Checco has 30 years of experience as a studio artist and ten years as an administrator of visual arts programming. Independent curatorial and project management activities take her around the world to a variety of cities where her work is held in public and private collections. She is currently serving on the International Committee of the College Art Association.
She holds a BFA in painting from the Art Academy of Cincinnati and an MFA in sculpture from DAAP in the University of Cincinnati and has studied in Florence, Italy and Paris, France. She exhibits new works of painting and sculpture created in her Cincinnati studio on a national level.
Currently she is producing events and exhibitions that network artists living in a variety of cultures. One such project is Tradition: the Blessing and the Curse for Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, conceived to link artists from different countries in conversation about how they have been shaped by tradition.
In her role as Project Manager for Clay, Color & Fire, Checco has been instrumental in bringing together master ceramists from Cincinnati's seven Sister Cities for a month-long workshop. Together, the artists will create over 7000 handmade ceramic tiles to embellish the colonnade of the Friendship Pavilion in Cincinnati's new Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park.
Her newest exhibition, MatriArt, expresses thoughts abut the social and psychological states of women living in America's late twentieth century domestic realm. It includes painting, ceramics, found object assemblage, installation and a performance for five readers and solo double bass.
Jan Brown Checco - Project Manager's Tecnical Notes
Last summer, seven master ceramists from around the world came together in Cincinnati, Ohio, to create a unique public art piece. The theme of piece, its location and the five-week event itself combined to make a statement for the absolute need for peace among people and nations. It was also a chance for the artists themselves to be energized and challenged.
This month of creative exchange got its start back in 1996 when the Cincinnati Park Board invited artists, designers, architects and cultural agencies to attend a week-long design charette for creation of a new peace park on the Ohio River. The result was the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park, which opened in May 2003. Berry was Cincinnati's first African-American mayor, and the park was named for Berry in honor of the ideal of peacemaking he embodied.
The design for this lovely greenspace on the eastern edge of downtown Cincinnati also called for permanent works of international art. The first was the June 21, 2003, installation of Welsh artist David Nash's sun calendar "Seven Vessels Ascending, Descending." Planning for the second, a collaborative international work, "Clay, Color and Fire," began in 2000. The idea was to bring master ceramists from Cincinnati's seven Sister Cities around the world to work together for a month creating seven mosaic panels to wrap the colonnade of the park's Friendship Pavilion. In July 2003, the plan became reality with the arrival of our seven artists for their month of work, a month that also drew community support from over a hundred participants, sponsorships, home stays, workshop lunches, field trips, and materials.
I served as project director for, "Clay, Color and Fire." My first presentation of the concept was to the Sister Cities Association of Greater Cincinnati, a regional organization that sponsors cultural, scientific, business and education exchanges. The Sister Cities International organization was created in 1958 by President Eisenhower in the hope that friendships established between individuals from different countries could help to preserve world peace. With support from Sister Cities, I next approached the Cincinnati Park Board and to the School of Art at DAAP, at the University of Cincinnati. These three organizations became the foundation for the project.
Turning such a big public dream into reality requires lots of research and consensus building. Preliminary planning conferences with Corinne Peterson, director of the Chicago's Millennium Mosaic Project, provided much inspiration and practical advice. The park's landscape and pavilion's architects agreed that ceramic mosaics would be an ideal medium and that the colonnade would be a prime location for collaborative art. They suggested resources for service and materials. Meetings with Roy Cartwright, chair of the UC ceramics program, and our eight-member project committee (comprised of two representatives from each partner organization plus two professional artists) refined the best procedures for this complicated endeavor.
Artist selection required establishing a new network of arts institutions throughout our Sister Cities. Each city had a different hierarchy of official art organizations ranging from arts and culture departments in city halls, to professional guilds, university art programs and commercial galleries. I designed "call to artists" materials typical of an American project, hoping that our intent and process would be understood.
