Get Your Hands Dirty

By Joe Duffy Nov 23, 2009

Twenty-five years ago, I decided to quit my day job as a partner and creative director for a small advertising agency, which I had started four years prior, to get back into design, from whence I came. My reason at the time was to get my hands dirty again. I was sick of the management responsibilities and politics that came from the ad game, not to mention the creative compromising that was part of everyday life at our little shop. But the biggest reason was that I wasn't really "making" anything--I don't mean money, I mean "stuff."

Back then, "getting your hands dirty" meant exactly that. Before the computer, we quite literally made our designs with messy stuff like markers, paint, and even the occasional really messy pastels. When I look at the finished work from those early days at Duffy Design, what I remember fondly is the cutting, the pasting, the drawing, the painting and going home at night with dirty hands. I miss those days.

Not too long ago, I decided to get my hands really dirty with the help of my good friend, Ron Gallas, head of ceramics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. I hadn't worked with clay since my art school days and I was somewhat intimidated at that memory--trying and failing to center the clay on the wheel and the serious mess I created every time out--but what the hell, if a little dirty was good, how bad could a whole lotta dirty be?

I hauled off and invested in a wheel, a huge kiln, and all the clay and glaze our cabin studio could hold and we set off to make some "real" art. Wow! What fun. We invited a group of designers, along with the kids, Ron and his lovely wife Nancy (also a ceramics teacher) and started on the first of many group art projects--a great big ceramic totem pole. The results were almost as cool as the experience but the fun we had, collaborating on the art as well as the meals, the cocktails, the stories, and outdoor fun, made it a forever after regular cabin event.

Sorry for the long prologue but what started me thinking about that dirty stuff from my life was an amazing new show at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis titled Dirt on Delight: Impulses that Form Clay. Delightful it is. The show contrasts the formal aspects of the process of ceramics--various clay, firing and glazing techniques--and its functional forms, with the wild visions of sculptural artistry. Also interesting are the connections between various ceramicists, their teachers, mentors and contemporaries.

Our entire group visited the show, with a personal tour given by Gina Demm, volunteer Walker docent and Duffy & Partners design intern. We all walked away inspired and anxious to get out there and get our hands dirty.



1. Art Camp :: Work in Progress

2. Art Camp :: Final Totem

3. Dirt on Delight


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