Interview by Jenny Collins '05
Associate Professor of Art Heather (Nameth ’02) Bren, MFA, was a 2010 recipient of a $25,000 McKnight Fellowship grant for ceramic artists. She used the grant to open her own studio and is exploring innovations with ceramic art. In her fourth year of teaching, Bren is married to Wade and they have two daughters, Alivia (4) and Hazel (2).
Of all the artistic pursuits to follow, why did you choose ceramics?
When I was [a student] at Northwestern, I was pretty good at “making,” whatever that meant—painting, printmaking or drawing—they all came to me pretty easily. And ceramics was that one material that wouldn’t do exactly what I wanted it to do. There was something there that pushed back in an unruly sort of way. And maybe that’s how I am; maybe I push back in an unruly sort of way.
How does ceramics push back?
It’s this material that’s always surprising me. I’m always exploring what it does. It can be hard and soft, rough and smooth, fluid and brick-like. It can be ugly or gorgeous. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop learning about the material of ceramics—there are so many layers.
You teach several foundation courses. How do you approach growing artists?
Students come in saying, “I know this stuff.” But they don’t. And they soon find out how awkward and fumbly they are. I see freshman year as boot camp. It’s academic and physical. We’re getting them in shape. We’re getting them prepared to be good thinkers, makers, seekers of questions. And hopefully by the end of it, they come out fit and trim, and as different kinds of creative thinkers.
I say in my intro classes that this is a collegiate experience. Because students come from a background of high school art or home schooling group art or no art at all, and there’s this idea that art is easy and it’s not academic—and that’s absolutely not the case. So I really demand a collegiate dedication.
What does collegiate dedication look like?
I’m asking them to be more thoughtful, intentional and articulate—the [first-year] students have a hard time communicating visual ideas. Even just saying what’s in front of them: what it looks like, what it feels like, how it fits in your hand—how do you explain this to someone who has never seen it before? They’re just learning to speak the language of art.
How do you handle the critique process?
It comes from the place of wanting them to be better and that has growing pains and it’s not going to be comfortable. It’s hard work to be better. In our Christian culture, that’s not something that’s received very well, especially from a female. I know I demand a lot. I’m here to support everyone’s ideas but squeeze the most out of that idea.
What do you feel when you see students getting it?
That’s really exciting for me. No one will believe this, because I am such a toughy, but I almost get this welling up of tears, and I just hold it back. The problem is getting it to happen.
How often does that happen?
You know, quite a bit. If you’re supportive of their ideas, and your criticism is in the spirit of support and you’re moving forward and the student is receptive, it happens a lot more than you think. It’s push and push back, and pull and pull back. It’s a mutual relationship. And then they go to their next class and they’re getting the same feedback.
How do you incorporate faith and art in the classroom?
I tell students, especially when we’re learning to throw, “It’s right there in front of you.” That whole class—Ceramics 1—is filled with devotions. And some of the most obvious ones we’re taught as children, like be careful little hands what you do. It’s such a life lesson and the pottery will show you that. If you make a mistake in some part of even preparing the clay and there’s something that wasn’t given enough time or consideration, it will turn out a janky-looking pot. I just say that to students and they’re like, “Wow, you’re right, I was delinquent here. I need to go back and think about this.”
What lessons have you learned from ceramics?
Our culture moves fast through things and there’s not a moment for slowness. Ceramics make you pay attention to that slowness and the cycle of things. We talk about how God created a cycle for everything. I bring those analogies into the classroom. The clay demands this of you.
How is art a form of worship for you?
Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created.” We’re also created in His image. We have the ability to create. This is the first time probably in human existence that we’ve almost eliminated the ability to create. Everything is manufactured. There’s no playfulness. There’s no learning about yourself through making something. Such as, “I’m really impatient. I need to work on this.” If I’m listening to that and I’m being reflective, then I think that is being in the act of worship right there.
It sounds like art is also healing for you.
You can ask my husband this. He’ll tell me, “You need to get to the studio; you’re a miserable person right now.” It’s a way to be by myself and think about things—what I’m working on academically, how I’m not being very patient. There are moments that become very prayerful and meditative and reflecting on how I’m being. We’re asked to change. Some of it is this constant mirror and if you’re being really honest, you can really learn a lot.
Are you naturally introspective and reflective?
No. I come from a long line of loud ladies. And when you’re that loud, do you really have time to be that quiet?
So working with ceramics has brought the capacity for stillness?
Yes. And reflection. And all the ways I’m miserable. And all the ways I’m kind of OK. In this last year, I’ve learned so much about myself, my faith, about where I’m at with a lot of things. It’s been really great.