Courtney Bergey of Lanesboro stands with her ceramic exhibition entitled "Of the Earth," in which she created hand-built forms inspired by her family's ancestral farmland. Bergey received an Emerging Artist Grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council for the project, and the exhibition is now on display at Lanesboro Arts Center through March 29.  COURTESY OF COURTNEY BERGEY
Courtney Bergey of Lanesboro stands with her ceramic exhibition entitled "Of the Earth," in which she created hand-built forms inspired by her family's ancestral farmland. Bergey received an Emerging Artist Grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council for the project, and the exhibition is now on display at Lanesboro Arts Center through March 29. COURTESY OF COURTNEY BERGEY
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Local artist Courtney Bergey and her art were the stars of the show last Saturday, Feb. 22, during the opening night of her ceramic exhibition "Of the Earth" at the Lanesboro Arts Center. The art will be on display until March 29.

Bergey grew up on a farm near Lanesboro and graduated from Fillmore Central Public Schools in 2008. She has always been a creative person, loving to draw, take pictures and write. But in her senior year of high school, she realized just how much she liked art. However, she never really looked at art in a serious light.

As she moved on to college, Bergey initially majored in English with an art history minor. She studied abroad for a time in Italy and in her junior year she arrived in Norway. While there, her college career took an abrupt turn.

"In Norway, I had a revelation that I loved art. I switched to an art major in my second semester of my junior year," she stated.

Her last semester saw her at Luther College in a ceramics class. She discovered she loved working with clay. Throughout her college career, Bergey interned at the Lanesboro Arts Center. Several of her professors encouraged her to continue dabbling in art, knowing she worked at an arts center.

After graduation, she transitioned into a full-time position at the Lanesboro Arts Center writing grants and fundraising for things such as the Lanesboro Arts Campus soon to come. Later, her colleagues encouraged her to apply for an Emerging Artist Grant.

This grant was made available from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council as a result of a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. "A few years ago, sales tax in Minnesota increased a little in order to create this Legacy Fund to preserve the culture of Minnesota," gallery director Robbie Brokken described.

Artists who apply for the grant are given funds according to their own budget to support their art, writing, music and more during a specific time period. As the time period ends, the artists are required to hold a capstone exhibit where they display their projects at a non-profit organization.

Although Bergey applied for this grant on a whim, she actually received it last spring. When she received the grant, she had not worked in ceramics since college. So, for the past several months, she has utilized and shared her experience in clay.

As a part of the grant, Bergey shared her art-making process at Fillmore Central schools. One of the highlights during this project included holding a workshop for the high school classes and showing them techniques for creating pinch pots, a simple hand-built form. In one day, the students made 300 pinch pots. Bergey took each with her, fired them and arranged many on a piece of barn wood of special meaning to her.

The pinch pots mounted on the piece of wood from her farm's barn that burned down is only one of the items included in the exhibit. Other items are plates, spoons and bowls.

The exhibit is named "Of the Earth" with many parts of the project having been influenced by her farm and agricultural background.

"I began to relate ceramics to my dad's farm," Bergey commented. "I understood clay comes from the soil similar to the crops my dad uses to feed the animals. I would go through the farm and take photos of old buildings, grab certain items out of nature and use old tools as my inspiration," she continued.

Her inspiration is not limited to agriculture, however. Rather, the items she makes can be spoons, bowls, sculptures for a table or wall or even necklaces. "I just do whatever inspires me," she declared. This could be anything from a random thought to something she searched for while on the farm.

Though it took a while for her to understand the necessity of carrying a sketchbook around, she learned how to keep a book of ideas. Whenever she saw something she liked, she would sketch it out.

Being inspired is only part of the process in making ceramics. Time, space, money and fire are all involved in creating a final product. For this exhibit, Bergey averaged about 15 hours per week dedicated to the project. One specific piece included five separate parts consisting of many pinch pots and bowls surrounded by green moss. This project itself took roughly 20 hours to complete.

Since she lives in an apartment, Bergey worked in a studio owned by her mentor in Whalan. She has found the studio to be an escape where she can have fun creating. After fashioning the clay, she sets it aside to dry. Then she puts it into the kiln and fires it. In order to glaze the creation, she paints the liquid on the formed clay and fires it once again.

There are also many different colors of glaze which will give the clay a decorated look. Some pieces from the exhibit looked terrible after the first glaze, according to Bergey. But after tossing on another color and firing it again, they looked beautiful.

Firing something may sound simple, but it is a little more complex than simply placing clay into a fire. The baking process requires an extremely hot fire which in turn must have someone present at all times to monitor the process. Firing a load of pots in a kiln costs $50 for every use. In addition, the clay cost around $20 per box.

Prior to this exhibit, Bergey has displayed her artistic talent through the needle felting finger puppets she sold at the Lanesboro Arts Center. And though her creative and artistic ability is not limited to ceramics, she has focused more on her clay as a result of the grant and capstone exhibit.

People have helped to build up her confidence in her artistic ability and encouraged her to return to ceramics, and the Emerging Artist Grant made it possible for her to again understand how much she enjoyed creating.

"The grant made me realize how important making art is to me," Bergey stated.

Although she began working in ceramics as something she enjoyed, she had not really considered it as a serious career. Still, she has sold some of her work.

Creating ceramics is more of a side business for her, but Bergey admitted she now has a more professional mindset in her art. She thinks of what people will spend their money on and ponders something new to experiment with.

In the course of this project, Bergey said she learned to draw portraits on the clay. Special pencils called glaze pencils ensure that a drawing stays on the clay rather than burning off during firing as a regular pencil would do.

For now Bergey plans on continuing to work in ceramics, but will not make this her lifelong career just yet, though she has thought about pursuing art more and obtaining a graduate degree.

"Of the Earth" is a wonderful exhibit with a variety of different parts on display at the Lanesboro Arts Center.