St. Olaf College | News

New cup library turns coffee into a work of art

The Ron Gallas Cup Library currently features 62 cups handmade by 54 artists.

In this age of dime-a-dozen, mass-produced ceramic objects, the St. Olaf College Art Department hopes to bring something a little more meaningful to the table — the coffee table, that is.

With the opening of the Ron Gallas Cup Library, students, faculty, and staff are able to check out a handmade mug crafted by a professional artist, and sip their coffee or tea while holding a little piece of art in their hands.

The cup library is named after St. Olaf Associate Professor of Art Ron Gallas, who is retiring this year after teaching at St. Olaf since 1987. Gallas is a ceramic and sculpture specialist, and was a student of acclaimed Minnesota potter Warren MacKenzie. The library, which currently features 62 cups from 54 artists, will honor Gallas’ legacy and commitment to ceramics at St. Olaf.

Members of the St. Olaf community can check out a mug for seven days at a time. Cups are distributed in a reusable soft-sided bag, and each bag contains a biography card about the artist and a comment card to share observations about the experience with future users.

St. Olaf Studio Art Technician and Visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Kate Fisher ’00, who developed the idea for the cup library, says there is a lack of tactile interaction with handmade objects in today’s culture.

“The digital age is slowly disintegrating the connection we have to quality handmade objects for daily life. We find that many students have never used a handmade cup. They cannot remember the last time a cup enhanced their drinking experience and made them more aware or attentive to what and how they are consuming,” Fisher says.

A close-up of one of the cups in the library and the biography card about the artist.

Fisher is a ceramist, and says that while ceramics is all about tactile observation and use, she found that her students were only seeing these objects on a video screen or in a book. Even when she brought pieces in for them to look at, the encounter was brief.

“Students would pick up the cups and look at them, but they weren’t actually using them,” Fisher says. “I felt like the experience wasn’t being completed.”

Fisher didn’t want to create a cup museum, but rather a lending library that enables people to actually use the cups.

After pitching her idea for the Ron Gallas Cup Library, Fisher received funding from the St. Olaf Art Department, the Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, and some external entities to purchase the cups and pull the project together. She went to three different galleries and asked them if they would be willing to lower the gallery profit cut so she could purchase cups for this library, and they agreed. She also put out a call to local artists who know Ron Gallas and asked if they would be willing to donate a cup.

CURI students Liam Hannan ’18 and Emily Tani-Winegarden ’16 helped Fisher create the cup library.

Liam Hannan ’18, Studio Art Technician and Visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Kate Fisher '00, and Emily Tani-Winegarden ’16 pick up cups at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis.
Liam Hannan ’18, Studio Art Technician and Visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Kate Fisher ’00, and Emily Tani-Winegarden ’16 pick up cups at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis.

They contacted artists about donating cups, assisted Fisher in selecting the ones to be featured in the library, wrote thank you notes to the artists, made biography cards, and designed the Ron Gallas Cup Library logo.

“We absolutely loved working on this project because Liam and I are both extremely passionate about ceramics and this gave us an opportunity to be immersed in that culture while also still getting to make our own work,” Tani-Winegarden says.

The students also appreciated the opportunities they had to meet with professional artists, see their studios, and learn about their artistic processes.

“Getting a box from an out-of-state studio filled with 10 different cups by 10 different artists is the absolute best experience ever,” Tani-Winegarden says.

Hannan and Tani-Winegarden will deliver a presentation about their work with the cup library at the annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in Kansas City in March.

Fisher notes that Minnesota is a clay “hot bed” in the United States, both in terms of the high-quality raw material available and the exceptional artists like McKenzie who call the state home.

“We’re really sitting in the middle of this epicenter of clay art,” Fisher says. “Minnesota is home to a rich tradition and community of ceramic artists. To them, using handmade objects is an essential way to communicate and learn from one another.”

Fisher hopes to bring this appreciation and awareness for the tradition of handmade pottery to St. Olaf, one cup at a time.