Our project committee eventually juried 20 applicants and selected seven superb artists: Eva Sperner-Zernickel of Munich, Germany; Philippe Pasqualini of Nancy, France; Vladimir Shapovalov of Kharkiv, Ukraine; Marjorie Wallace of Harare, Zimbabwe; Ikuhiko Shibata of Gifu, Japan; He Zhenhai of Liuzhou, Peoples Republic of China; and Steven Lin of Taipei-Hsien, Taiwan.
Kirk Mayhew signed on as workshop manager. His experience in the UC ceramics studio and courteous nature were great assets to the project. Cincinnati's entire artists team included Kirk, myself, eight apprentices who also worked with the visiting artists daily, and dozens of assistants who contributed invaluable help at least eight hours a week.
Seven signed letters of agreement were in hand by December 2002 plus travel sponsors in each Sister City. My next task was to create long-distance art direction documents with photos, metric dimensioned diagrams of the columns, and a palette of oxide and mason stain colored engobes fired to cone 6. We had visited several outdoor ceramic mosaic installations in our region, discovered spawling wherever glazes had been used, and decided to eliminate that risk by using only engobes. The upper and lower sections of each column would be surfaced with Austrian glass and American porcelain tiles to create visual harmony among the seven different designs and with the building's architecture. These would also allow for easy repair in case of impact damage. The mosaics would be installed by professional tile setters with a variety of colored grouts.
Before coming to Cincinnati, each artist created a design that reflected art traditions of their region. They had three months to e-mail a color rendering and tile cut schematic to Cincinnati for approval by the project committee and the Cincinnati Park Board. Some of the designs were immediately approved, but a few required modifications, testing our diplomacy. Most artists balk at direction. In a few of these countries the idea of art direction for master level artists is absurd. We counted heavily on translators in each city to work with the artists to understand our project documents and e-mail.
Just as important as design direction would be fundraising. In a year of uncertain politics and economic difficulty, I served not only as art director and project manager, but also grant writer. I prepared a dozen applications and approached public and private patrons for support. Grant writing requires detailed plans. Many important details critical to our success were culled from the grant requirements of the Ohio Arts Council. Collection of funds, in-kind goods and services stretched over a year, along with technical research, and creation of teaching tools and tile samples.
The project's ultimate cost was $200,000 and about half was secured in cash donations from foundations, corporations, each of the Sister Cities, and individuals.
In our budget were $3000 honoraria allotments for each international artist, $5000 for the workshop manager, $2450 for hospitality (daily lunches and celebration dinner), $4500 in administrative costs, $5000 for public relations support and $24,000 for installation. Though the first budgets also included $45,000 for my full-time 28-month employment, it became clear that I would not be able to find enough cash to pay the other artists and myself, too. In December 2002, I realized that I was destined to work as a full-time volunteer. This allowed me to request more support from the project partners and other in-kind supporters.
Artists gather, work begins
By June 27, 2003, we had our core community of seven cultural advisors, 15 host families, six apprentices, dozens of artist assistants and nine field trips. Artists landed one at a time in Cincinnati over a weekend.
On Monday morning we met face-to-face at the Friendship Pavilion and began with a special exercise, " A Circle of Clay." Artist and healer Nancy Johanson proposed this to create connectedness since a few of our artists had difficulty with English, but all of us could speak in "clay." Each of us worked a 10" ball of clay for 30 minutes, and then were asked to extend our works to the left and right to connect with the work of our neighbors. Half of the artists did not understand. Even after seeing what was happening with the others, three artists were not interested in following suit. But a few days made a big difference in our group dynamics. When we resumed our work on the "Circle" four days later at a Fourth of July picnic, everyone gleefully connected the works all around the table!
After the circle exercise, we toured the park and the ceramics workshop at the University of Cincinnati. Our first two afternoons were filled with project orientation by the Cincinnati team and teaching by the international artists. Each artist showed slides of their own art, traditional and contemporary art of their region, spoke about two pieces of ceramic art brought for exhibition, and showed their sample tiles.
By day three, work stations had been prepared according to each artist's needs. Some preferred table tops, wishing to lay out the entire 7' x 6' slab. Others asked for us to make table top easels with a 3' x 8' work surface. These artists worked three separate
2.5' by 6' slabs at a time, later assembling everything on table tops for finishing, color application and cutting.
