PPP: Remembering Ken

Ken Ferguson (standing) with a student in KCAI's ceramics department in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of KCAI.

Kenneth Richard Ferguson, professor emeritus of ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) in Kansas City, Mo., and an inspiring teacher and beloved friend to many in the pottery industry, passed away on December 30, 2004, at his home in Shawnee, Kan. Ken was born March 6, 1928, in Elwood, Ind., and studied art at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pa., earning a bachelor's of fine arts degree in 1952. He served in the army with the First Calvary at Camp Sendai Japan, and then studied under the GI bill at New York State School of Ceramics in Alfred, N.Y., earning a master's of fine arts degree in 1958. He managed the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Mont., from 1958 to 1964, and taught and served as chairman of the ceramics department at KCAI for the next 32 years. He was a leader in ceramic education and ceramic organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad, and was a prolific producer of ceramic art. He leaves behind a lasting legacy in the ceramic field. Following are just a few memories from some individuals in the industry who knew Ken well.

Ken at his potter's wheel in 2002. Photo by Pam Gradinger, an active volunteer at the Kansas City Art Institute, courtesy of KCAI.
"Although my father's passing brings sadness, what I remember most about him is his sense of humor. His humor was always a surprise that would take you out of yourself and into his own earnestness. For him, humor was rooted deeply within the traditions of cartoons, funny pages, movies and radio.

'Give me something that'll make me think I'm Alfred Hitchcock in South Africa directing Ingrid Bergman,' he would say.

When I was in Arcosanti and he didn't want me there with that pied piper Soleri, my mother sent me a cake with some rock chisels hidden inside. My friends Yo and Mu came to me somberly and said they didn't think my mother had that idea, but that it was my father's. Still he did listen when Dale Eldred defended my right to be there. Mary Catherine Bateson said that the trick with having famous parents is to have two of them. I sought them out in the form of teachers, although I was not always a good student, person or son. I returned later in my life because I knew I had broken my father's heart somehow, and I became fascinated by this man and his companion, my mother. What a strange set of fishes tied together they are: he a salmon and she a brown mountain trout, linked like Norse Vanir gods. He was my hardest critic in art, no room for sentiment; equally fascinated by me and my work, so unlike, and my biggest advocate, though I often couldn't accept it.

The cartoonist impulse and its stock props became half of what he assembled around his life and into his pots. The other half was serious and reverential. Honest, both of them-humor impossible without the reverence; reverence ameliorated by the grin. What could be funnier than the way he took conventional forms from their normal base into the relaxed graceful chaos of a slump or twist, and then finished them off with a perfect rim? He was both straightman and cutup. The humor enabled him to see the other ceramics of his time eclectically and tolerantly.

Many themes were passed on by him as homilies: God'll get you if you get too proud; Dig a deep well; get more than one string on your BANJO. Tactile to the core, he was a rare combination of visual and haptic; a combination of the elements of American humor, he had a yankee peddler's wit with backwoods preaching and boasting mixed in, with the peculiar upstart humility of the minstrel.

He was a Yankee sea god of the vessels, devoted to art in clay. At the end he was like Noah with all these animals parading around arks, dignifying even the most humble.

If he walked into a museum, he could have a conversation with the Goya, the Matisse, the Smith or the Velasquez. The same held true for the beloved Rocky Mountains or the Temple at Ise. He was an equal; at the very least, something would get going that was not the effusive gushing of a TOURIST. No homages nor primate posturing, he'd just take it. He did this by getting up close to it and ribbing it, and then getting serious.

Throwing was his meditation. Though he never made a serious study of the Eastern philosophies, he had an immediate understanding of their concrete elements and would grow excited reading a passage in Sri Aurobindo or castigating some western phony. Myth and poetry fascinated him, and there was appreciation of those few bits that strayed into his real world.

In discussions with my father, we concluded that clay is the only artistic medium where direct evidence of the maker's hand can be permanent with no intervention. That was the big theme of the last years. Every stranger reaches out to touch the work's surface.

