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Joe Molinaro

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.

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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.