HELENA – Montana’s scenic landscapes and laid back culture have made it a welcoming home for artists looking to hone their craft.
In particular, Montana’s Capital City is home to a long legacy for those working with ceramics at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts.
The process of working with ceramics is relatively simple: artists take clay, spend time molding it using water and binders and then fire it in a kiln to make a rigid product. But the end creations are much more complicated, blending different colors, forms, sizes, materials and complexities. Some of the art is functional like plates and bowls, others purely aesthetic.
At the Bray, all types of art is embraced. Steven Lee came to the Bray in the 1990s from Chicago to become a resident artist. Now, Lee is the resident artist director.
“[The Bray] was founded with a very simple mission for all those sincerely interested in ceramics arts to find a place to work,” Lee said.
Started in 1951 by Archie Bray as the Western Clay Manufacturing Co., a brick making business, the dilapidated, old buildings and crumbling kilns can still be seen on the grounds.
“Archie Bray was a really interesting person,” Lee said. “He was also very eccentric in his interests. He loved the arts. He loved theater. He would bring actors and actresses from New York by rail to come to the community of Helena.”
In the modern day, the Bray is somewhat of an epicenter for ceramic artists across the country.
“There’s been a pattern of people who come to the Bray from elsewhere outside the state and then decide to stay and live here,” Lee said.
Each year more than 30 artists work at the Bray. In total, there have been more than 600 artists to walk the halls, each leaving their own unique mark. Lee said the Treasure State’s geography and remoteness may have something to do with attracting creative types from across the country.
“I think the landscape and access to nature certainly bleeds into some people’s work,” Lee said.
There’s also another feature of the bray not found at most other artist in residency programs. The Archie Bray Clay Business makes clay on campus that is used by the artists.
“That is one thing that’s really unique about this place,” Chuck Aydlett, the “Clay Biz” manager, said. “And the residents, they love it. They only have to walk from there to here to get whatever they want.”
Aydlett said the business pumps out about 20 different types of clay totaling more than 476 tons of clay each year, distributed coast to coast and even in Canada. Much of the clay makes its way to production potters or Montana schools.
The bray also opened a brand new education center last year.
“I think the Bray in a way has really been a place that has played a very significant role in the development of ceramics arts in this country,” Lee said.
After facing several roadblocks and possible shutdowns, Montanans came to the Bray’s rescue.
“There were many points where when money was tight or some event would occur, this place could have gone under and disappeared. But there were a lot of people that were dedicated to seeing it succeed and saw value early on,” Lee said.
For more information, visit the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramics Arts website.