Delores Coan describes herself as “just a girl from Canaan.” How, then, did her ceramic works come to be in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum and why were she and her former husband, Jeff, once listed as two of New England’s “Finest Craftspeople,” by Yankee Magazine?
According to Coan, her success resulted from a succession of people who took an interest in her and nurtured her abilities. And now she is returning the favor, fostering the talents of a new generation of artists.
Coan, who retired last year after more than 35 years as the ceramics teacher at Hotchkiss School in Salisbury, capped her career there with her student Kristen Gotsis’ stunning win at the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Award. Gotsis, from Goshen, NY, was a first-year student with Coan, but readily earned the National American Vision Medal in the category of ceramics and glass. In addition, she won a Gold Key prize and the Judges Award for best in show.
“It was the first time that Hotchkiss had ever taken the American Visions Award,” Coan said proudly, adding that Gotsis’ work was among more than 330,000 works of art and writing submitted to a jury of luminaries in visual and literary arts. Panelists looked for originality, technical skill and the emergence of a personal voice or vision.
Gold Key works are judged nationally to receive national medals, including Gold, Silver, American Visions & Voices, Portfolio Silver with Distinction or Portfolio Gold Medals and Special Awards. National Medalist are recognized in part at the National Ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Coan said that less than 1 percent of the students are recognized at the national level. “It’s not an award that is easy to win.”
She said that the winning entry grew out of an assignment that incorporated a technique Coan learned in China from a clay artist from Belgium. “It was something I learned in China and I had to find the right student,” she said. “I found two—one got honorable mention, but Kristin won the whole show.”
Gotsis’ piece, titled Transparency, weighs about two ounces and took about three months to craft.
The intercontinental quality of her inspiration underscores the diverse nature of Coan’s career. She has explored her craft in Japan, visiting the most ancient kilns in that venerable country, and has taught ceramic professors and students in Jingdezhen, China, a 4,000-year-old pottery town.
When asked about her successes, Coan’s modesty focuses most of the attention on those who taught her and those she has taught. Even as she closed her teaching career at Hotchkiss with a retrospective exhibit, Friends of Fire: Ceramic Art, Coan chose to share her show with former students to highlight the central role teaching has played in her career and the lasting relationships she has forged because of it.
"Teaching ceramic art has been a humbling and exhilarating part of my life," she said. "I've made lifelong links with many students through sharing the creative process."
Indeed, so close are the bonds with some of her students that Gotsis asked her teacher to accompany her to Japan in late fall. “We hit the trains and every day we were in a different pottery town,” Coan reported. “It was like I was still teaching, showing her different styles and different firing techniques. We were there three weeks. I wondered how it would be traveling with an 18-year-old but it worked out fine.”
No sooner had she come home when another former student—this one from Thailand—contacted her with an invitation to go to Peru next summer. Coan said the girl had been a government-sponsored student at Hotchkiss and had lived a parsimonious life there. “She never ate anything other than the food supplied at the school and shopped at thrift stores,” Coan recalled. “She told me she was saving her money so she could travel like me. She graduated several years ago and I think it is ironic that she contacted me and wants me to go with her.”
“I’m a good teacher,” she said. “I always say I am a better teacher than I am a potter.” She credits that success with the fact that she is a professional potter. “They teach pottery in schools but a lot of the teachers are not potters. I just fell into teaching.”
In her summer seminar in China she taught alternative methods of firing. “The Chinese have done the same thing for thousands of years and they are all masters of their craft. It is probably a 4,000-year discipline in China, but it is pretty bizarre how they do it.” She said one craftsman does each individual task in the process.
“Jingdezhen is perhaps the oldest working town in the world. I went the first time to learn about it and then went back the next year. Then I started meeting people and was asked to come back and teach. No one spoke English, but I believe you can really get along with people through the language of the heart. I had this one grumpy professor—every class has to have a curmudgeon—but when she left she said, ‘Gooda teacher.’ It was a huge success.”
Coan’s own passion for working with clay has brought her to many parts of the world seeking indigenous potters and their work. While at Hotchkiss, she staged two successful international symposiums, one that drew potters from England, Ireland and Canada, and a second with South African potters.
“I traveled to see native potters, women who lived in the bush, making traditional beer pots. I put (their works) in a show against men and women who did pottery that sells for up to $15,000. It was sold out. It was an outrageous show.”
Coan’s career path has been a peripatetic as her international travels. A graduate of Housatonic Valley Regional High School, she credits former art teacher Ruth Eaton with inspiring her interest in art and sending her on to study at the New York School of Interior Design.
Her former husband and business partner, Jeff Coan, attended Franklin Peirce College in New Hampshire where she found work in an art center. “I worked side-by-side with an 80-year-old potter,” she related. “She taught me from the ground up.”
She and Jeff returned to Connecticut and “were poor, poor, poor,” but, married and got jobs with the Berkshire Pottery in Hillsdale, NY. “Martin and Gertrude Stoziak trained me how to throw repetitiously,” she recalled. “They would give me a form and I had to do it 100 times before I could move on. We weren’t even paid in money—we got brown eggs and bread—but we saved our money and were able to buy one wheel that I could work on in the cellar of my parents’ house.”
The Coans—he later became an accomplished artist in wood—discovered almost accidentally that they could make money selling their works in craft shows. “Our first show we made $30 or $40 and a lightbulb went off,” she said.
She studied further with Wesleyan Potters in Middletown CT before becoming a disciple of William Pitney, a retired professor of ceramics making his home in Sharon. “I went to study with him and he gave me all his college courses in his studio,” she said. “He gave be all his lectures, all his tests. I was no longer learning on my own. It was four years of twice-a-week meetings in his studio. He was my mentor and my idol.”
Pitney did more than teach ceramics. He put her in touch with Blanche Hoar, then head of the art department at Hotchkiss. “She was like Mrs. Eaton,” Coan related. “She was hard and if she was angry, she might kick a wastebasket over. But this woman loved me and brought me out of Canaan into this prep-school world.”
Fifty years after wandering into the world of ceramics, Coan’s passion for the process is undimmed. “I don’t have enough years in my life to learn and experience all there is about clay,” she said. “I talked to someone recently who said, “I’m all over that. I’m finished with clay. Well, I’m not.”