Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Working at the potter’s wheel

Like clay in God’s hand

Concordia University art instructor Keith Williams

It all started with a school boy’s crush, according to Professor Keith Williams of Concordia University’s Art Department. Sitting in his art studio, he grins at the memory. “In high school, I wasn’t particularly good at art, but I did like the high school art teacher so I signed up for a year of study with her.”

He made little progress during the first three courses. Then a ceramics class was offered. Suddenly he flourished. “From that point on, this was the reason to take art — to have my hands in the clay and make pots.”

By the end of his high school career, Williams was assisting the art teacher on the potter’s wheel, teaching other students to throw clay. More than his love for clay was a love for teaching. “If it’s not clay, it’s something else,” says Williams. “People will find something with which they can express themselves and thrive as human beings.”

In 1992, Williams was offered a position as assistant professor of art at Concordia University, St. Paul. He became chair of the art department one year later, a position he held until last year. When he arrived on campus, there were a half dozen art majors. Now 55 students are in the undergraduate art program. Under his leadership, an art center has been established that boasts two galleries, along with studios for print making, painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, and digital design. A number of highly competent faculty have joined the department, and collaborative courses have been developed with other academic disciplines.

Ceramicist Keith Williams’ “Black and Tan Tea”

“At a state school, you might not be encouraged to make connections between your art and your faith. If Concordia students want to do it here, we help them with innovation and personal interpretation.”

University officials laud his greatest accomplishment as the development of a first of its kind community arts major. “It remains a very unique niche in the art world,” says Williams. “Rather than creating one’s own personal painting or artistic expression, we use the arts as a vehicle for social justice. By teaching students how to listen to a particular community and its needs, they learn how specific individuals in that place define themselves and, in turn, tell their stories through art. It can be visual but may take many other forms.”

With its rich ethnic diversity, the campus’ immediate neighborhood has been a fertile learning ground. For instance, engaging Hmong storytelling and even Hmong gardening as genuine forms of art have helped students find ways to bridge cultural gaps just a few blocks from the university.

More than decoration or luxury

Williams hopes students who take just one art course will be equally moved. “The vast majority of us will not have careers in art, but we’ll be appreciators of art — consciously or sub-consciously. We all are constantly making aesthetic choices.”

He chuckles about teaching his students how marketers and vendors use color to manipulate consumers. “Studies have shown that orange is one of the least hospitable colors. Why do you think so many fast food restaurants use orange in their décor? They hope to get you in and out as quickly as possible to make room for more customers.”

As a person of faith, teaching art at a Lutheran college has brought Williams his greatest satisfaction. “At a state school, you might not be encouraged to make connections between your art and your faith. If Concordia students want to do it here, we help them with innovation and personal interpretation.”

Keith Williams throws a jar in his Concordia University studio. Photos provided by Concordia University, St. Paul.

He grimaces when acknowledging the overabundance of mass-produced religious art in the marketplace. A quote by Susan Sontag has been instructive. “We become universal by becoming intensely personal.” Says Williams, “If you want to convey something about this universal faith we share, create what’s unique and individual for you to express your faith rather than repeating the images of others.”

The college holds an impressive track record of launching art majors into successful careers as teachers, university professors, pastors, and gallery associates. Olivia Mulvey Morawiecki, who serves at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, reflects, “Professor Williams was an inspiring, inventive, passionate educator who challenged me to believe in myself as an artist and, more importantly, to encourage creativity in others. He was an advocate of questions and cultivated my ability to see both the knowledge and practice of art as fundamental means of healthy living.”

Even in difficult economic times, Williams believes an art major is still a solid career path. “The idea that the arts are luxuries or decorations is a myth. Fourteen percent of America’s gross natural product is arts related. That’s a lot of jobs.”

A sought after speaker in local congregations, Williams hopes to broaden an appreciation for all types of arts in the church. “Lutherans have a tendency to favor music and having a good choir above other arts. I love to educate folks about how art, as a mosaic, expresses the nuances of our faith.”

Mary Brown is an ELCA pastor who currently serves as a Web Content and Development Consultant for the interfaith media organization Odyssey Networks in Manhattan. The mother of one daughter, Hope Marie, she and her husband, Luther, reside in Eden Prairie.

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