Profile: Ceramicist | Cary Esser ’73

Cary Esser ’73 is a ceramicist and has served as a professor of ceramics at Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Mo., where she chairs the Ceramics Department. The traditions of architectural embellishments – tile and relief – are interpretations of human culture and the natural world that are perplexing and mysterious to her. For centuries, ornamental motifs and patterns have been recycled and reinterpreted from the viewpoints of many cultures. Esser’s sculptures and ceramic canvases revisit and play with the forms and knowledge of this language.


Why are the arts still a crucial component of formal education? 

Studio arts education engages haptic, visual, spatial, meditative, and intellectual skills – there is a mind-body connection involved that does not exist in the same way in academics. In addition to coursework in material, method, conceptual development, and critical thinking, I stress students’ research into source material in the arts and other topics that are relevant to their ideas. Investigation into related areas of history, technology, culture, science, and language can lead to the pursuit of vigorous learning in a variety of subjects that, in turn, are reflected in their artworks. By its nature, the study of art can be highly interdisciplinary.

What generated your interest in ceramics, specifically?

In my Sixth Form year at SPS, my friend Julie Green [Sengelmann] ’75 enrolled in a ceramics course. I barely knew what ceramics was, but when I saw her working on the potter’s wheel, I was immediately seduced by the material and process of shaping form in clay. I enrolled in the
ceramics class in my last term, and since then I have never really looked back. While I had previously taken a variety of studio art courses, the rapport I experienced with the physical immersion of ceramics offered me a conduit for further perceptual, formal, and conceptual growth in the visual arts.

What does your work say about the different paths someone interested in the arts can take?

Students from programs in which I’ve taught have followed many different paths – they have entered into professions as varied as full-time artists, industrial designers, gallerists, curators, arts administrators, activists, educators, nurses, lawyers, real estate developers, and engineers. 

St Paul's School