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NMSU ceramics professor retires, art gallery exhibits works

When an idea sparks for Amanda Jaffe, she heads for her studio where a five-gallon bucket of white casting slip waits. Lifting the bucket with both hands, she carefully pours the creamy liquid into a flat tile mold and it begins to set.

Amanda Jaffe, recently retired professor from the New Mexico State University art department. The NMSU Art Gallery is presenting her exhibition "Looking Back, Looking Forward 1977-2011" through Oct. 15. (Courtesy photo by Lisa Mandelkern)

Before drying completely, she starts to carve the malleable surface with a sturdy loop tool. Methodically carving, Jaffe watches it as it changes, contemplates it as it forms and gets lost somewhere in the process of it all.

After 26 years at New Mexico State University, the well-known ceramicist retired from teaching this past July. Celebrating her many achievements, the NMSU Art Gallery is exhibiting her retrospective, "Looking Back, Looking Forward 1977-2011. " The exhibition is open until Oct. 15 with more than 75 original works, and a talk featuring Jaffe is scheduled from 6:30 to 7:15 p.m. Oct 12.

"It just helps you to think about the original idea and how that idea evolves. " Jaffe said.

Jaffe took her first ceramics class in 1961 at the Community Arts Center in Media, Pa., just on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

"I was very excited about taking that class, because I saw someone throw pots, but we didn't get to do that in that class. This was just for little kids," Jaffe chuckled. "They had us make ashtrays, and I also remember making a little figure that was kind of a big, fat baby."

At that moment, eight-year-old Jaffe fell in love with clay.

"I think I just liked making things," Jaffe said. "Around that age I was baking cookies with my mom and making pies. I loved doing all that stuff, and I learned how to sew at the Singer Sewing Center."

Jaffe, whose father was a biologist and mother an astronomer, remembered using crayons and playing in the sand as her earliest moments in creativity.

Born in Pasadena, Calif., Jaffe spent her first two years playing on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean before moving to the opposite shore, where she spent a multitude of summers visiting her grandparents out on Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

Influenced by both oceans, many of her works have embraced water and nature as a path to tranquility.

"I'm a swimmer. When I can, I like to go to the beach, see the ocean, hear the ocean," Jaffe said. "And I think that water is soothing for other people too, so it's just not my experience."

Long before moving to Las Cruces, Jaffe also lived in Montana. In 1982, she bought a house in Helena where she often hiked many trails on Mount Helena, which reaches higher than 5,400 feet above sea level.

In one of her favorite pieces of the exhibition, Jaffe likened hiking with swimming with a linear work titled "Escape and Swim."

"I wanted to do this as if your eye would follow along in that path." Jaffe said. "Of course when you go up the mountain, you go around the back, you come up to the top, and you come back down, but here, I've straightened out the path in a sense."

Two of her best-known works are murals she created for the Staten Island Zoo. The city of New York had commissioned her in 1986 to make murals that would showcase the zoo's change in appearance, from steel cages to natural habitats. She said she patterned the murals from the animals that would inhabit those areas.

She titled the murals "African Savanna" and "Rainforest. " The models for those murals are included in the gallery exhibition.

"I didn't know where they were, but when I went digging around in my basement back in Montana, there they were," Jaffe said. "I had put them there back in '83, and they had just sat there for all these years. "

Jaffe earned a bachelor's in ceramics in 1975 from Indiana University and a Master's of Fine Arts from the University of Montana at Missoula in 1978.

If it weren't for becoming an artist, she remarked she would also have liked being an architect, a landscape designer and a gardener, artistic professions that would enable her to make things.

Jaffe said she became a ceramics teacher to make a living doing something she loved, but it was out of admiration for her students and their ideas that kept her in higher education for more than a quarter of a century.

"You give them an assignment, and you come in, and they'll be making something that you didn't even think about in terms of the assignment as an answer to that assignment," Jaffe said.

Before NMSU, Jaffe taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Ohio Wesleyan University, The Ohio State University, the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Beaming about her students, Jaffe said many of them have gone on to become artists and teachers, and she relishes having stayed in contact with them.

Former student Glenn Schwaiger admires her professionalism, her technique and the importance she places on education in the arts.

Schwaiger first met Jaffe in 1985 when he was an undergraduate studying at the University of Illinois.

He ended up in Las Cruces because she sent him the application to attend graduate school at NMSU. He fondly remembers how she always became a proponent when he didn't always do what was considered the norm by some professors during his time at NMSU.

"She gave me the freedom to explore my ideas and passions," said Schwaiger, an assistant professor of art at Dona Ana Community College. "She enabled me to pursue my goals."

He recalled how, working with the Archie Bray Foundation, she was able to bring in internationally recognized artists like Rudy Autio, Akio Takamori and Eddie Dominguez to enrich her students.

"She doesn't speak with a loud voice but she carries a lot of influence," Schwaiger said.

Ammu Devasthali, a former student who took Jaffe's ceramics classes in 1992-93, remembered the high-profile artists Jaffe brought in and appreciated the impact they made. She recalled the public was invited to most of the events and were able to meet the artists, attend their lectures and see their works.

"Professor Jaffe was a very hands-on teacher. She was always helpful and available, but she also gave her students the freedom to explore their own creativity," Devasthali said. "She also worked very hard on making her own art."

From baking pies to creating prominent tile murals, Jaffe spent her life making things.

Today, making her garden grow is another creative outlet Jaffe finds rewarding in retirement.

"Your garden is always changing. It's like an art object changing," Jaffe said. "So you plant something and it grows, then it dies, and you plant something else. So it's becoming something new."

Jaffe's garden currently blooms under the New Mexican sun with yellow, orange and pink zinnias, an abundance of butternut squash, cherry tomatoes and bright-red slicing tomatoes, something she grows every year.

Recently adding a second story to her ceramics studio, Jaffe said she plans balancing her time between gardening, spending time with her two sons and developing her ideas.

"This exhibition really took a lot of my time and energy, and it's just coming to an end," Jaffe said. "So I'm hoping that most of my day will be spent in the studio."