Ceramic artists at the University of Montana went big this year.

In one studio, a chimp inspired by "Planet of the Apes" stands taller than a toddler.

Nearby, a bulbous bouquet of sorts would dwarf any real bunch of flowers.

This week, some 20 students put the finishing touches on their clay sculptures in preparation for the annual holiday show and sale next week in a flurry of creation that's as much about building community as it is about making art.

"The ceramics program here is incredible," said Jacob Wutke, a junior from Kalispell. "It's really cool to see everyone work together."

Wutke stood near the chimp, the second one he'd sculpted for the class, and talked about its evolution. The student, who's seeking a bachelor's degree in fine arts, follows the work of actor and voice actor Andy Serkis. He took on the large project to push his own limits.

"I enjoy working full scale. It's more of a challenge," Wutke said.

The ceramic artist expected the technical challenge, but he may not have anticipated the emotional one. The first rendition of the animal collapsed.

"This is my second ape," Wutke said. "The first one fell over at two weeks, and I had to start over."

He was surprised by his own reaction to the initial breakdown.

"You try to stay humble, but it's such a blow to your pride. It was really shocking," Wutke said.

Nonetheless, he rebooted and rebuilt, and he finds the work fun despite the setback. In fact, Wutke said working with the other students and faculty members is one bonus of the ceramics program at UM, part of a deep tradition of ceramics in Montana.

"It's easy to fit in because everyone is trying to accomplish the same goal," he said. 

Early this week, the sculpture was ready for the kiln, and Wutke was getting questions from observers: "Most of 'em want to know how it's even standing."

***

The animal was standing because of Wutke's skill and perseverance. Faculty member Trey Hill said if there's one place to take a risk with a sculpture, it's ceramics class, and he praised the reincarnated ape.

"That's really tough to build," said Hill, associate professor.

The predilection of students for larger pieces ebbs and flows, Hill said. Last year, he was working on a large piece for a show in Seattle, and he said having such artwork in the students' midst likely demonstrated that such work is feasible. That piece took some 450 pounds of clay.

Plus, he said this group of students is up for it.

"They're really working at the edge of their abilities to get this done," Hill said. "So we have failures; we have pieces that fall over. But that being said, this is the place to have that happen."

Typically, he said students are limited by size, but UM's kiln can also accommodate pieces that are 54 inches tall (and an even larger one is on the way).

"In clay, that's a big piece," Hill said.

Interacting with a sculpture that's on a massive scale is a different experience, too. 

"The pieces have this sense of grandeur to them," he said.

***

Ceramics classes can create stress, but they're fun, and at the tail end of the semester, Andrea Jenko was enjoying the process of smoothing out the rough edges of her bulbous sculpture.

"Hopefully, my parents will like it enough, they'll take it off my hands," Jenko said.

She'd painted clouds earlier, and she wanted a cohesive body of work, so she took the idea of clouds to her three-dimensional art. Jenko is a fourth-year art student from Missoula, and she finds ceramics to be a practice even students who aren't majors can appreciate.

"For me, it's more relaxed," Jenko said.

It's communal as well. Jon Green, president of the University of Montana Emerging Ceramic Artists, said ceramics students, especially those working on large-scale pieces, can't do their work at home or in the library. They've got to work in the studio, where they learn to rely on each other.

"It becomes a pretty tight-knit group," said Green, who is pursuing a BFA.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.