I was fortunate enough to travel to New Mexico this past Christmas, a place which is always a draw to me because of its mix of centuries of tradition in the arts and its reputation as a contemporary artists’ Mecca. The natural clay deposits in the arid Southwest have allowed indigenous peoples to make pottery here for centuries, and the practice continues throughout New Mexico and Arizona with breathtaking results.

The culture of ceramic art is strong in the Phoenix area in great part due to the long-standing support of the Arizona State University Art Museum and its Ceramic Research Center. The Museum sponsors an annual self-guided Ceramic Studio Tour (which already took place in February 2010) and maintains one of the largest public collections of contemporary American and British ceramic art in the nation. Many ceramic studio artists have chosen to move to this area because of the Arizona State University’s fine Ceramics program, its Ceramic Research Center, and the very large community of ceramics studio artists in the general area.

Nicholas Bernard has been a studio potter for more than 30 years. While his work is shown at galleries throughout the United States, it is in the beauty of Arizona that he has chosen to live. His inspiration in largely self-generated, but he acknowledges the importance of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Northern Arizona Museum, the Ceramics Research Center in Tempe, and the strong arts culture in Santa Fe as influences in his creative life.

Farraday Newsome works in a red terra-cotta clay and rich painterly glazes inspired by the lively beauty of nature. She is influenced by the natural history of the area, incorporating quite a lot of desert nature imagery in her art, especially plants, insects, birds, and mammals.

Clearly, the unique climate and landscape of the Southwest affects artists. Ken Drolet says of Arizona, “Many people see the desert as a dull, colorless environment. To me there is a vastness about it that requires one to look closely at small portions of it to see the richness and diversity of color and form. The desert not only has an incredible landscape but also magnificent skies, especially during monsoon rains. To see millions of stars at night from a mountain (and there are many here in Arizona) is pure joy.”

Doug Jones of Random Orbit Studios speaks of his work having been most affected by the openness of the landscape, the great vistas, the starkness. He sees, “the West still symbolizes freedom and possibility, translating into an eclectic and open environment for work. There is such a range of work here, with such diverse influences, that no one type of work dominates. Modern work blends surprisingly well with the tile floors, stucco or adobe walls and flat roofs common to New Mexico architecture.”

According to Kerry Vesper, many of the shapes and forms that he incorporate in his sculptural work are informed by the natural environment in which he grew up and where he continue to lives, the southwest desert. Although he is not consciously trying to depict rock formations and the strata of the earth, it is in his psyche from having lived in the Southwest all his life and reveals itself in his work.