Last year, my friend John Matthews retired from nearby Conestoga High School after 33 years of teaching.
Although he is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, John mostly defies description except through amazing anecdotes. I won’t do any of those stories justice here. There was the time he kept me out all night salsa dancing in Houston. Or the time he taught me how to kill a lobster on Maine. Seriously, I’ve only known this guy a few years, but those years have been animated.
John is a born storyteller — but, more accurately, a born storymaker, someone whose fearless, open approach to life inspires everyone he meets. My students who have met him on one of his visits to our school to help with Empty Bowls over the years know exactly what I mean.
Particularly, John has inspired a generation of students out of Conestoga. The roster of alumni who now fill NCECA’s lists of established or up-and-coming greats is awe-inspiring. Few rankings measure high schools by the number of alumni who go on to become artists, let alone ceramic artists. So the fact that Chris Staley (’73), Michael Connelly (’90), David East (’85), and Paul Donnelly (’92) all went to the same high school could have comparisons in other schools – but I doubt it.
Conestoga High School ceramics program, Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Past faculty were: David Shaner, Paul Bernhardt and John Matthews. This image is of Chris Staley, (CHS class of 1973) demonstrating, with Paul Donnelly (left) (class of 1992) closely observing and learning from the best. Conestoga High School is one of the most successful ceramic arts programs in the United States on a high school level. Many former students have gone onto artistic careers. A partial list of alumni includes Liz Bryant (‘93), Nick Bonner (‘73), Michael Connelly (‘90), Ginger Cox (‘71), Paul Donnelly (‘92), David East (‘85), Eric Eley (‘95), Rich Holck (‘95), Robert Howard (‘76), Mark Lueders (‘87), Malcom Mobutu-Smith (‘88), Chris Staley (‘73) and Jeffery Warnock (‘94). #conestogahighschool #berwyn @jmatt1616 #highschoolceramics
John has retired – or whatever version of retirement involves moving to Maine, renovating at least two buildings, and starting a new chapter as a business owner and craftsman. I’m excited for him, now that I’ve gotten over first learning about his retirement in the Spoke. We’re not doing a “Clayward Cup” this year – ran out of time, fewer students involved. I’ve sorely missed John’s presence and enthusiasm, but I’m trying to pay it forward as best I can, and I can’t wait to get back up to Maine to visit.
So why am I dedicating a blog post to John Matthews, right now?
When John would tick off that list of jaw-dropping alumni, or casually mention his guest artist of the week, such feats seemed impossible to me. Conestoga has a culture of ceramics excellence around the program that John and Paul Bernhardt built. I’m not sure exactly how you build that culture, but I have a pretty strong feeling it doesn’t involve cleaning clay off the ceiling or pushing for a thousand bowls each year. After a decade of teaching, I still feel like a flat novice around John Matthews – albeit a novice inspired and refreshed to learn more.
But today, at around 11:05 a.m., I was fussing with a videocamera while two Malvern alumni discussed MFA programs, upcoming shows, who-teaches-where, and their experiences with critiques. These young men are starting their careers in ceramics.
“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to say with my work,” I hear, “but I’m excited about that.”
And it suddenly hit me that maybe “impossible” means exactly what my honest, straightforward friend John would call it: “bull****”
Over the next few posts, I want to highlight some of our alumni who got a start fumbling through bowls in our studio – but who are now starting to do some pretty remarkable things. It’s exciting to see the ways in which they’ve surpassed their high school teacher and pushed past the rules of Warren Ave. It’s inspiring to hear the stories they are creating, and what they are paying forward in their own lives. And it’s humbling that they want to come back and share their talents. The love for Empty Bowls – the concept and the community – is evident.
Let’s start with the only student who managed to take ceramics every semester of high school – Pat Hoban ’11. Pat graduated from Penn State in 2016, and is currently working on his MFA at the University of Alabama – where, among many other things, he’s learning to teach. Before his demo today, we were commiserating about what it’s like to load kilns at the end of a semester, and laughing. I truly cannot wait to see where his road ahead leads.