to grasp the basics of ceramics, but Garret was supportive and graded her on effort. When the course ended, Megan had no intentions of ever taking another ceramics course again, but she ended up not having a choice. When she needed an upper-level elective, the only course available was in ceramics.

Megan enrolled out of necessity, but much to her surprise, the instructor, another graduate assistant named Susan Kennedy, changed the way she felt about ceramics. “She completely made me fall in love with clay,” Megan said, “and I haven’t had my hands clean since.”

After falling in love with ceramics rather late in her undergraduate studies, she decided to earn a degree in drawing and painting, as well as in ceramics. It took longer for her to finish, but she has no regrets. “I knew at that point ceramics was something I would do forever,” she said. When something is that important, Megan believes you should do what you can to make sure it’s always a part of your life.

After completing her bachelor’s degrees, she completed a post-baccalaureate mentorship under ceramicist Chris Gray at Collin College in Plano, Texas. During this time, she was churning out work rather quickly, and it was piling up in her parents’ home. As a result, her mom encouraged Megan to sign up for art fairs to liquidate some of her stock. Things were going well at the fairs, but Megan said she eventually caught her mom taking things from the displays and sneaking them back in the boxes. “Once they were out in the world, she realized she couldn’t live without them,” Megan said. When confronted, her mom started buying the pieces, and Megan said, “She always overpaid me, so I forgave her.” Now Megan’s mom has pieces from all 13 years of Megan’s career as a ceramicist displayed on open-air kitchen shelves.

This period of mentorship under Chris Gray was one of tremendous growth for Megan, and she decided to go on to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in studio art with a concentration in ceramics from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. During the first year and a half of her master’s studies, Megan focused on creating functional pottery, but as one might expect, graduate school eventually forced Megan to break out of her comfort zone. Soon she was exploring more sculptural work. Finding success with it, she decided to create a sculptural installation piece for her thesis. Although she was very proud of it, after graduation, it just sat in boxes in the corners of her house collecting dust.

Inspired to create something useful again, Megan rediscovered her love for functional pottery when she started teaching at ULM. Without the pressure of grades and critiques, she enjoyed creating work that was both beautiful and functional. “I like to focus on that idea of being in love,” she said.

After just one semester of teaching as an adjunct, Megan was offered a full-time instructor position. Now she teaches all of the ceramics and art history courses at ULM. Given that she’s in her fourth year, Megan is nearing the day when she’ll see the graduation of the first ceramics student that she’s taught from beginning to end. That student is Taylor Barrere. Megan said, “I knew the first time she sat at the wheel that she was going to be special.”

Because Megan takes teaching seriously, Taylor’s graduation will be a significant moment in her career as a ceramics instructor. Because she has such a deep appreciation for the ceramics instructors who helped her along the way, she wants to be that instructor to her students. She wants to make them fall in love with ceramics the way she did, and she feels she’s succeeded with Taylor. “I know ceramics will always be a part of her life,” Megan said.

Megan describes herself as a very nurturing instructor. She tries to help her students be the artists they want to be. Not only does she support them in the classroom and the studio, but she also believes it’s important to give them opportunities to interact with other professional artists and their work. “If you’re gonna learn to make functional ceramics, you need to touch and use others’ work,” she said. In fact, she and a group of students recently traveled to the Texas Clay Festival in Gruene, Texas, to interact with 84 clay artists and their work. When they got back, Megan knew the trip had served its purpose when one of her students said, “I think I’m addicted. I need to touch more pots.” A bonus of the trip was that Megan was able to introduce her students to one of her own mentors, Susan Kennedy.

While Megan considers being an instructor her primary job, she continues to make work of her own. Doing so inevitably makes her a better mentor, but she also simply can’t stop. “The inclination to create has always been part of who I am,” she said. At this point in her life, she believes her desire to create also connects to her desire to be a mom. One day, she hopes to be a mom, but in the meantime, she said she’ll keep making art.

Clay has proven to be the perfect medium for her. “I love all the things clay can do,” she said. “I love exploring and pushing it to the limits.” At the same time, Megan acknowledges that clay is a difficult medium to work with. “Any mistake will come back to haunt you,” she said, “but I take that as a challenge. I’m always looking for something exciting and new.” The nature of clay allows for an endless variety of forms, and there are infinite possibilities for colors as well. Megan especially loves color research and is constantly experimenting with different stains and bases. She recently created some beautiful, bright colors, and her first thought was, “What can I do with this new rainbow?” For Megan, getting the perfect color is difficult. “It’s like chasing something I’ll never capture completely,” she said. But she still loves it. “Because ceramics is so process oriented I’ve learned if you really want to do something great, you have to work hard at it. According to Megan, it’s like marriage in that way: 50-50 isn’t enough; it takes 100-100.

Like life, making ceramics is also full of surprises. An artist can plan and execute every step with care, but everything can change in the kiln. Even if the exact same, previously successful procedures are followed, the results may be different. “It’s like Christmas every time,” Megan said. But there are also times when the results are less than stellar. Things break and colors get botched. These moments can be disappointing, especially to students who haven’t yet learned this lesson, but like her own mentors, Megan tries to ensure that they don’t quit.

In fact, the most important lesson Megan tries to pass on to her students is that they have to work hard. “It’s the only way to get better,” she said, “and no one gets better sitting at home watching Netflix.” They also have to keep working hard, even when things go awry. Pieces will break, but something is always learned in the process, so all isn’t lost. “Your next piece will be better,” she said, and work can be its own reward, but no matter how hard you work at something, you have to be willing to accept losing it. “Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you’re not gonna fail,” She said. The same is true of love. “You can love someone deeply,” Megan said, “but that doesn’t mean you won’t lose them.”

Although life and making ceramics can be heartbreaking at times, they can be equally rewarding. The passion, commitment, and time involved in making ceramics are worth it—both on an artistic level and a human level. Megan said, “I know for sure it makes me more compassionate and more empathetic.” It also certainly teaches resilience. “You always have to be working if you want to be successful,” she said, “and I hope my students never stop when they leave.” One of the things Megan enjoys most about being an artist is seeing other people use her work—seeing a photo of her work on Instagram or seeing one of her mugs on the dash of a colleague’s car—but seeing students like Taylor succeed in sharing their work with the world is bound to spark a similar kind of joy.