Ceramic artist Michelle Ettrick, now an instructor in art at Penn State Altoona, took an unconventional path to get where she is today. Born in Panama, she came to the United States in November 1982. Nine years ago, after almost a year of homelessness, she says, “I started school in my forties as a single mom” at the College of Central Florida. Among her studies, she enrolled in a ceramics course, a choice that would define her life path. She believes “clay saved my life.”
While still a beginner in ceramics Ettrick found a mentor in instructor Charlie Cummings. She says, “He really encouraged me. He knew the little bit I was doing was so on point: ‘I know if you keep going, you will do something great.’ He saw that ‘extra.’” His influence kept her going. “That’s how I went to get my bachelor’s—he pushed and pushed.”
Ettrick left a distinctive first impression on Cummings. He says, “Michelle was a once-in-a-lifetime student. By the third week of the first Ceramics course she took from me, her developing passion for working with clay was clear. By the end of the semester, she had used over 600 pounds of clay and made hundreds of pots in a course that required students to make 25–30 vessels. The work she produced far exceeded expectations both in quantity and quality.”
And that was just the beginning. After completing her associate degree, Ettrick enrolled in the University of Florida for a bachelor of fine arts degree, which she earned in 2017, studying with Linda Arbuckle, Nan Smith, and Anna Callouri. The next logical step was a master’s; that’s when she came to the School of Visual Arts at Penn State University Park. “At Penn State, I learned from great instructors and artists like Chris Staley, Shannon Goff, and Liz Quackenbush. The great part about PSU was they encouraged us to use any material we wanted along with clay.” Cummings says Ettrick “going on to earn a BFA and an MFA at two of the top Ceramics programs in the United States is testament to Michelle’s drive and determination.”
Ettrick creates pieces out of clay, some functional, some sculptural, but all of it unique. She explains her subject matter as “all about things I remember. It started because I have a really bad memory. A lot of times, something clicks, and that reminds me of something.” For her tumblers featuring a woman hanging clothes on a line, she explains, “My mom had to wash clothes with a washboard in Panama for four kids and then hang everything on the clothesline. We were running around the clothes and she was yelling at us.”
She knows she’s not the only one with that experience. “People contact me and let me know that I spark memories for them; that’s what I love about the work that I’m doing. It may not be the same memory, but the work sparks good memories for others.” When people ask, “How did you come up with these ideas?,” she responds, “The easiest way for me to come up with content is to make it personal,” a belief that follows through in all her art, whether it’s plates celebrating natural hair, street scenes of where she grew up, or whimsical underwear on a clothesline.
Ettrick uses that same approach—making it personal—when she teaches. Her first class as an instructor at Penn State Altoona was ART 166, “a class on concept of form,” a required course for Visual Arts Studies majors. But this semester, she is teaching ART 30, an introduction to art for non–art majors, which means she has students from across the disciplines. “Some of these students have never done art,” she says, but she encourages them by reminding them that “when I touched clay for the first time, I had never touched it before.” And when they create something, at times they do not think it’s good, but “I say, ‘this is beautiful, this is your style. And they look at me as if I am crazy. I remind them not to compare their work to others. We are all our own worst critic.”
Distinguished Professor of Visual Arts and head of Visual Art Studies Rebecca Strzelec knows how fortunate Penn State Altoona is to welcome Ettrick as a faculty member. Ettrick’s ability to reach even the non–art majors, especially in these unique times, Strzelec says, “speaks to Michelle’s ability to apply her diverse life experiences to many kinds of people, often simultaneously and via remote methods like ZOOM.”
Strzelec continues: “Because of our distance to major cities and art centers, we tend to have a harder time finding faculty, especially those with experience in sculpture and ceramics that can also relate to and reach our students. We were thrilled that Michelle accepted our offer to teach ART 166 her first semester and then continue on to teach nonmajors. Both classes present different kinds of opportunities and challenges, even more so during COVID-19 constraints. The work Michelle has guided her students to make has been impressive. I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope Michelle sticks around for a long while.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Ettrick’s life has changed significantly in the last decade. “Now I’m just thinking in a different way,” she says, laughing as she remembers her struggles starting school and interactions with instructors: “‘Michelle, I love you so much, your work is amazing. But here is your paper ...’ and all this red all over it.” But that was a long time ago. Her work is becoming well known, thanks in part to social media. “My work got shared by NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) and also by a few established artists like Adam Fields, and I gained more followers that, in turn, shared my work.”
Still keeping it personal, she says, “I want to answer every single person who writes to me. They comment on how the work is. They ask how I make the work.” Ettrick’s work can be found online both on her website and her Instagram account. Thanks to some online interviews, people can listen to Ettrick and see her in her element. “Home Is Where You Keep Your Bags” is a documentary filmed by student Lindsey Shuey while Ettrick was still in grad school. The Potters Cast podcast features her in an episode titled “‘God Must Think I’m Wonder Woman’ or Homeless to Grad School.” Most recently, Ettrick did a “Talking Clay Field Trip” interview and virtual studio visit with Simon Levin, another ceramic artist, for the Ceramics Art Network.
Next year brings Ettrick’s first solo show, to be held in April 2021 at the Charlie Cummings Gallery in Gainesville, Florida. Cummings says he’s looking forward to her show: “We are honored and proud to support Michelle Ettrick and give her the opportunity to share her experiences through her artwork with our national and international audience.” It should be no surprise that he ends on a personal note: “as her former teacher and her friend, I am proud to see Michelle’s success in the field of Ceramics and academia where it is rare to find someone with her background and life experiences.”