Many great teachers aren't heroic by any desk-wobbling speech but by quiet, unembellished time with...
We firstly want to congratulate Timpview High School Senior Milla Prokhorov for her outstanding achievements at the National K-12 Ceramic Art Show in Sacramento for awards earned with her piece, Where the Eastern Moon Meets the Western Sun. Milla Prokhorov earned the Ingrid Mahan Foundation Scholarship, the Lucy Roy Award, the Artistic Achievement Award, the Kansas City Art Institute Senior Scholarship (which is a scholarship for $25,000 a year for four years), and the Alfred University Theodore A. Randall Memorial Scholarship. The Alfred scholarship covers approximately ninety percent of her tuition, and also guarantees her enrollment at Alfred University. To quote the Alfred University website, Alfred University is consistently ranked the number one school for Ceramics Arts by US News and World Report.
Seldom do students demonstrate her degree of aptitude and maturity for ceramic arts, and even fewer students work as hard as Milla to deliver a piece worthy of national acclaim.
So, how does a student transform into an overnight ceramics superstar? Between talent, life experience, and education, what does it take to create art that is, by nearly every metric in ceramic arts, a flawlessly executed piece on a complex, emotionally-stirring concept? We start with her mentor and teacher, Robert Davison, to investigate the question, as well as to congratulate the two on their wondrous efforts.
Part 1: Robert Davison
In a world where art is technologically equipped and geared towards subversion in idea, Robert Davison, Timpview High School’s Ceramics Teacher, champions craftsmanship. Nothing is more subversive nowadays than perfecting your craft, he posits. Learning is continued and incremental.
Davison imbues his philosophy of learning through cumulative progression into everything in his class– from the class units, products, and projects, to the classroom itself. His classroom, for example, is set up according to the flow of Feng Shui. “I call it the river of life,” he says. “The easier it flows, the more comfortable everyone is, the better the class operates.” Davison motioned across the room in a sweeping gesture. “The lockers are below the legend table. They pull their clay from the table, wedge their clay (or knead the clay) on that surface, and turn around to the potter’s wheels right behind them. After they’ve thrown their piece, it goes on the shelf, saved for trimming the following day. After trimming, the kiln room is over there, continuing the motion clockwise– and so on.
“Everything builds on itself. That’s how my class operates. In my wheel-throwing class, we start with centering before cylinders. After the cylinder is the cup. Then the cup transforms into bowls. The bowl comes easy; you’ve already thrown one-hundred cups and battled with centripetal force to form a tall piece. Most likely the piece will want to become a wider form, more like a bowl.
“To use my 3D Design classes’ first term project as another example, we’re making Polynesian bone carvings. Bone is hard and thereby forgiving. It’s a great material to start the term. But even before carving, we practice sketching a design– you should have the image in your mind before you start.”
“If you want to consider yourself an artist, in my opinion, you need to educate yourself constantly,” shared Davison.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that you end up in a University class– it means that you’re challenging yourself in new mediums, combining your previous experiences, and learning from the new challenge. I start new ceramics students by asking my students, ‘How many of you are interested in Chemistry?’ I’m sure you can guess how many hands raise after that question. I then point out the glaze room and explain that the glaze room is applied chemistry– I have a poster on the wall of the periodic table. We hold a mini-lesson on oxidation and reduction in chemistry, and I’m slipping a small lesson on chemistry into my lesson on ceramics!”
Davison’s teaching philosophy operates well with interdisciplinary learning– it maps similarly to how neural pathways form. Like the center of a wheel, the knowledge gained spreads like spokes, webbing into other fields to create a more rounded person and perspective. However, regardless of his interdisciplinary stance, he still believes that these practices should inform craft—everything should be in service to perfect your chosen craft.
Robert Davison believes that your life experiences should inform your craft—everything in service in perfecting your chosen passion. Hard work and continuous incremental learning act as pillars for his teaching philosophy.
Part 2: Milla Alexandra Prokhorov
Enter his star student, Milla Alexandra Prokhorov. Milla was born on the upper-east side of New York but moved a lot throughout her childhood. Milla spent most of her life in Moscow, Russia, before moving to California and eventually ending up here in Utah for the last four years. Milla’s life as a Russian-American with travel experience is integral to her interest in ceramics and her piece’s design.
Milla’s first hands-on experience with ceramics came in a remote, satellite town outside Moscow. As a youth, her class visited the town’s small pottery studio, where she threw pottery for the first time. The experience sat with her for years. She then traveled to New York where she regularly visited the Ceramics exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her thoughts revolved around pottery; Milla was locked in an orbit that would inevitably draw her to the Intro to Ceramics class at Timpview.
“The rest is history. I’ve since been infatuated with pottery. When I started, I spent every waking moment thinking about or working on pottery. I spent five to six hours a day at the wheel, centering, throwing.
“I was not a natural. It took time, but eventually, I felt prepared to help teach. I was always told by Mr. Davison that teaching was the path to mastery. Teaching helped me hone my knowledge and ability within the craft, and I then felt comfortable enough to develop my own art.” Davison recalls how Milla would walk the halls coated in clay, marking her as a ceramic artist.
“The sense of accomplishment was gradual for me,” Milla admits. “Every piece, I learned something new. Failing– well, I’m sort of a perfectionist, and the wheel form process incorporates centripetal force– theoretically, you can always make the form more perfectly centered– so failing was challenging but rewarding. I like the idea that you can chase perfection. Eventually, my pieces varied in width and height, growing taller, more complex.”