Once on a trip to Japan, thoughts crossed a gap in culture and language without the interruption of a translator. Hamada brought out a Persian pot from his collection, saying something in Japanese. My dad said, 'It's amazing the liberties the artist has taken with the Rooster's Tail,' which was exactly what Hamada had said. Hamada, who understood a bit more English than he was letting on, took note. We all did."
Russell Ferguson, Ken's son and director of the School of the Foundation Year at KCAI

"I was in high school, working part-time at the family supply business, when I first met Ken Ferguson. To me, he was just another teacher and friend of my parents. He was a little gruff and kind of blunt, but he was nice to me. Each time he came to our store, he would spend a few minutes talking with me. I appreciated the fact that he talked to me like I was an adult, not just the young daughter of the Brackers.

Over the next few years, I got to know him better and quickly realized there was a giant teddy bear inside Ken. But I was also confused. Students from the [Kansas City] Art Institute would come to buy supplies from us, and I'd hear comments about how rough Ken was on them. He was demanding, critical and tough. The students weren't seeing the same Ken Ferguson that I was. I finally figured it out at the 1994 NCECA conference in New Orleans. I ran into Ken at a cafe in the hotel, surrounded by several of his former students. The discussion was animated and jovial, and I could tell that these students finally knew the same teddy bear Ken that I did. As Ken introduced me to the students, he was able to tell me not only their names, but when they graduated and some of what they'd been doing since graduation. Each of them chimed in with some story about how Ken had personally fought to get them into a certain grad school or helped them find a job teaching or convinced another potter to take them on as an apprentice. And it then became obvious to me that these former students had come to realize Ken was as rough and tough as he was to help make them better, more disciplined, more creative potters.

I have heard hundreds of stories like that over the years. Many people talk about the impact Ken had on the world of ceramics and ceramic education, but it's Ken's impact on each individual potter that strikes me as his living legacy."
Anne M. Bracker, Bracker's Good Earth Clays, Inc., Lawrence, Kan.

Ken with several students in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of KCAI.
"'He sure is getting crotchety!' That's the first thing I can remember hearing about Ken Ferguson, spoken by the 'King of Crotchety,' my Dad (Bill Bracker). Perhaps that was why they got along so well. As a child, I was always a bit nervous around the 'crotchety' Mr. Ferguson. As I became an adult, however, I began to see a very different side of him.

Several years ago, shortly after David and I had announced our engagement, Dave was at Ken's house working on Ken's kiln. After Dave had finished the repair, Ken sat Dave down and told him that since my Dad was no longer around, he felt it fell upon him to make sure Dave took good care of me. He then proceeded to tell David exactly what fate would befall him if he hurt me in any way. Given Ken's 'crotchety-ness,' you can probably imagine what those choice words were. But I was touched by his fatherly and protective attitude toward me.

The fondest memory I have of Ken happened after the birth of my oldest daughter, Sophie. Ken was at Bracker's, saying that he wished he had grandchildren. Holding Sophie at the time, I pointed out that she was short one grandfather, and he, having no grandchildren, might be a perfect match. I think it was the first time I ever saw Ken speechless. I asked him if he would like to hold her. As she sat on his lap, I saw a genuine tear in his eye, and he didn't need to say a word for me to know how he felt.

As I write this, I have tears in my eyes and many streaming down my cheeks as well. Since I'm currently on my third week of maternity leave, it would be easy to blame my emotions on postpartum hormones. But as I look down at my newest little angel, Daphne, who was born on the exact day of Ken's passing, I notice a bit of crotchety-ness in her face. And although I suspect a bit of 'spirit exchange' took place between Daphne and Ken on that day and that he will live on for me through her, I must admit that the tears on my face are from the loss I feel from the passing of another great artist and wonderful human being. Ken Ferguson will certainly be missed."
Cindy Bracker, Bracker's Good Earth Clays, Inc., Lawrence, Kan.

"Ferguson's legacy as an artist and educator is local, national and international. His work in clay was very powerful, and he provided an incredible role model for students. In the world of ceramic sculpture and pottery, Ferguson was known especially for how he combined animal figures with vessel forms. He drew from folklore and mythology, and melded pottery traditions from Europe, Asia and the Americas. At the [Kansas City] Art Institute, Ferguson was responsible for the design and construction of the ceramics building in the 1960s. Along with two prominent teachers he hired, George Timock and Victor Babu, he began an important study collection of student and faculty pottery at the school that now numbers more than 600 objects."
Cary Esser, chair of KCAI's ceramics department and a former student of Ken Ferguson, as quoted in The Kansas City Star, December 31, 2004

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