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Debbie Kupinsky in the studio

Ceramicist Advocates for an Entrepreneurial Approach

The beginning of her life as an artist was hardly a conventional one, but for Debbie Kupinsky (Art), the evolution of her love affair with her field gives her a particular empathy with the experience of new artists.

That places her well, she feels, to encourage her students in an entrepreneurial approach to their art that matches her own.

Kupinsky’s early artistic sense was awakened, in fact, through photography. As a high school student, she was picked for the lone spot available to her school on a Saturday arts program in her native Los Angeles. In due course, she would begin her college career as an English major at Syracuse University. She first studied clay at Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado. There, photography was not an option and Kupinsky needed a 3D class for her foundations program. It was enough to pique her intereset in the medium.

She transferred to Kansas City Art Institute, which offered a large clay program. “Pottery is like a gateway drug to the arts,” she says. “It forces you to make a lot of stuff quickly, simply to discover the material and what it can do. You learn quickly that you can do things you really didn’t think you could.”

Later, as a graduate student at Louisiana State University, Kupinsky found herself making the objects that she was writing about, and indeed even writing on her pottery – a combination of her artistic interests and one that would that led to a continuing focus on the figure and narrative. 

She says: “My work investigates the role of objects and images as carriers of meaning and explores the role of layered images in the construction of metaphorical landscapes. Ordinary objects like flowers, teacups, bottles and toys are some of the subjects and images within my work that come together to create larger, open narrative. 

“The relationships in the work between sculptural pieces and found objects are meant to leave space for the viewer and allow them to find themselves, their memories and associations. … My goal is to create a visually playful experience where meaning and narrative is created with each individual experience. The works are meant to show themselves in layers of information that take time to reveal themselves to the viewer.”

As Kupinsky embarked on a teaching career that took her first across country, to the Appalachian Center for Crafts in Tennessee, and then back to California, where she proved willing to teach in both ceramics and other mediums, too. (“You just don’t turn down work.”) Inevitably, her network among fellow artists continued to broaden. People noticed that “here was someone who was keeping on making art,” she says, and new opportunities continued to present themselves: opportunities that would develop through a peripatetic chapter at various Los Angeles-area colleges and universities; on to schools in Mississippi; and, ultimately, to Wisconsin, where she held a fellowship at Lawrence University and lectured at UW Oshkosh before joining St. Norbert College.

Readers may first have encountered Kupinsky’s work in a recent St. Norbert College Magazine photo gallery sharing new work of faculty artists. An adjunct member of the art discipline last year, she this year joins the college as a permanent member of the faculty. “I love the art department here,” she says. “I love the energy, and the people are wonderful. There's a culture of niceness; and the students are conscientious. They care.”

Kupinsky’s work will next be seen on campus in a solo show in January. Off-campus, she is preparing for solo shows at the James Watrous Gallery in Madison (Jan. 15-March 6) and, upcoming, a two-person show with Jessica Calderwood at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Kohler, Wis. She favors porcelain, a medium that she says references not only refinement, but a domestic material we all have experience with: "I really started working with it when I was referencing porcelain dolls. It enabled me to investigate the contrast of surface when left bare and keep the glazes brighter."

Kupinsky, who was artist-in-residence in Kohler’s arts/industry program October through December last year, sees an innate tension in her work; a disconnect, perhaps, between the meticulously finished work she produces for exhibit and her exploration as an artist in her studio. "I’m interested in having the mark of making and the plasticity of the material show through in the work," she says. "People do gravitate to the finely carved and finished, so I am sort of at odds sometimes."

Kupinsky’s drive to keep making art along with the fitfully evolving pattern of her own career, keep her interested in the possibilities before the nascent artists she encounters among her students at St. Norbert. Her teaching always influences what she’s making, she says. Pondering the possibilities, she considers the power of a short-term course that would culminate in a pop-up art gallery. And she'd relish the challenge of developing a collaborative course that would focus on the entrepreneurial aspects of building a career as a professional artist: “You have to make things happen!” 

Sept. 1, 2015