Merlene Davis: EKU professor uses clay to mold minds

Sometimes I'm a bit put off by some visual artists.

I'm not proud of that, but it's true.

Some seem like the cat that swallows the canary just as its owner walks into the room. They know something I don't know and they are not about to tell me what it is. Their secrecy builds superiority, I guess.

None of that applies to Joseph Molinaro, ceramics professor at Eastern Kentucky University, who lives in Winchester.

"Art," he says, "is a communication. A two-way street."

He wants his art to speak to us, to elicit a feeling. If it doesn't, he has failed the observer and himself.

Molinaro is a potter and teacher who has found a way to use his and his students' functional creations to benefit charities that feed the hungry in Richmond, Winchester and Lexington.

He is also the subject of a documentary: Joe Molinaro: Hands in Clay. It shows Molinaro discussing his early affinity for functional pots and how he then stretched the concept of functionality past simply holding liquids and food to holding ideas and imaginations.

"I like making pots that challenge the viewer," he said. "I want to expand their understanding of what a teapot can be."

Many of our social problems stem from our inability to accept differences, Molinaro said. We need to look beyond the definitions we have placed on objects and people and broaden how we look at things.

"I want to work with something people can identify with and then entice them to come with me," he said. "But we start out with a common link."

Molinaro travels to the Amazon area in South America frequently, researching the ways the indigenous people work with clay to make pottery. For 20 years, he has watched the women manipulate the clay with their hands and feet, create vessels without a wheel, and allow the sun and fire to bake it outside of an oven.

If the painter of a pot is called away, someone else will continue the image, and then return the pot when the original designer returns.

"There is a lack of ego" in the work, he said, "and the designs are not owned by the potter but by the village. Can you imagine any of us finishing a painter's painting for him?"

The people of the Amazon are much more accepting of differences, he said. "As a ceramist, I marvel at their techniques."

For years now, I've heard glowing reports about Molinaro from his mother-in-law Janie Speck of Lexington. She and I are Sunday school classmates.

"Joey started out with functional things," Speck said. "Then he's let his imagination go and tested what you can do with clay. I still wonder how on earth he makes it work."

Molinaro's gift is how he connects with people, as is stated in the documentary from students in his classes. Speck agrees.

"I watch him when he's around other people and there's always of group of people wanting to talk to him," she said. "Everyone falls in love with Joey."

Molinaro and his wife, Mary, live in Winchester where he has his workshop. After teaching, he sometimes gets to create his own pieces there.

He donates some of his bowls and some from his students to the Empty Bowls project, a worldwide program embraced by ceramists to benefit charities that feed the hungry.

Guests purchase a bowl for $10 at an events and have it filled with a soup which they then sit and eat. The guest can then take the bowl home.

"You can't just buy a bowl," Molinaro points out in the film. "You can't show up and say here's $100, give me 10 bowls. It is not a sale."

He said 800 bowls of soup were purchased in Richmond this year and another 300 in Winchester.

More than anything, however, Molinaro wanted me to point out that being the subject of a documentary does not mean he is the best potter in Kentucky. He suggested a list of good potters when approached by the filmmakers last year, and was honored when he was selected.

But there is also a little uncertainty about the whole thing, he said.

"When they delve into who you are, you hope they don't find out everything you are," he said, laughing.