Ceramists to lecture about work, life as artists

Elora Tocci | Staff Writer

Once upon a time, Errol Willett worked with clay in a workshop.

It was just for a little while. Afterward, he continued on with his life, exploring practical paths toward a defined career. But he couldn’t forget about his time with the clay.

“It kept haunting me,” he said. “I sort of had to take it on.”

And Willett did take it on, becoming a ceramist and chair of the Department of Art at Syracuse University.

Willett and his wife, Jennifer Gandee, will lecture at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center. Gandee is a professor of ceramics at Cayuga Community College and the owner of Gandee Gallery just outside of Syracuse, N.Y. They will split the lecture, with Willett discussing what it’s like to chair an art department and Gandee talking about her gallery, and they will both speak about their work.

Willett said he enjoys sharing an enthusiasm for art with his students and working with them one-on-one.

“It’s very hands-on, and sometimes you’re working with students late at night or on the weekends, and you develop interesting friendships with the kids,” he said. “It’s fun.”

Willett has been teaching for 14 years and said he has watched his students graduate and become his colleagues, now working in galleries and art centers and some becoming teachers themselves. He said it’s fun to watch his students in the process of figuring out what they ultimately want to do with their lives.

“Absolutely nobody chooses art because it’s a career,” he said. “Most artists have a story about how art chose them and became something they had to do. It’s not a choice about practicality or a career decision.”

That’s how it happened for Gandee and him when they realized their passion for ceramics. Willett said they like painting on 3-D forms, the feel of clay in their hands, the alchemy of the kiln and taking valueless material and turning it into something special.

“What’s not to like?” he said.

Working as an artist does not lend itself to a glamorous life — Willett said people who are looking for multiple houses and big incomes are afraid of being artists.

“Or if they’re not, they should be,” he said with a laugh.

But he’s not complaining.

“I have a wonderful lifestyle, and I enjoy what I do every day,” he said. “You can’t trade that.”