The Gatepost Interview: Keri Straka, Associate Professor of Art

[Erin Fitzmaurice]

What is your background?

I have a bachelor of fine arts in ceramics from Western Washington University and that’s on the West Coast. I’m originally from a little bit north of Seattle and a little bit south of Vancouver, B.C. So, it’s situated kind of in the middle of two major cities, which was nice for being able to go see arts and be a part of exhibitions and everything. That was in the late ’90s and then early 2000s, I moved to this side of the country and I got a master’s in fine arts, which is the terminal degree – the last degree – that you can get for studio art and I did that at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. I taught for a little while at Mass Art and Harvard and Wheelock right after I graduated. I’ve been at Framingham State as a full-time faculty member since 2006.

What made you move to the east coast?

I wanted to not only have the experience of graduate school, but I wanted to have a different life experience, too. I grew up on the West Coast and there were many options for schools that I had that were really great, but I thought if I was going to do something, I should take a risk and actually go somewhere new and just be fully immersed in new situations, new galleries, new museums – so that’s why we moved out here.

What made you choose ceramics as a career?

Actually, it was an anthropology course. I started out being a K-12 education major, not even an art major, and I took an anthropology class as one of my electives and I really loved it. I found that what I loved the most was looking at the pottery forms and kind of figuring out based on the shards that were left as remnants what the piece could have been and how it was formed, how it was fired. I became so enamored with that, that I thought, “Well, I need to take a class in this to really see what it’s all about,” and I took my first ceramics class in a summer quarter. My university had quarters, not semesters or trimesters, so we could go year round if we wanted to. … As soon as I took that first course that was a really intensive study of ceramics I was like, “Oh, this is it! I really found the thing that I love and am really excited about every day.”

Do you think of yourself primarily as a teacher or as an artist?

Both, because I think I’m a better teacher when I’m actively involved in my studio artwork, and I think I’m a better artist when I’ve had a lot of rich, wonderful conversations with students because I see things through their lenses and I see a fresh perspective on techniques I’ve been working with for 20 years. It really reinvigorates my own studio practice when I have time to spend with young artists who are just forming opinions about how to make things and discovering techniques.

What inspires your work?

Right now, I am deeply enamored with science. I did a residency a couple of years ago at Boston Biomedical Research Institute, which doesn’t exist anymore. … I had been interested for a number of years in cell division and biological processes and how that could be very similar to geological processes and weathering and erosion and how things will divide and sometimes multiply. So I got really into looking at bacterial colonization and how one tiny little thing can proliferate and become massive, and how something so small can affect major populations. That became a huge interest for me and then I found some scientists that I could work with just as an observer, but it was really exciting to be in their environment and, again, to see the perspective. … It felt really great to be in the midst of all of these minds that were just as fiery and passionate about what they were doing as what I was doing in my studio, so that has been informing my work for a really long time. I go back to all of the notes that I took, and I go back to all of the many sketches and photographs that I have in my sketchbook, and I’m still kind of processing that and mining through. So, that’s what my work has been about for the last, probably four or five years. I’ve been making small petri dishes out of porcelain and making little bacterial forms. I have bacteria rings and axillary artery forms that are wearable. Some forms that are based off of the anatomical structure of the heart and sort of looking at that as something that is recognizably from a human body but then just different enough that it could be suggestive of something that is aquatic or something that is extraterrestrial.

What advice do you have for students or aspiring young artists?

I think first of all is just to make something and try to make something every day whether or not you’re a sculptor like me. … Sometimes, young artists get really locked in, feeling like they have to have something to show after their studio time – that there should be a product at the end of it – and sometimes the product is that you have this wonderful experience that you can pay forward into something that will be even more meaningful to you. … I think that’s incredibly important. Stay connected to peers when you are a student, because you want to have somebody that you can bounce ideas off of and somebody who will give you a good, honest critique of your work.

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