Immigrant Stories: From the convent to the Clay Center
Intro: In 1997, Diane Kenney opened the Carbondale Clay Center and invited people, of all ages, to come make something with their hands. And over the last 20 years the center has attracted children, students, teachers and artists from up and down the valley and across the United States by offering high quality ceramic arts programs.
Kenney: My ancestors are from Germany and Luxembourg on my mother’s side and straight 100 percent Irish on my father’s side. That’s where I got my name and my craziness.
Gallacher: Your father was a wee bit crazy?
Kenney: Well, yeah. You know that old saying, “I’m troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish.” He was a sign painter and my mom was the bookkeeper and they raised nine kids. I was number eight in this Irish Catholic family.
When you’re growing up you think this is how everybody does it until you’re old enough to realize that they don’t. I had nuns for teachers all through grade school and high school.
My grandparents, on my mother’s side, were florists and had several flower shops in the Chicago area. My mother grew up in a family of 13 children with greenhouses in her backyard.
I was always thinking about myself, as kids do, so I didn’t really appreciate my parents like I should have. I remember my dad always being out back in his shop, painting signs. He was really, really good at it. He worked alone and always had the radio on to keep him company.
He could sit on a milk crate in the backyard and paint on the side of a truck. He did all the fire engines, police cars and fleets of cabs. In fact, he did an art deco design for Yellow Cab that I think they are still using.
He always wore Sears and Roebuck work clothes and smelled of turpentine and Dutch Cleanser. We kids used to wonder who would take over his business. We were little snobs. We thought it was more prestigious if your father wore a suit and tie and worked in downtown Chicago.
It wasn’t until many, many years later, sitting in my studio by myself, that I realized what my dad’s experience had been.
Gallacher: Your father was an artisan.
Kenney: Yes, he was. We kids never considered him an artist but he came from an extended family of sign painters.
Going to art school wasn’t really an option for me, being a good Catholic girl. I wanted something different.
Gallacher: You grew up with eight other siblings?
Kenney: Yes, I had five sisters and three brothers. By the time I was born, my oldest sister was 15 and not happy that her mother was still having babies. The older girls had to take care of the little kids.
Gallacher: Did your mom work outside the home?
Kenney: She did. She loved to go to work. She started out working for her father and went to Business College for a semester when she was a teenager. She was really good with numbers and accounting.
Her brothers got set up in the flower business, but she didn’t because she was a girl. But when her dad couldn’t get the numbers to work out, she was the one he called for help.
My mom was in charge of just about everything in our home. I remember every Sunday morning she would have an envelope for each of us to put in the church collection basket. Sometimes there was only a penny, but there was always something.
Gallacher: Growing up Catholic, in those days, there was always this hope or expectation that one of the kids would become a priest or a nun.
Kenney: Yes, there was, but Mother wasn’t like that. She left that decision up to us. We never felt pushed.
My older sister, Kathleen, entered the convent first. She joined the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz, an order that originated in Spain and dates back to the 13th century. I eventually decided to join her.
Gallacher: So what was it about this conservative order that attracted you at this time in your life, when most kids are going in a totally different direction?
Kenney: I was young and naïve, and at that time in my life I just wanted to do what God wanted me to do. But I also knew that I wanted something different. I didn’t want people to ask, “Whatever happened to Diane?” and have the answer be, “Oh, she married a lawyer and they live in Ohio with their two kids.”
This may sound strange, but becoming a nun sounded more exciting because it meant that I could end up in Spain, South America, Africa or Micronesia. But it was a super strict order. They were a cloistered, so we weren’t allowed to have contact with the outside world. We couldn’t talk on the phone with our families except maybe once a year on our birthdays.
Gallacher: Given that, how was your first year?
Kenney: Well, it was all so new, so different and so stunning that I just went along. But it was very stressful because there was no free time. We got up at 4:30 in the morning and went to bed at nine at night and every minute of the day was scheduled.
Gallacher: So you joined the nunnery in Kansas City in 1962. What were the ’60s like for you?
Kenney: Initially I wasn’t aware of all the things that were happening, but the church changed dramatically during that time. By the end of the ’60s, I was living and working in the community and attending college.
I was born with a radical spirit, and that intensified during that time. The Vietnam War and the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King profoundly affected me. By the time I graduated from college in 1971, I wanted to be part of the revolution. I didn’t want there to be a separation between me and people in the community who were working for change. I woke up one morning and realized I no longer belonged in the convent, and, two weeks later, I was out.
(After the convent, Diane began actively protesting the Vietnam War and exploring liberation theology. She taught in the inner city, waitressed, spent a year in Illinois in the youth ministry, joined the Venceremos Brigade and went to Cuba for four months. Eventually she returned to Kansas City and joined a gospel-based community working for social justice.)
Kenney: I realized that I wasn’t a revolutionary.
Gallacher: So how did you channel that radical spirit?
Kenney: Well, it was also the era of granola, macramé and pottery. I had an artistic talent. I was always the one in the convent making the banners, signs and billboards. So the first time I saw someone make a pot on a potter’s wheel, I nearly fainted. I thought that was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe you could take a lump of clay and turn it into a bottle.
I started taking night classes at the Kansas City Art Institute and realized that I really wanted to be a potter and get good at it. I got turned down the first time I applied to go full-time but I practiced on my own and applied again and was accepted. I went five days a week for three years. It was a great experience.
Gallacher: So how did you discover Colorado?
Kenney: Well, one of the families I connected with in the gospel-based community had a cabin in Colorado, just down the road from where I live now. I would come out and stay in the summer.
I got to know people during those summers, and, in 1984, I was offered a job teaching ceramics and Spanish at Colorado Rocky Mountain School. I had just gotten married the year before to John McCormick. He loved Colorado as much, as I did so it was an easy decision. We went home after Mountain Fair and moved back two weeks later.
Gallacher: Tell me about the birth of the Clay Center.
Kenney: I had left CRMS in ’88. I had seen community-based clay centers in other places, and I thought the idea was a good fit for Carbondale. I began talking to other potters and interested people in the valley.
I had grant writing and community organizing skills, and I was fortunate to meet Mike Stranahan and Dan Trautman, who had also been scheming on a clay program. We finally found a building in town that could be retrofitted. Mike agreed to help me with the funding, and Dan helped with the retrofit.
We finally opened the Clay Center in December of 1997. I wanted it to be a center for ceramic arts and place that would connect the local communities to the national ceramics community. I wanted it to have a residency program that would attract young people and connect the Clay Center to other parts of the world.
I was there for eight years, and I think we were able to accomplish many of the things we had envisioned. I am delighted with what the Clay Center has become since I left 12 years ago.
These days, when I walk in there, it’s mostly young people making art and that makes me very happy. The tradition of community art and participatory public art is thriving there.