Julia Galloway, a Missoula potter and University of Montana ceramics professor, has won a $50,000 fellowship grant. 

United States Artists, a Chicago-based philanthropic organization, selected 45 artists across the country from a pool of 500 applicants in nine fields, from architecture to music, theater and writing. Galloway fell into the craft category.

The grant is unrestricted, meaning Galloway can use it to pursue her work however she sees fit.

The fellowships were announced Tuesday. The advance phone call last month left Galloway, a native Bostonian who regularly gives visiting art lectures, searching for words.

"Talking is not a problem for me," she said. "I was completely rendered speechless."

Galloway said the grant will give her "a cushion" to expand her ideas and develop them over a longer period of time. She's been researching and testing a new project to document 647 extinct or endangered species in the United States and Canada on the surfaces of her pottery.

The concept was influenced by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, made in honor of those who died from the disease. She admired how it allowed people to view the enormity of a problem through effects on individuals.

The money also could go toward new equipment and upgrades at her home studio.

In her application, Galloway described that project and her service-based activities, including a website, Field Guide for the Ceramic Artisan, that provides resources for recent graduates. It covers everything from artist residencies, advice on taxes and pricing work to setting up a studio.

Galloway is one of a string of western Montanans who have received the grant. Previous winners from western Montana are radio and media producer Barrett Golding of Bozeman in 2010; potter Sarah Jaeger of Helena in 2010; and Galloway's friend and recently retired UM colleague, ceramicist and artist Beth Lo of Missoula in 2009.

The grant is unrestricted, a rarity for artists, Galloway said. The news release underscores that feature: "Artists may use the funds for whatever they need, be it medical expenses, housing, their artistic practice, or anything else. This flexibility allows fellows the financial freedom to take risks and push their careers forward in ways that might not otherwise have been possible."

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Galloway makes functional porcelain pottery that she decorates with narratives, often relating to domesticity, which she called a "taboo subject" in the art world.

The theme dovetails with her love of pottery, and the way they "champion the quieter times in our day," she said.

"People want a beautiful view from their window. A handmade pot is not unlike that," she said.

She believes they "make a connection with the person using them, which is different than looking at a large sculpture. That's equally valid, but it's about something else. I'm a little bit more interested in that quiet way of bringing something into your day."

She began making pottery in high school, and found she had the hand-eye coordination for throwing on the wheel. She liked the way she could make something useful for people and cultivate a connection with them. She saved up her babysitting money to buy her own wheel, which she carried home herself on the subway.

Through undergraduate and master's degrees, and her busy schedule of UM classes and outside workshops, pottery has been an inexhaustible passion.

"My road isn't wide, but it's very, very long," she said. While she's been making vessels for decades, she said, the facets of the craft move to the foreground: its complex chemistry, technical challenges, intellectual overtones and tight-knit community. It even has aspects of "small-business" politics: if you buy from the "village potter," the money stays in the community, she said.

Decades into her career, ceramics is "how I interact with and understand the world," she said.

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In 2009, she moved to Montana for her teaching job at UM after a decade at the School for American Crafts at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She had served as a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena in the late 1990s and had always wanted to be closer to the state's busy ceramics community. During that residency, she'd taught for a day at UM and was impressed by the studio and the students' energy.

She said she brings a sense of idealism to teaching — she sees it as an expansive activity that requires her to constantly learn new skills and techniques to share with her students. It's also a public counterpoint to the solitary studio time required of professional artists.

Moving to Big Sky Country naturally had an effect on the work that Galloway produces, and she credited her surroundings for her success.

"I wouldn't be able to do these projects or have this career if it wasn't for the support of the community around me, through the school or around the state," she said. After moving here, she started a statewide group, Montana Clay, to help bring ceramicists together, including an annual gathering to exchange ideas.

She likes to start larger projects once every year or two. The endangered species project builds on a few previous ones in which she tackled ambitious narrative and exhibition concepts.

In a prior series, she made hundreds of cups decorated with drawings of North American birds based on the illustrations of John James Audubon. She remembers reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magic realist novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and having a very magic realist thought: what if she could take a sip from one of the cups and sing like the bird that was on it? Following that intuition, she displayed the cups, in alphabetical order so people could find their favorite bird. If they lifted the cup off its shelf, a motion sensor would trigger a sound sample of that bird. While she had imagined that it would be a typically quiet gallery showing, the popularity triggered an aviary of bird calls.

For another project, she decorated vases with drawings of her home and created a website for them, allowing a personal tour in on the impersonal medium of the Internet.

The state's unbroken skylines inspired another project, "Sky Vault," comprising about 450 plates in the shape of clouds. To make their inspiration even more clear, she hung them in clusters from the ceiling of a gallery in the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art in Great Falls. At the opening, attendees could eat off them.

She's still early in her endangered species project, researching and consulting with scientists so that it's accurate.

She wants to create one urn for each endangered species since the term was coined in the early 1800s. Like the AIDS Quilt, she wants to exhibit them as a group and travel the exhibition. Each urn will be decorated with a drawing of the species. Many will be carefully sized so that they could hold the ashes of the species if it were cremated. She set a minimum size for small ones, such as the amargosa toad, since its vessel would be no longer than a thimble if she held to her concept. Others will require a large scale: the California grizzly bear's urn will be almost three feet tall. With the complexity of the research and the number of urns, she imagines it will take up to four years.

To give herself some parameters and a sense of urgency, she's limiting herself to species in the United States and Canada, hoping that proximity will inspire action on an issue so vast and anxiety inducing.

If there's something you can do nearby, though, change "starts at home and ripples out," she said.

The grant, meanwhile, has given her a sense of validation, and importantly, will give her breathing room to execute the project the way she wants.

"It's given me the time to develop new techniques," she said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.