"It is usually a madhouse," admits Cary Esser, department chairman. Last year for the first time, the department opened its doors to the public for viewing -- but not buying -- on the Friday evening before the sale. That gave people a chance to actually look at the work (which includes pottery; tiles; wall reliefs; and animal, figurative and abstract sculptures) without fear of it being snatched off a shelf before their eyes -- or it at least provided an opportunity to make a battle plan. "Most of our sales occur in the first two hours of the sale," Esser says.
What is it about ceramic artwork that transforms the same group of people who gingerly sip wine and talk among themselves on First Fridays into a raving mass of shopaholics? For one thing, the art is affordable. "The students begin to learn the side of the art profession that has to do with how a work moves from the hand of the maker into a market," Esser says. "This sale has a history of at least 35 years. I always tell the students that this is an established market, that they benefit from the community's past experience with and knowledge of this event."
For the past twelve years, the Art Institute's other departments have also conducted end-of-semester shows and sales on the first weekend of December. Lacking the buzz of a longer tradition, students from other departments take advantage of the ceramics department's draw. For the fall 2001 show, printmaking senior Richard Rodriguez posted fliers on campus that read "More Ceramics This Way" -- with arrows instead pointed toward the printmaking department.
In these other departments, calmer show environments have made it easier to look at art. This semester's printmaking exhibit is no exception. On December 6, the students will for the first time conduct demonstrations allowing the public to see how they make lithographs, etchings, letterpress pieces and silk screens. The accompanying print bazaar includes lots of wearable art -- panties decorated with penises, socks covered in skulls and crossbones, screen-printed T-shirts. For example, Adam Yoder's screen prints on felt -- neon-colored coconuts, bananas and passion fruit -- function as iron-on transfers. And this semester's sophomore class collaborated on a calendar with fifteen 11-inch-by-11-inch prints, each interchangeable for any month. One woodblock depicts an elephant head in greens and browns, accompanied by Asian lettering. Other show items include small calendars with McDonald's iconography, screen-printed pillows and digital still prints with hand-applied embellishments.
Elsewhere, the fiber department always enjoys strong sales of its exquisite hand-dyed silk and crocheted and knitted scarves. Also noteworthy are the clothing, costumes and hats as well as conceptual sculptures such as those by Jeremy Evans, who bundles long, thin twigs into round, broomlike clusters and wraps them in tea-stained linens.
Although these shows might not be as consumer-friendly as the ceramics exhibit, there's still plenty that's worth whipping out the checkbook. Exhibits by the sculpture and painting departments are structured more as shows than sales, but contact information for the artists is prominently placed. "If it's purchased, it's a real ego boost," says Gary Sutton, dean of faculty.
Sculpture student Bill Lane created one ceramic piece that won't fit into a box for gift wrapping. His 16-foot-tall tower of clay is covered with various textures -- coral, stripes, bulbous protrusions, grids resembling the fork pattern across a peanut butter cookie. Between layers of clay, Lane has added other objects -- brown beer bottles and blue Arizona Iced Tea bottles melted like glazes -- with bronze and aluminum shavings from the sculpture yard sprinkled across the surface. Lane has left the cone paks (temperature indicators for use in the kiln) protruding from the side of the sculpture. On the other end of the marketability scale, the sculpture department show features bronze and wood artwork, such as one beautifully oxidized bronze sculpture depicting a horse balancing on awkwardly elongated legs. In the past, similar pieces have sold for a few hundred dollars.
In the painting department, big (and therefore less-appealing to a buyer with limited wall space) is the norm. In her large-scale yet delicate, tapestrylike mixed-media work, Megan Kraft layers pieces of light-tan handmade lace, gluing the H- and X-shaped patterns in place to allow the wall behind to show through.
A DVD of the photography and new media department's December 5 show would be a unique gift. Starting at 7 p.m. in the Irving Amphitheater, the department presents video and new work, including experimental narrative, documentaries, interactive media and animation. Most of the work is by department majors. "People produce a lot of work. We can't show it all -- it would be too long if we tried to do that," explains Patrick Clancy, chairman of the department. Digital prints, installations, and color and black-and-white analog prints (ranging in price from approximately $35 to $150) will also be for sale.
To hype their own show, students from the design and illustration department created a promotional postcard and sent it to local designers and illustrators. James Reittinger, interim chairman of the department, hopes professionals will see the show and talk to the students. Located one block north of the main campus on 43rd Street and Oak, the design and illustration show presents a sampling of assignments from the past semester. In her poster project for the Rose Brooks Center, a shelter for battered women, illustrator Lacey Wozny created a deep-blue monoprint that, despite its dark subject matter, conveys a positive message typographically. The headline -- "Breaking the Cycle of Domestic Violence" -- runs alongside the left edge of the poster; to the right, each letter in the word hope sits atop a ladder, with each ladder rising higher until the last letter floats on its own. Works in the design and illustration show aren't necessarily intended for purchase, but in the past, artists have negotiated sales.
Although the hours vary by department, the shows and sales run roughly from 5 to 7 p.m. on December 5, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on December 6, and from noon to 5 p.m. on December 7. How the scheduling conflict between First Friday and opening night for the Art Institute's end-of-semester shows will affect the crowds remains to be seen. But Art Institute sculpture technician Jim Whitworth offers one last commercial. "There's more risk-taking going on here than in the galleries," he says.
And nothing says holiday giving like artwork that's fresh and ballsy.