The artists chose from three clays: cream stoneware, speckled tan or brown with speckle, all from Columbus Clay. These all would shrink 8% at cone 6, creating a 1/8 - 1/4" space around each tile for grout joints. Each column required 250 pounds of boxed clay. Two artists chose to grog their clay because of a desired stoney appearance, but the others agreed to cut long slices for the salb roller straight from the bag, saving time and reducing risk of warping. To keep the slabs straight, we used plastic wrapped boards with canvas slip sheets to transfer their 1/2" - 1" slabs to the work stations.
Each weekday the artists arrived at 9 am and worked until 6 pm. We stayed together for lunch, an important time for building relationships and sharing information. A generous chef from the neighborhood prepared imaginative menus and did our grocery shopping. Food and comfort was of absolute importance to the group as we pushed through our 26 work days. Local restaurants learned about the project and began to bring Italian, Thai, French and Mediterranean lunches for 20. Our local Starbucks provided coffee every morning. This spontaneous hospitality stunned our visitors and delighted the locals.
The artists demonstrated virtuosity in ceramic technique daily, teaching without even trying. Working in a completely foreign setting and system, they relished the familiarity of their motifs and methods. Engobe application methods ran the gamut: spraying and wiping, masking and spraying, brushing followed by scrafito, sponging, spattering.
Vladimir used oxides in diluted and dry forms, painting them into his engraved lines for emphasis and dusting them across the surface of dried engobes to soften and shade areas on his Protecting Angel.
Philippe showed us how to inlay pieces of glass and old kiln coils as facets of his fossilized masks in "Imprint of Time."
Marjorie turned out 80 - 120 tiles a day, etching into leatherhard color coated squares her scarification patterns drawn from ancient and modern Africa.
Ikuhiko used baking soda as a burnout and texturizing material for his swaying Tokyo skyscrapers, then simple brush techniques for the quiet but powerful presence of Mount Fuji.
He Zhenhai stuck to the fundamentals in his monochrome design motifs common to the minority people of his region, working the clay as though he was carving wood.
Eva, a master of glass art, worked her clay as through it were glass, very smoothly with subtle relief carving, then used large paper masks on wet clay when spraying on color. Her two 12" columns indoors at the hearth required color choices based on the vivid, patterned linoleum floor. She included green and orange glass tiles from Austria and richly colored glass smalti handmade by Mayer of Munich.
Steven's "Fantasy Island" was playful in concept, but presented us with a dilemma - how to grout his rendition of volcanic sea rock, full of organic high and low reliefs and millions of piercings. After a coat of stone seal, we plugged the deepest holes with beeswax, then drizzled candle wax over the surface to seal the smallest holes. This would prevent grout from filling the recesses. Although it worked, removal of the wax was only possible through persistent picking with dental tools and orange sticks, requiring 84 hours cover then clean off his "sea rocks." God bless good natured volunteers!
During the modeling and coloring phases, each artist was cut loose to use his/her own methods, but ultimately all needed to come back to the "Cincinnati Plan" for finishing. We felt a palpable reticence when the time came to cut up the broad, beautifully modeled panels. Nonetheless, cutting proceeded, sometimes with straight edges and pizza cutters, sometimes freehand with knives, but always following the plans they had created the first day. No tile could exceed 2" wide by 4" tall, calculated to wrap the cylinder without too much projection of tile edges. The double square maximum proportion helped to avoid warping.
Next, the most distasteful yet essential tasks of the workshop: the carving of furrows on each tile back to speed drying and regularize the drying surface, also to minimize warping. Employing all hands in the workshop, we then numbered the backs of over 15,000 tiles, following the artists' numbered tracings. Each column had 21 distinct sections and each section broke down sometimes to more than one hundred tiles. Early consultations with our tile setters determined that our end product would be 12" x 24" sheets of tiles mounted on fiberglass mesh. Working in a clean room on the floor, we covered the full-sized working drawings with 4 mil plastic which insured non-adhesion of our Weldbond glue. Then we covered the drawings with mesh cut from 48" bolts. The back of the mesh sections were then numbered to prevent confusion after the glued down tiles would be cut into their final 12" x 24" sections for crating and transportation to the pavilion.
