Ceramics students, faculty get hands dirty for Rockefeller Center installation

September 29, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A bit of central Pennsylvania is currently displayed at Rockefeller Center in New York City, thanks to the efforts of Penn State ceramics faculty and students. 

In late December 2019, New York's Galerie Lelong contacted associate professor Shannon Goff to see if she could assist in providing red clay samples from central Pennsylvania for use in an upcoming art installation by Andy Goldsworthy. As part of Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center, Goldsworthy has replaced the conventional flags seen at the plaza with flags dyed with earth and soil collected from each of the 50 states. "Red Flags," 2020, includes 109 flags in varying shades ranging from clay red to burnt orange to mustard yellow encircling the plaza’s iconic skating rink.

Shortly after the new year, Goff dug up some red earth from her own backyard. Knowing she would need to send more — the gallery requested 3-5 gallons — she reached out to fellow faculty member Kris Grey, who was teaching the advanced students in the ceramics program.

“This is the type of rare opportunity I relish — to connect our Penn State students to the broader field of art and visual culture. It’s an amazing opportunity for students to work with an iconic, world-renown, contemporary artist and to contribute to the production of a significant public installation,” said Grey. “These lands we now occupy have rich geologic histories and at a moment like this, it’s invaluable to be able to empower our students in understanding that the raw materials in their natural surroundings can contribute to connecting across the vast geographic expanse of the United States through an art project.”

Andrew Castaneda, who received his master of fine arts degree in ceramics in May, was one of six students who helped to dig and process the clay early in the spring 2020 semester — once they found some. Internet research led them on a hunt for an abandoned clay mine not far from campus, off Fox Hollow Road, but they could not locate it. On their way back to the studio, their disappointment turned to excitement when they saw some clay mounds at the Arboretum at Penn State construction site.

“We drove toward the site. A front-loader operator approached us, and we asked if we could take a few five-gallon buckets full of the clay. He said ‘sure,’ so we all grabbed our shovels and picks and filled our four buckets as fast as we could, loaded them up in the car and headed back to the ceramics studio,” explained Castaneda. “From there, we put plywood on the ground, spread the clay out onto the plywood and set up fans to dry it out before we could process it all.”

The next day, Grey and the students broke down the dry clay with rolling pins and then sieved organic material out, leaving them with a fine powder. From there, they set aside two bags of fine dry clay to ship to Goldsworthy. To the rest they added water to make slip, then dried that out in plaster vessels to bring it to workable clay consistency. 

“We planned to each make a few cups and trade with each other, as a way to commemorate not only this Andy Goldsworthy collaboration project, but also our time in Penn State Ceramics,” said Casteneda. “We had clay dug straight from the Penn State Arboretum, processed as a community and then made into cups by our peers and friends.”

According to Goff, the involved students — who make up the student group called the Penn State Clay COven — see their contribution to the Goldsworthy installation as an extension of the Ceramics area’s ethos. 

“Seeing ‘Penn State Ceramics’ on Galerie Lelong’s 'Red Flags' contributor list allowed the students to experience gratitude from the inside out,” she said. “Witnessing the earth-stained flags in Rockefeller Center emboldened the students and taught them the powerful impact their small community action helped produce. We hope this voluntary, yet once-in-a-lifetime opportunity helped the students realize their agency and connect them to the greater field of arts and visual culture.”

In addition to Casteneda, other students involved were John Domenico, Audrey An, Austin Bradshaw, Alex Russell and Anna Graef.

For more information about the installation, see Galerie Lelong’s news release.

Last Updated September 29, 2020