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Joe Molinaro

Episode #303 First Aired: May 9, 2010

Joe Molinaro’s colleagues refer to him as “a combination of anthropologist and artist” and “a master of enlightened experimentation.” The Kentucky Muse program “Joe Molinaro: Hands in Clay,” examines how these seemingly contradictory traits shape the life a Kentucky artist who is a world-renowned potter, teacher, and humanitarian.

Molinaro was born and grew up near Chicago, in the South Bend area of Indiana. His parents noted early on his fascination with the way objects work and the process of building and creating something from nothing. It wasn’t until he found himself talking to a co-worker while on the job during college at a trailer factory that his interest in pottery first surfaced. The friend brought up how much fun his pottery class at Notre Dame had been, describing in detail, with further prodding from Molinaro, the various techniques shown in the workshop. His curiosity sparked, Molinaro began seeking out pottery workshops and classes, eventually entering Southern Illinois University at Carbondale’s MFA program to begin work as a ceramic artist. The vast amount of work and depth of vision the potter has developed tells the rest of the story, profiled here on Kentucky Muse.

Throughout the program Molinaro describes the inner debate he often encounters between his love for functional pottery and his equally impassioned interest in the more experimental nature of his recent teapots, bowls, and other figures. On the one hand, he says “I love making functional pots because it keeps me grounded into the taproot of pottery and why it exists in our lives.” On the other hand, Molinaro is quick to point out that “if you only want to judge it (a teapot) on its ability to function as a teapot, I have let you down. But if you do that you have also let me down; I think art is a communication—it is a two-way street.”

Kentucky Muse follows Molinaro’s busy schedule from teaching classes at Eastern Kentucky University, where he is Professor and the Chair of the Ceramics department; to working in his home studio; to traveling South American jungles in search of the pure pottery of indigenous cultures; to his participation in the Empty Bowls project, helping raise money for the hungry. All of this reveals Molinaro’s vision as an educator, a potter, and a caring artist: “We talk about art being a vehicle for communication….What greater communication than to have something from my mind, my heart, and my hands that ends up in your hands to feed your belly and nourish your body?”

Molinaro’s students discuss his enthusiastic and inspiring teaching style. The artist also leads us through his personal creative process. Images and stories from South America, where he has investigated the work of the Quichua Indians in Ecuador and the villagers of Ocumicho in Mexico, round out the program’s profile, examining Molinaro’s interest in the deepest roots of pottery, held fast by the old and sometimes forgotten cultures of humankind’s past. Finally, the program visits an Empty Bowls event, in which folks are invited to buy a bowl of soup, keeping the ceramic bowl they choose for their meal, with proceeds going towards feeding the hungry. In recent years, Molinaro has helped organize and contribute pottery to the program in an effort to fully realize the function of a simple, nourishing bowl of soup and the human beauty of its container.

About Joe Molinaro

As a child, Joe Molinaro became fascinated with and amused by strange objects, taking things apart, and collecting. “My parents always called me ‘the one with all the hobbies.’” He didn’t focus on art in high school, planning initially to major in special education in college. He changed his mind after a chance encounter with a Notre Dame graduate who described to him how much he had enjoyed pottery classes while in college. Halfway through his junior year at Ball State University, Molinaro visited the art department’s ceramics studio and began learning all he could about the equipment and pottery-making techniques while working after hours with students and faculty. He changed majors to pursue an art degree and, after graduating, entered Southern Illinois University at Carbondale’s MFA program to begin work as a ceramic artist.

Following graduate school, Molinaro moved his family to England, following another childhood interest—travel—to work at a crafts gallery in London. His first job as an art teacher was in Florida, where he had access to a rich international community of art and culture.

While spending Christmas vacation in South America, he visited Ecuador. Some unique pottery he saw in a hardware store there piqued his interest in the pottery-making traditions of the region. In 1991, he began teaching at Eastern Kentucky University and became a member of the Kentucky/Ecuador Partnership, a program connecting EKU faculty and students with colleges and universities in that South American country. Soon after that, he was offered the chance to exhibit some of his work in Ecuador and received a travel grant to lecture there. Impressed with his lectures, one school requested that he return to Ecuador to teach during the summer. On the weekends, he began exploring the Amazon basin, on the lookout for examples of the region’s traditional pottery. He has returned to Ecuador regularly through Fulbright grants and other academic resources and has used this experience and his own work as an artist to develop a multi-faceted career as a potter, art teacher, travel writer, and cultural enthusiast.

Between teaching, working in his home studio in Winchester, Kentucky, and traveling throughout South America exploring the indigenous cultures and their pottery traditions, Molinaro also enjoys helping those in need, participating in the Empty Bowls project and helping raise money to feed the hungry.

Learn more about Joe Molinaro at the ArtsToolkit web site.

Joe Molinaro Art Gallery

I love making functional pots because it keeps me grounded into the taproot of pottery and why it exist in our lives,” but “if you only want to judge it (a teapot) on its ability to function as a teapot, I have let you down. But if you do that you have also let me down; I think art is communication—it is a two-way street

Joe Molinaro

When one encounters the wildly bizarre forms and vivid colors of Joe Molinaro’s work in this online gallery, it is difficult to imagine these whimsical and seemingly out of proportion shapes could actually server as functional teapots, cups, jugs, and bowls. A viewer might ast: “What purpose do they serve?”

In Molinaro’s opinion, asking the viewer to pose such questions IS the purpose these pieces serve.

What is a teapot anyway?

Joe Molinaro Tool Gallery

Molinaro’s Travels

Joe Molinaro has traveled throughout South America—including Mexico and Ecuador—to study and work with various indigenous groups and rural villages, learning the techniques and customs of their ceramic art forms. He 1995, he published an article depicting the daily life and ceramic arts of Molino, a small village in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Acording to Molinaro, “the village of Molino has approximately 100 inhabitants (60 children and 40 adults). While the primary language in Molino is Quichua, several residents have been able to learn Spanish as a result of traveling to the small towns that border the jungle region. The houses are made in a traditional style with most having the living areas elevated and the cooking and storage areas beneath the main floor. Palm leaves are woven together to form the roofs and bamboo poles are split and laid for the second story flooring. There are approximately 15 houses that make up the village, with each site being strategically located along the Rio Bobanaza and separated by thick jungle.”

To learn more about the Oriente Quichua people (the Quichua living in the Ecuadorian Rainforest) you can visit the following Web site:

To find out more about Molinaro’s travels, visit his EKU profile site at: