Ceramics alumna Willers is president-elect of NCECA

Rhonda Willers pinching the rim of a basin form made of earthenware. Photo by April Bodenburg.
Rhonda Willers pinching the rim of a basin form made of earthenware. Photo by April Bodenburg.

School of Art, Art History & Design alumna Rhonda Willers (M.F.A. 2007) is the president-elect of the board of directors for NCECA (National Council on the Education for the Ceramic Arts).

NCECA is the largest ceramics organization in the world and one of the largest visual arts organizations in the U.S. with around 6,000 members attending the national conference each year.

Willers will become president-elect in March 2021 and then begin serving a two-year term as president in March 2022. She will succeed Professor of Art Peter Pinnell, who is currently serving as president.

Willers previously served as a special advisor from 2020-2021 and steward of the board from 2018-2020. From 2009-2012 she served as director at large on the NCECA board.

“After much thought and discussion with my family, I was more than happy to say yes to this opportunity,” Willers said. “When thinking about why I continue to say yes to service, it comes back to a few foundational beliefs for me. One, fundamentally I believe in giving back to communities that serve others. This attitude and way of life was modeled for me by my grandmother. She was an incredible volunteer, advocate, and leader within her Northern Wisconsin community. She was not someone who was raised with great means, or even ever had great means in her lifetime, but she understood the capacity we all have to make a difference to help improve the lives of others through our service.”

Willers also supports the work of NCECA.

“NCECA is an organization that has demonstrated a capacity to respond to the needs of its membership. To see opportunities for growth within the field of ceramics and to do the work required of implementing these changes,” she said. “Through each of my previous board services, I was inspired by the group collaboration and process of discussion and discourse to reach new courses of action. The membership of NCECA has also inspired me. NCECA members contribute content, events, experiences, and feedback with the intention of creating an organization that better serves the community at large.”

As president, she hopes to listen deeply to NCECA’s membership.

“I hope to continue widening NCECA’s circle of connection across the ceramics community, developing opportunities of greater access for members and communities that have been historically underrepresented,” Willers said.

Pinnell said Willers is an excellent choice for this leadership post at NCECA.

“Rhonda is one of the most wise, competent and hard-working people I’ve known,” he said. “That’s why boards have asked her to serve. This year has been difficult for NCECA as we had to cancel our national conference last March and have spent the year transitioning from holding a large, in-person conference to holding a large virtual conference, which we will do in March. Rhonda has played a key role in this enormous task, and the current board was unanimous in asking Rhonda to become the president to follow me.”

Willers is a full-time studio artist and writer at her home in rural Wisconsin. She recently authored the book, “Terra Sigillata: Contemporary Techniques,” which was published by The American Ceramics Society in February 2019.

“One January morning, during a winter break from teaching, I was literally sitting at my desk and wondered, ‘If I were to write a book for ceramics, what would it be about?’ I had recently taken an online course that encouraged participants to ask yourself about what kind of book you would write,” Willers said. “My youngest child was only three years old, and looking back I often wonder what made me think I would have time to take on such a project? I loved terra sigillata and realized that very little had been published about it, aside from a few articles here and there (many by Pete Pinnell in recent times), and a paragraph or two in ceramics textbooks. I googled 'how to write a book proposal’ (no joke) and then proceeded to use a resource I found from a reputable publishing company and wrote my book proposal that day. I sent it to an editor I knew from the ceramics field and to my utter shock and delight, he replied with a yes to the project within a matter of days. From this initial day of book proposal writing to the publication date was almost exactly two years.”

Terra Sigillata is a historic pottery finish that was widely used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and its use has become popular among contemporary ceramic artists, including Willers.

“Terra sigillata is a ceramic surface that has been used since the beginning of pottery all around the world. It was one of the first ways ancient pots were sealed to slow the seeping of liquids. Eventually it was used not only to seal the surface, but also to decorate forms. Terra sigillata is a refined clay slip made by mixing water, clay, and a bit of a deflocculant (a material that helps separate particle sizes of clay from one another). The mixture is settled over the course of 24 hours to several days and then the finest particles, which are found in the middle of the settled mixture, are removed through a siphoning process. These fine particles, which are suspended in water, are the terra sigillata, and they are applied to unfired clay forms and then fired on,” Willers said.

She uses terra sigillatas on her ceramic work.

“They create a skin-like coating allowing for the subtle marks of my hands and process to still show through after being fired in the kiln,” Willers said. “I also use them because they are incredibly versatile and can be used in any firing method or temperature range. My own ceramic work is fired in either electric kilns or wood-fired kilns.”

Pinnell said the book fills a void.

“There has been no comprehensive look at how to create and use this finish, and the book also contains a survey of the work by contemporary artists who employ this traditional finish, but in new, innovative and non-traditional ways,” Pinnell said.

Willers said the book has been well received from her colleagues.

“It’s still hard to believe a book about this topic hadn’t been published until 2019 with its deep roots in ceramics history and contemporary practice,” she said. “I have particularly enjoyed connecting with readers and users of the book on social media. The responses are coming from around the globe, and it truly is a joy to know this resource is serving our global ceramics community.”

Willers is grateful for her time at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, studying with Kendall, Pinnell and Eddie Dominguez.

“I was seeking a program that had multiple professors leading the ceramics area and a program that encouraged and supported working with other mediums,” Willers said. “Gail Kendall, as my primary faculty advisor, met with me weekly, gave me challenging assignments, sometimes ones that required me to tell her ‘no.’ Pete Pinnell is a well-established technical wizard of ceramics, and I knew studying with him would help me develop that aspect of my ceramic understanding further. Eddie Dominguez, my third ceramics faculty member, led me through conceptual inquiries to deepen my understanding of the ‘why’ of my work and practice.”

She also learned with other professors in the School of Art, Art History & Design.

“In my studies at UNL, I was also able to meet and work with Andrea Bolland, Francisco Souto, Santiago Cal and Aaron Holz,” she said. “Each of these instructors grew a foundation of inquiry that serves me today as I work in my studio. I can still hear questions they asked, artists they recommended and inspiration they shared.”

She appreciated the friendships and continued professional relationships that evolved with her peers, too.

“My fellow graduate students, now professionals in the field, provided ample inspiration and support throughout our time,” she said. “Today I am grateful for this network of professionals who I can reach out to with questions and also include in future work. Having earned my MFA from UNL has provided me with a strong foundation of understanding around building communities and a network of support that has provided me with opportunities to contribute back to the ceramics and arts communities.”