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UMPI student establishes The Ceramic Project

University of Maine at Presque Isle student Dylan Ouellette is turning his love of the ceramic arts into a business and community art space called The Ceramic Project. The 26-year-old senior Fine Art major has renovated his carriage house in Presque Isle into a three-season pottery studio and is planning to offer classes to the public later this year.

“Understanding the challenges I faced while starting out, to now having my own space and equipment to facilitate the creation of ceramics, it’s vital that I share what I’ve built and learned with others that have the same artistic drive,” he said. “I couldn’t picture my life without ceramics and the passion I have for my work is the reason The Ceramic Project was created and why I plan to offer this space to my community.”

Ouellette took an indirect path to this work. A 2015 graduate of Presque Isle High School, he spent a year at UMPI, and then transferred to Philadelphia University to learn about industrial design. He studied there until 2018, when he could no longer continue financially. Upon returning home, he realized how hard it would be to recreate in a home studio what he’d been taught, so he explored several alternative “ways of making,” ultimately determining that clay would be his best option. Through broad experience he’s gained over the years—including woodworking, fiber arts, welding, glassblowing, 3-D modeling, and lighting design—he has learned to develop and problem solve artistic concepts that he now uses while making ceramic pieces, from building light fixtures out of ceramics to experimenting with melting and fusing glass in his kiln.

“I fell in love with the process of working with clay and, for years out of my apartment, I practiced and researched,” Ouellette recalled. “I bought old kilns off Facebook that were 30 plus years old, fixed them up, and taught myself how to use them.”

In 2020, he applied for and received a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, allowing him to secure higher grade equipment to replace what he had initially: a pottery wheel from Wal-Mart that he modified with a treadmill motor to increase its centering capacity and a kiln from Facebook. Ultimately, his new set-up included a pottery wheel with a 100-pound centering capacity and a kiln that tripled the amount of work he could fire at one time. This, he said, not only helped him in the technical development of his craft, but also made him self-sufficient and allowed him to fully control his ability to produce work.

In 2022, he decided that returning to college and finishing his degree was the next important investment in himself. The experience has not only directly benefited his craft, but given him a deeper drive in developing his home studio practice.

“The ability to discuss concepts and receive feedback has really helped to push my work forward,” he said. “As a junior, I spent the whole year exploring surface decoration, glaze combinations, and form. Creating a body of work, each piece challenged my abilities and made me consider the realities of producing work consistently.”

At the end of his junior year, he took part in a showcase featuring all third-year Art students. He displayed more than 40 ceramic pieces and sold almost every piece. With the money he made from the sale of this work, he invested in his home studio, purchasing two pottery wheels and conducting major renovations—including pouring his own concrete floors and building all the worktables and shelves—and began offering classes to family and friends last summer. During his senior year, he was offered the unique opportunity to serve as a ceramics intern, assisting with in-class demonstrations and instruction while being advised via Zoom by faculty. With the experience of helping to operate the largest student-run gas kiln in northern Maine under his belt, he’s now looking at a low residency master’s degree program in Maine to further his education and align with his ambition to teach ceramics.

“Developing my own practice while also being a student, I’m immersed in the whole process of ceramics, which is exactly why I wanted to return to school to begin with. Everything I’m doing is serving a purpose in developing my career,” he said.

Ouellette will present his Senior Thesis Show in the Reed Art Gallery in April, with an opening reception on Friday, April 5, from 6-8 p.m. during the First Friday Art Walk. All are invited to attend. To learn more about Ouellette’s work, visit The Ceramic Project website. For more information about UMPI’s Art Program, contact Heather Nunez-Olmstead at (207) 768-9544 or heather.nunez@maine.edu.