We said bon voyage but not goodbye on August 2 as our new friends left for home. The big empty studio echoed so many wonderful memories - Vladimir singing and blowing his clay whistle to chase away evil spirits, Professor He's booming baritone performance of provincial Chinese songs, the laughter of Iku and Steven as they clowned for us.
The Cincinnati team worked full-time throughout August. I moved to the pavilion to work with the professional installation team all of September while, back at the university, Kirk oversaw the modeling of the Cincinnati Double Phoenix.
The concept for the Cincinnati team's piece developed during the week prior to the workshop when an apprentice discovered that the phoenix is a mythological creature common to all of the workshop's cultures. In a yin-yang configuration, two firebirds whirl around an orb of light, expressing vitality and balance. Mindful of our relationship to Eva's "No" and "Yes" columns on either side of the hearth, we decided to invite the public to create hundreds of tiles to architecturally frame the mantle, using words ranging from negative to positive from the many languages of the workshop. These ideas fit together nicely since the hearth is not only a place of gathering for warmth and meals, but also a place of conversation and storytelling.
The Double Phoenix and public hearth tiles are the only glazed tiles in the project. We used a variety of underglazes, glazes and crystal glazes from Duncan and Gare, applied freely to cone 2 bisqued tiles. Rolling out 1" slabs of Buff clay which were built up to 2.5" at some points, we employed everything we'd learned from our guests, from carving and surface decoration to Philippe's glass inlays.
At the riverside park, we unloaded one artist's design at a time and reassembled it on top of its drawing. The tiles received a third coat of stoneseal (TileLab Surface Gard by Dupont) 24 hours before installation. Our installation mortar was Ultra/Flex RS by Mapei, a rapid setting one-step product mixed with water. The pace for adhering the tiles to the surface averaged 1 - 2 days per column, longer than originally anticipated due to the need for cutting up the 12" x 24" sections to adjust spacing around the column. Though tedious, this made up for a 1" shortfall on our width measurement. We had neglected to add 1/8" extra to the column's radius, the approximate thickness of the mortar bed. So I cut the sections into 2" - 4" widths, depending on the grout joint intervals each design would allow.
Smearing of grout on the tiles proved impossible except for Ikuhiko, Eva and Marjorie's designs. The other columns had to be tuck pointed, treating the tiles like small bricks. Excess grout was removed with sponges, toothbrushes and orange sticks. The next day we removed any film left with a mild acid wash, 600 Detergent from Sure Klean by Prosoco, diluted with a ratio of 12 c. water to 1 c. acid . Our grouts were Hydroment Bostic which comes in dozens of colors. Some designs required two different colors of grout. The pace for grouting was, again, 1-2 days per column. A coat of stone seal finished the new grout joints. We used Enrich 'n' Seal by Aqua Mix when we wanted to deepen colors, as in the case of Prof. He's and Steven's column which had grout joints too light and in high contrast with the tiles, not allowing proper viewing of their monochromatic carving. Finally an anti-graffiti coating was applied two months after installation. This wax-based coating allows for removal of most paint and marker vandalism by heating, wiping and recoating.
We have over 6000 digital photos to document our processes and experiences. The best can be viewed in our 12-minute CD "Clay, Color and Fire" and on our website www.claycolorfire.org which was created by volunteer Steve Rindsberg so that all Sister Cities and local participants could keep up with the project's progress.
That brings us to the end of the story except, literally, for the shouting.
At the October 18, 2003, dedication ceremony, 150 listened to guest speakers and viewed the CD program. Then we phoned all seven artists and the crowd cheered wildly as each one came on line to celebrate our collective achievement.
An April 2004 reunion is planned so that the artists can see their works installed and see each other again. Each will bring a slide presentation about public artworks in hometown green spaces, and we will continue our discovery of how art is used to inspire these distant communities and our own.
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