Recently, I interviewed Conner Burns, of Natchez, Mississippi. Conner is a studio potter who hosts a unique annual gathering of three other invited potters, called the Natchez Project. Read on to learn about Conner’s innovative approach to collaboration, learning and sharing: Q: What is the Natchez Project?
A: Each year I award three ceramic artists Fellowships to participate
in the Natchez Project. The Fellowship covers the cost of the
project: studio, supplies, lodging. The Natchez Project brings these
artists together in one space for a week, without distractions. There
is no agenda, no requirement. The goal is to allow artists time and
space to create, and an opportunity to interact with other experienced
artists during the creation process.
The artists spend a week creating artwork. Each year the artists are
different, the manner in which they interact varies; often resulting
in a ‘personality’ or ‘concept’ for the project.
Ceramic artwork by Steve Hasslock.
(Image courtesy of Conner Burns)
For example, in one year the artists chose to work on experimental
forms and also chose to have a critique at the end of each day. The
artists decided that since each of us work alone in our studios and
often have commitments, this was an opportunity to explore without
specific commitments and to also obtain input from other artists
daily. The next year was more fluid as artists worked on new work as
well as on refining ideas that they recently started exploring.
An exhibit is held at the end of the week. The gallery is set with
the completed work of the artists that they brought with them for the
exhibit. The public is invited to attend and see the completed work,
converse with the artists and visit the studio to explore the work
that is in process, which is a bonus for the public and artists
alike. Most artwork seen in galleries and publications are not only
completed, but are the successful creations at the end of a long
period of development of a particular idea or concept. To be able to
see transitional, new or developing artwork and to discuss it with the
artists is not only rare but also exciting to both artists and
Q: What enticed you to try this?
A: In that past I participated in art festivals and also ran a
teaching studio. I noticed that the interactions with artists was a
positive part of the art festivals, but also noticed that the
conversations were abbreviated in that sales environment. I began
considering other options for artist interactions. I began to discuss
my ideas with artists; and noticed that the interest level was
overwhelmingly positive. One particular individual, Cynthia Lee, then
the director of the Odyssey Center of Ceramic Art, was encouraging and
also shared with me a similar concept that the Odyssey explored in the
past. These conversations confirmed my interest. I was then awarded
a fellowship to spend two weeks at the Mary Anderson Center in a time
of solitary creation. The benefits I received from that time of
undistracted creation pushed me closer to my concept of the Natchez
Project. The Natchez Project was born.
Q: What are some obstacles or difficulties with the planning of this event?
A: For most individuals the largest difficulty would be space. Four
artists in one studio for a week can produce a great quantity of work.
If the space is crowded, that will short circuit the process.
Thankfully, I have a studio that provides a nice work area for each
artist, accommodating all of his or her resources as well.
Q: Do you have equipment for all of the processes?
A: I have enough wheels, slab rollers, extruders, mixing facilities,
worktables and shelving for all to work without crowding each other.
Q: What is the lodging like?
A: Being together for a week means different things to different
people. Having a space that allows gathering when desired and private
space when needed is important. A location near the studio is also
helpful. Different individuals have different routines and needs, so
being able to get back to your room with ease makes it comfortable for
Q: How do you promote the Natchez Project?
A: While there is not a need to promote the project, since it is a
closed event, promoting the opening event is important. I am not great
at the social media process, as I would prefer being the studio, but I
do send out invitations and post images throughout the week.
Q: What change have you made as the event has gone forward?
A: I have not made substantial changes. It seems to be the correct
system and so I have stayed with it.
Q: Do you think this model is replicable?
A: Yes. It is not difficult, but it does take some planning and
organization, which will take time away from something else. If you
invite individuals to participate in an event, I believe you should
also be sure that it is well organized and a great experience for the
Q: What do you get out of the Natchez Project?
A: Many things. I enjoy getting to know the artists better. Some who
I invite I know well, while others I barely know. I enjoy seeing the
artists excited about the time to work, and hearing them getting more
excited about the pursuing their new ideas.
Q: What do the participants get out of the Natchez Project?
A. New work, as well as connections with artists who they may not
know. Instead of the short and interrupted conversations that artists
often exchange at a ‘sales’ event, the conversation is not rushed or
artificially disrupted. Conversations often stop, pause and are
revisited at various times during the week. Artists have also told me
they value the opportunity to see a process another artists uses and
the progress made on an idea the artist has long desired to explore.
Truly, it varies with each artist and I believe continues to develop
over time. Past fellowship artists tell me that they continue considering
concepts or techniques long after the project is over. At other times
it is a relationship formed. Most artists in the project are not
‘close friends’. They might be acquaintances, familiar with the other
artist’s work or completely unfamiliar with each other. Regardless of
the level of relationship at the beginning of the project, there is a
depth of relationship at the end of the project. This ‘more familiar’
level of knowledge often encourages those artists to communicate about
various events, ideas, and concepts long after the actual event is
Q: What does the community get out of it?
A: They get the opportunity to see exceptional artwork up close,
rather than in publications. They also get the opportunity to interact
with the artist. As an added bonus they get to visit the studio and
see the artwork that has been in process all week. The event not only
expands the artists’ perception of possibilities, but that of
individuals in the community. Tom Coleman – 2013 Elaine Coleman – 2013 Meira Mathison – 2013 Michael Sherrill - 2013 Lynn Smiser Bowers - 2012 Steve Hasslock – 2012 Billy Ray Mangham - 2012 Cynthia Lee – 2011 Mike Jabbur – 2011 Cory McCrory - 2011 Scott Bennett – 2010 Mark Chatterley – 2010 Steven Hill – 2010 Cathy Broski – 2009
For more information, click on www.connerburns.org