Milla notes that ninety percent of her work ended up recycled. Milla said that she had a hard time admitting that she was an artist, before Davison interjected. “It’s the mark of a true artist. You are your worst critic, but you’ve produced incredible art. So– the rule this year is that she doesn’t throw any art out.”
The continued theme of perfection through a thousand attempts marks Milla’s piece, Where the Eastern Moon Meets the Western Sun. “I started this piece last August and didn’t finish until a few days before the deadline,” Milla said. “The art can’t be an exact representation, but I poured my heart and soul into this to express my ability as an artist and who I am. I’ve had this idea brewing for two years. The completed version is my ninth attempt at this piece. There were times when I wanted to quit; it was seriously tough.”
Here is Where the Eastern Moon Meets the Western Sun:
Here is Milla’s Artist’s Abstract on the piece:
In this piece, I investigated ways to interweave Americana and Asian styles of pottery displayed in a way that portrays a lunar eclipse. The Asian set was designed in a contemporary geometric fashion, and the handle imitates the stalk of bamboo that emphasizes the Asian origin. This set is glаzed in a traditional Western Buttermilk glaze that I mixed, shadowed by Shoji Hamada’s Tenmoku glaze. The Americana set was designed in a traditional style and glazed in a renowned Asian glaze, Tenmoku, with Buttermilk splatters. To accentuate the contrast, the Asian set sits on Maple wood, the Americana set sits on Black Walnut, and the earth in between is Cherry wood.
Milla wanted to explore differences in how culture approaches and thus forms pottery– the two styles couldn’t be more different. Davison recounted the historical context informing both cultural collections while Milla scrolled through her phone to find pictures of the piece for the article. “Early Americana is a sturdy style. The pottery was designed to travel over long and turbulent distances in wagons. Potters made hardy tumblers and hardy pitchers so they wouldn’t crack. You can see the thumbprints of the potters, too– if there’s a flaw in the piece, the potter might smudge over the crack to quickly fix the piece. The pieces have character, and the artisan leaves a part of themselves for us to see hundreds of years after the fact.
“In China or Japan, however, tea can be a nearly religious experience. The pottery is immaculate. There’s a ceremony involved in partaking of tea. The two styles are perfectly juxtaposed– and they show off a well-rounded and well-informed artist.” Davison says he was impressed when he heard about Milla’s pitched idea– it’s not every day that a student can deliver a rich, artistic ideal that is mastering over their craft to deliver the piece.
The piece, according to Milla, is her magnum opus. As mentioned, it came with several drawbacks and challenges. The leftmost teapot, for example, includes both thrown and handmade components; the coils on the bamboo-like, handmade handle required a particular piece from the clay extruder to create. It took several attempts to construct the handle. Milla then sculpted the definition of bamboo into the handle over four hours. The handle is formed of porcelain, which, Davison reports, “is like working with butter. Even professional artists rarely use porcelain for handmade pieces. It takes incredible patience to work as it slowly settles.” Milla states that the piece is the culmination of her life experiences as a person living in two separate worlds— navigating cultural spaces and seeing shared cultural components across the globe inspired her to strive for perfection in the piece.
When recording Davison and Milla’s interview, the two weren’t aware of how Milla would place at Nationals. Milla wanted to land a scholarship with Alfred University. Davison explained that “Alfred University is the premier school globally for ceramic artists– considered #1 in the world in a number of sources, and it’s one of the few schools that offers a degree in Ceramics Engineering. If she can make it to Alfred University, she’s made it.” Milla shook her head, denying the possibility that she could end up at her dreamt-for University– but Davison shook his head. His pride is palpable. He continued, reporting that Milla is a shoo-in. And he was right. Milla cleaned house at Nationals and is an Alfred University student.
Part 3: The Maker’s Print
One can see that Timpview High School’s Ceramics Teacher, Robert Davison, has imbued a love for pottery and a desire to perfect one’s craft in his students. Interestingly enough, Milla received Davison’s passion for teaching; she’s similarly considering teaching ceramics while creating art. “I’d almost say that she’s a better teacher than I am. I’m so proud of her for her pottery and her abilities as a teacher,” he said. Milla’s interest in teaching speaks volumes about her character. “There’s so much joy in imparting some of my experience and seeing other ceramics students grow. I like seeing kids– kids you might not expect– connect with ceramics,” said Milla.
The two believe in giving back to their community. This desire to give back is clear after learning that Davison’s classes handmade bowls that ended up as donations for our local not-for-profit organizations. “Michelle Landers, the other Art Teacher, mentioned the Empathy Art Contest. I got my class involved by making pinch-pot bowls. Students would design a pinch-pot bowl according to their interpretation of empathy and carve a quote that they believe captures empathy into the side of their bowl. After we started, I realized that there’s an even better route to highlighting this theme of empathy–we can donate our bowls.”
Davison has been donating to Habitat for Humanity for years. Two years ago, Davison challenged Milla and a few other advanced students to throw bowls for that year’s fundraiser. Together, they threw bowl after bowl and donated more than 650 bowls. The bowls were sold at the fundraiser and all proceeds were donated to local food pantries. Milla herself threw dozens of those bowls.
Creating art and offering service is not unlike Americana ceramics, where one can find the inlay of a craftsman’s thumbprint on a pitcher or a tumbler hundreds of years after creation. It’s beautiful to think that one can see the echo of one’s efforts much later– and it’s a certainty that Davison’s and Milla’s efforts will ripple forward, affecting those they come in contact with for years to come.