SuFong Milonni, left, and Barbara Yarnell glazing their creations in the UNM-LA pottery studio. Courtesy/UNM-LA
After throwing her first pot in a Los Alamos Middle School class at age 14, Barbara Yarnell was smitten with clay.
Later in life, she found she also loved sharing her knowledge of the art of ceramics with others. She just taught the first day of Introduction to Ceramics to 20 students at UNM-LA during the first week of fall semester.
“I love the first day of school in the fall and that excitement of learning,” Yarnell said in a recent interview in her studio classroom at UNM-LA. “It’s wonderful to be a part of opening up a door for students, and clay is my door.”
Now beginning her 10th year as an art instructor at UNM-LA, Yarnell continues to expand her clay experience through personal and shared challenges with students and friends.
“I’ve always loved learning and exploring new ideas—it’s a big thing we do in my classes,” she explains. “We’re always trying something new. I’m open to anything students bring in that they want to recreate.”
With her longtime student and friend, SuFong Milonni, by her side during the interview (as she often is in the studio), Yarnell noted that SuFong has helped her discover different styles of ceramics and glazes.
“SuFong and I work well together and think alike, so every summer we choose something new to work on, like alternative ways of firing,” Yarnell said and cited “Synchronicity,” a 2013 joint exhibit at the UNM-LA library that showcased various glazes by Milonni and Yarnell. “We are currently experimenting with celadon, an ancient Chinese glaze.”
Some pieces that both artists made with this delicate bluish glaze are on display at the UNM-LA library, and they plan to show two-dimensional clay works at the Mesa Public Library in February of 2016.
“This class is really about mutual learning, from Barbara and from each other,” Milonni said. “We are like a family.”
Milonni has been a student at UNM-LA for nearly 20 years and continues to develop her talents during class and in the studio with Yarnell. The Best of Show award at the Fuller Lodge Art Center’s “Conversations in Clay” exhibit was recently presented to Milonni for “Yesterday and Today,” a vessel decorated with a Chinese calligraphy poem under the raku glaze. Yarnell and other UNM-LA ceramic class students past and present also participated in the show.
Each semester, Yarnell teaches four classes: two Introduction to Ceramics, Raku-Ceramic Reduction Process, and Ceramics: Materials & Aesthetics. The wildly popular courses fill early and typically have waiting lists. Yarnell would like to hire an additional instructor in the future to serve the demand.
“I have been exhibiting and showing in galleries for almost 40 years,” Yarnell said. “I was a production potter; it’s how I made my living.”
The skilled artist can make everything from cookie jars, to animal figurines, to ornate jars. She often creates the awards for local fairs, athletic events, and even dog obedience classes.
“With production ware, you have to be fairly standard. I had four basic designs, and made mugs, kitchenware, lamps, and dinnerware sets,” she said. “Now I’m more interested in creating one-of-a-kind pieces that are really different. I’m changing my philosophy a bit, and SuFong has helped me accept what happens and let it be, and I’m embracing that.”
In keeping with the high quality instruction at UNM-LA, Yarnell is exemplary as an esteemed potter and passionate educator.
“I’d been an artist for a very long time when one year I decided I knew enough to pay it forward and become a teacher,” she shared. “I felt a real calling, and although I’d taught early on in my career and didn’t like it, I felt ready.”
UNM-LA approached Yarnell to teach nine years ago, and in 2013 named her the General Studies Department Chair, a role that keeps her involved in the greater university maintenance and development. “Since we are such a small campus, a lot of disciplines are rolled into General Studies,” Yarnell said, listing more than ten disciplines including Liberal Arts, the degree with the most students granted at UNM-LA. As a department chair, she hires instructors, develops class schedules, and supportsthe various instructors in her department, among other duties.
Yarnell’s art classes draw a range of students from LAHS, youth with special needs, college freshmen fulfilling their fine arts requirement, studio art majors, retirees checking off goals on their bucket lists, and artists already working in the field who are looking to connect with others who share their passion. “I love the diversity of students here at UNM-LA in terms of age, ethnicity, and in the studio, they’re part of a unique group. It’s very supportive,” Yarnell said.
Another of her star graduates is Rick Trujillo, a UNM-LA custodial worker with a background in welding who has poured metal at Chimayo and Shidoni foundries for art castings in the past. During the interview with Yarnell, Trujillo stopped by the studio to offer a couple of trays to his teacher for possible casting in her classes, and he shared a video of his latest clay water fountain piece. “Rick is an amazingly gifted artist who paints as well, and now he’s discovered clay during the past three or four years,” Yarnell said.
With two other former students, Cathy Chapman and Doria Garcia, Trujillo exhibited last year in the Española Art Festival, which they plan to attend again in October. The studio is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to currently enrolled students to work on their own and class projects.
“One of my jobs is to create an atmosphere for students to explore,” Yarnell said.
Like Trujillo’s fountains, other special projects have arisen from student suggestions. “We did a shoe show, and we did miniatures,” Milonni added, inspired by student ideas. Yarnell said she’s there for students on whatever level they need help, from the technical aspects of working with glazes or firing, to the emotional side, offering that extra push that some need to accomplish what she knows they can. “I try to meet the needs of the individuals and find out what excites them,” she said.
This semester Yarnell’s classes are producing pieces for a storyteller show that should be on display at UNM-LA library in November. Both artists encouraged the Los Alamos community to visit the UNM-LA library to see the variety of work by Yarnell’s students in the “Chocolate” exhibit and the Ancient Chinese Secret pieces. Yarnell added that the UNM-LA ceramics studio will be included in the Los Alamos Studio Tour upcoming in October so the public can appreciate the students’ work and visit the working classroom.
“The students are one of my great joys of teaching, and I’m always amazed at the work produced in this class,” Yarnell concluded. “Helping them discover their voice in clay is why I’m here.”