Alfred University sits more than 1,900 miles east of Davis School District in the Southern Tier of New York State. Founded in 1836, the school is located in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. This is where institutionalized ceramics began. It’s considered to be the number one program for undergraduate ceramics in the nation.
With those credentials, why would an assistant dean from Alfred fly to Utah to make an official visit to Northridge High School? To get a sense of what makes its ceramics students so successful.
During the past 5-6 years, five Northridge Knights have each been awarded $130,000 scholarships to attend school there. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“What makes the program special is the educator,” says Alfred University Assistant Dean of the School of Art & Design/Performing Arts Division Maria Bentley.
“You can have a classroom with top-notch equipment,” she adds, “but if you don’t have an educator to help facilitate that, and to pull the identity, integration, exploration and inquisitiveness out of the students, it’s just equipment.”
She’s referring to teacher Kyle Guymon. He’s a 15-year veteran of the classroom who, after deciding construction was not his thing, enrolled at Weber State University and “fell right back in love with ceramics and clay” — a love that began when he was a student at Layton High School.
“What Kyle brings to the classroom is that he is really challenging his students; to go larger, to really think about who they are, how do they want to share their voice,” Bentley says.
The two met several years ago at the K12 Clay National Ceramics Show held in conjunction with the Annual Conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts. At the time, she was an arts recruiter in the Office of Admissions at Alfred.
Bentley explains she’s been traveling across the country for the past seven years visiting arts classrooms and ranks Guymon’s classroom as “definitely one of the top.”
While Bentley visits with students, Davis Board of Education Vice President Brigit Gerrard also drops by the classroom. She’s visited it on previous occasions and has borrowed some of the student artwork to display at the annual Utah School Boards Association Conference.
“People from throughout the state, school board members, superintendents, have been able to view this work,” Gerrard says. “ … I’ve taken elementary artwork, but I love to take his stuff, from the students, because it is so impressive to see.”
As Bentley walks around the ceramics classroom, she observes Ammon, a senior who likes to create bottles with tall, skinny necks. He says it’s a “very challenging form, but it’s one that I find comfort in.”
Ammon acknowledges his goal was never to do art. But he took ceramics because he needed the art credits to graduate.
“I’m not super good at drawing, but I’m really good with my hands,” Ammon says. “And I ended up being really, really good at it.”
He describes Guymon’s class as competitive, yet comforting and one that he can learn in.
“It’s like a safe space in the school,” Ammon says. “I know that at any time, if I’m not having a good day, if I have a really bad headache or if something is really stressing me out, … I can ask Mr. Guymon if he wouldn’t mind me coming in here, and I can just sit here and work on whatever I want to work on.”
Ammon’s plan is to attend the United States Air Force Academy, serve 20 years in the Air Force and then become a ceramics teacher.
“I’ve become so inspired by Mr. Guymon and what he does that it’s what I want to do in my life,” Ammon says. “I feel like I can be pretty good at it. I like seeing inspiration that other students have here.”
Cam is also a senior in Guymon’s ceramics class and is turning heads because of her ability to sculpt. Last year was also her first attempt at ceramics. She found the wheel to be unforgiving for her, but sculpture was another matter.
“I’ve always loved art, Cam says. “It’s all I ever do, but I didn’t realize how much it truly meant to me. I think he’s really helped me to realize my potential and that I can do things and he’s really opened my eyes.”
After graduation, she wants to go into animation and character design.
“Doing this helped me see how to model characters in 3D,” she says.
Marley is another senior. She is throwing clay on a wheel. She plans on going into photography, but chose to enroll in her first ceramics class last year. She’s since vaulted from Ceramics 1 into AP ceramics, skipping Ceramics 2 and 3 with Guymon’s permission.
“If he sees a potential in you, a talent in you, he’ll let you know,” Marley says. “When I was in Ceramics 1 my junior year, he noticed that I was good at throwing, and he just told me to stay on the wheel … He preferred me to stay on … because he saw potential, and he does that with a lot of students. He’s really good at that.”
She later says, “I think the hardest part is to just stay confident, because there are a lot of mess-ups. You are not always going to be perfect. Like 90 % you are going to mess up, but 10 % you will get it right. But I’ve really enjoyed it so far.”
Guymon explains what he loves about ceramics is that many students think it will be “an easy A.” But when they sit down and try to throw a pot on the wheel, they realize its difficult.
“Ceramics is all about failure,” Guymon says. “You're going to fail, fail, fail — then succeed. “People think it’s that instant gratification,” he continues. “It’s not what's ceramics is all about. It isn’t what clay is or building it is. How many times are the kids going to fail before they actually make a piece correctly? It's that process and that progress that they actually build upon, and then actually create the final piece.”
Other places where his students’ work has been seen include the Eccles Arts Center’s Northern Utah High School Art Competition and the Utah All-State High School Art Show at the Springville Museum of Art. Just last year, Northridge ceramics students won 18 awards, received seven scholarships, a kiln and a pottery wheel, amounting to a total monetary value of nearly $283,000.
At the K12 Clay Ceramics National Show, eight of the 150 pieces selected into the show were from Northridge, more than any other school. Alfred University, the biggest school and contributor of scholarships for the show, also awarded two of its five scholarships to Northridge students.