Bill Farrell

Bill Farrell:

Investigations with Clay

February 11 – June 4, 2023


This survey exhibition organized by the Dubuque Museum of Art and co-curated by Delores Fortuna and Tim Farrell highlights pioneering ceramic artist Bill Farrell's significant contributions to the field of ceramics and his dedication to life-long creating and teaching.

Bill Farrell (American, 1936-2021) was born on November 6, 1936 in Coalport, Pennsylvania. His life as an artist began in the traditional way, studying painting and art education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, earning a Master of Teaching Art degree at Penn State University, then teaching K-12 art. In 1966 an appointment at Purdue University opened up a new path when he was offered the opportunity to teach ceramics, despite having no experience with clay. Known for his candid, gregarious demeanor, Farrell never saw a challenge as a roadblock. He fortuitously enrolled in a ceramics course at the prestigious Alfred University where he studied under two legendary American ceramicists, Val Cushing and Don Reitz.

As a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), he encouraged an openness to experimentation and demonstrated an unorthodox approach to art and teaching. His student and friend, Israel Davis, Professor - Ceramics Area Head in the Department of Art and Design at Central Michigan University, describes Farrell’s influence,

…his work made a shift from primarily utilitarian objects to sculptures and vessels that viewed clay as a mechanism for conceptual investigation and creative expression. In those early days of teaching at SAIC, the ceramics department was an outlier in the field emphasizing concept and freedom of expression over the craft of clay. Though Bill’s teaching offered a balance between technical and idea-based projects, SAIC’s ceramics department would be a pioneer in the avant-garde throughout the 1970s and 1980s. With courses such as Non-Traditional Approaches to Clay and Multiples, the curriculum and work of faculty pushed the envelope of how clay was used and considered as a medium within artistic practice. Bill’s work with latex coated raw clay, objects that incorporated neon, and “cold finishes” were no exception.

Though, with all of his experimentations, Farrell never abandoned the vessel form. Recognizing that one energized the other, he felt it was important to split his time and thoughts between vessels and sculptures, back and forth.

Farrell received many honors and awards during his lifetime. In 1962, as an emerging artist, he was juried into the 22nd Syracuse Ceramic National at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York. He was a member of the National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts (NCECA) since its inception in 1966. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists’ Fellowship award in 1981 for his Popeye series of sculptures.

Beginning in 1990, Farrell traveled the world building kilns in Bangladesh, Italy, and Lisbon; attending symposia and residencies in Finland, Taiwan, La Borne, and the Netherlands at EKWC; and lecturing and teaching along the way. The residencies in Italy and Taiwan were highlights of his international experience. After being invited to a 2001 symposium in Italy, he became a consultant for one of the sponsors, Cooperativa-Prospettiva, an Italian ceramic production company located in Muggia, Trieste, Italy. 2005 brought a new experience with a month’s residency at the Shui-Li Snake Kiln in Taiwan, a remarkable kiln with over 100 years of use and ancestry. In connection with this trip, Farrell spent three days as a visiting artist at the Tainan School of the Art’s in southern Taiwan teaching, making work, and leading critiques and slide presentations. He reveled in the opportunity to work and collaborate with international artists.

After moving from Chicago to Galena, Illinois later in his career, Farrell maintained an active studio practice and could also be found at almost every car show in the region either as spectator or exhibitor. He was an influential presence in the area arts community. He helped found the popular Twenty Dirty Hands pottery tour. He was included in the first Voices from the Warehouse District exhibition in 2005 and co-curated the exhibition Innovations in Clay in 2015 at the Dubuque Museum of Art. Bill Farrell passed away on July 3, 2021. He lives on in the significant body of work he created and in his enduring legacy of non-traditional approaches to clay.

Download the Exhibition Catalogue

Audio Guide: Ceramics Vocabulary