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Rabbits Don't Rest

Ken Ferguson's ceramic rabbits run all over the Kemper.

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Included in the traveling exhibition Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000, which just arrived at the Kemper Museum from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is a piece by local potter Ken Ferguson alongside that of another local artist, Jim Leedy, one of the founders of Kansas City's now-lively Crossroads District.

Ferguson's work is easy to pick out, as he has a preoccupation with rabbits. And while it's only natural to want to discern the mythological origins for the rabbits running along the rims or arching over the handles of his pots, myth is really all that comes of such speculation.

"It started because it's such a distinctive shape," says the artist, now in his early 70s. "You know, the head, the long ears." But then, other animals have distinctive shapes too. He could just as easily have said of a preoccupation with giraffes, "You know, the spots, the long neck." But it was not the giraffe that struck him; the inclination toward the rabbit came to Ferguson in what seems to have been an intuitive manner as opposed to an intellectual process.

"It grew out of organic handles that I put on baskets in the '70s," he explains, referring to an early phase in his career that resulted mostly in functional pots. "The shape of a handle became a rabbit, and I remember my wife asked me, 'Are you making a rabbit that looks like a handle or a handle that looks like a rabbit?'" Ferguson says he still doesn't know.

Yet the rabbits chasing one another around Ferguson's pots reflect his view on life as well as his attitude toward ceramics. The Kansas City Star's Alice Thorson wrote in 1995 that "Ferguson posits life as a merry chase -- with pottery as a participant." He validates that statement, noting that a recent spell of health problems got him thinking more directly about his view on life and how his work fits in. "I realized how important making pottery is. I don't feel like I'm here for a good reason, but I know I can make some good pottery, so I have to do it.... It keeps you going. There's no need to just be an old man sitting around."

In his rabbit chase, Ferguson has created an array of ceramic pieces, beginning with the early functional phase and moving to less functional "slump" pots, with uneven sides and hand marks in addition to scampering animal figures. Ferguson explains he was getting bored when a realization that other people could take care of the world's need for cookie jars helped motivate him to experiment. And his position as a ceramics professor at the Kansas City Art Institute freed him from the pressures of production, giving him time to follow creative whims.

As a professor, he passed along not only his expertise but also his philosophy. His students don't fill their days with a rabbit chase per se, but they've all learned to fill their days with craftsmanship. "I owed them something," he says. It wasn't important whether his students went on to careers in ceramic arts, only that they learned something they could do well.

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