Five Questions With Debbie Kirby

On October 28, 2017, the Indianapolis Art Center, in conjunction with the Robert H. McKinney family, awarded Art Center ceramics instructor Debbie Kirby the seventh Skip McKinney Faculty of the Year Award.

The $20,000 fellowship is given to an Art Center faculty member who exhibits excellence in art and teaching, and focuses on building community through art. About 13 Art Center faculty members applied for the fellowship with Kirby being selected from among five finalists. In addition to the cash award, Kirby receives a solo exhibition in the fall of 2018 featuring art she completes throughout the coming year.

The award was created by the Robert H. McKinney Family Endowment, a fund of Central Indiana Community Foundation, to honor the legacy of Arlene “Skip” McKinney, long-time Art Center student, accomplished artist and community leader. The family interviewed all of the finalists, and debated the award winner up until the day before the announcement. 


How do you remember your very first experience with ceramics? 

My very first ever experience was making a coiled pot in high school. They just fired it. There was no glazing done. We never got to do anything big on it. But I knew I liked molding; that’s where I discovered 3d. But that was the only time! And I always knew, “I’m gonna someday go back to that.” I just didn’t know it was gonna be 30 some years later that I would get the opportunity to get back to it.  


When did you take your first class at the Indianapolis Art Center? 

I always thought I would go back to Herron (School of Art) and get my degree once my kids got older. But then you have to deal with your kids’ college and their things, so that kind of put me on the back burner. I then lost my mother and ten years later I lost my father to cancer. When I settled their estate, I decided what am I waiting for? Time is valuable. I knew this place was here because my children went to the preschool that is now the Cultural Complex and I signed up for a class with the extra money from the stipend I had gotten—we each brothers and sisters had gotten a little bit of something, but not much. I took my first ceramics class and that’s when I walked through those doors in 2001. I kind of jumped in with both feet and fell in love with this place. 


What have you learned in the time you have been teaching at the Indianapolis Art Center? 

I’ve been teaching for 16 years; blows my mind to think about that. I can’t believe it’s been that long! I don’t think there are any secrets. Everything in ceramics has been done before; it’s just everyone puts their own twist on it. And if I share an idea with someone or they share something, then we both have learned something, and I think that’s pretty great. I love helping people learn to enjoy clay. Watching them get excited excites me and it helps feed me in my own work. I always want to take classes to learn more because I didn’t go to college and I didn’t have that opportunity. So even though there is much that I know, there is much that I don’t know either. That’s the great thing about this particular medium, that there is so much to learn, you never get tired of it. At least I don’t. 


How will the Skip McKinney Award change your work? 

The award was very humbling to win and I am just honored. It will allow me to take extended workshops with a few sculpture artists that I would like to learn from. And not just learn how they make their form or their art, but why you have to build it a certain way and what you have to do to support it while you are building it. How you put it back together and take it apart. There’s so many things that are involved with all the different finishes and the award is going to allow me to study with some people that I would have had to save a full year of pay—and never spend it—to take a workshop.


What advice do you have for students taking their first ever ceramics class? 

My biggest advice to students taking ceramics for the first time is to be patient with themselves, everybody will get to learn how to throw. I can assure you, you will all get there, you will all learn how to enjoy clay. Everyone gets there at a different rate and not to compare yourself to someone that gets it easier than if you don’t. Just be patient because you will get it. 

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