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Q+A with Claire Cowie and Leo Berk

Submitted on September 28, 2021 - 1:24pm


Claire Cowie and Leo Berk both received their MFAs from the School of Art + Art History + Design in 1999. His was in ceramics and hers in printmaking. Their artistic paths have mostly been separate and have taken them in many directions. Numerous students in the School have taken classes from Claire since she has been a full-time and part-time Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Visual Art for many years. Leo's name may be less familiar to students, but anyone who has used the UW light rail station (adjacent to Husky Stadium) or who has recently taken a water taxi or passenger-only ferry from Colman Dock will have seen his public art work.

This summer, Claire and Leo started their first large-scale artistic collaboration at MadArt Studio in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. They have been developing Niche Audience in the since August 16, and the completed exhibition opens on October 14. It will run through November 20. Visits are strongly encouraged, but be sure to schedule your viewing.


How did the two of you meet?

Claire: We met at orientation for Grad School, in room 003 of the Art Building. They took photos of incoming students in the courtyard that day, so, strangely enough, we have photos of ourselves from the day we met 24 years ago!

Leo: I specifically remember walking into that room, seeing Claire, and choosing to walk over to sit next to her. I spent the first several months of the program thinking of ways that we might get to hang out more. (I don't think she ever gave this any thought during that time!)

What made you decide to come to the UW for your MFAs?

Claire: I came because I wanted to be back on a coast after spending my undergrad years in the Midwest. I knew of Akio Takamori's sculptural and printmaking work and thought it sounded good to study where he was.

Leo: I came to UW because of its ceramics program's reputation for being rigorous, experimental, and multidisciplinary. I had wanted to study specifically with Doug Jeck. I had come out for a visit prior to applying and saw the amazing energy of the program at that time.

Do you have any notable memories from your time as a student here?

Claire: My favorite memories are working late at night in the printmaking studios with Julia McNamara, Jen Keene, and Bradford Crowder . We all took our work very seriously, but ourselves not so much — so much laughing!

Leo: I had such an unbelievably talented group of peers, both graduate and undergraduate, during my time at UW who have gone on to great success. My most memorable experiences with those students were definitely the trips that Professor Jeck organized for us at the beginning of each year.

Is there anything you learned while at UW that still informs your work today?

Claire: I learned that community is really important to me (watching other people work, chatting about ideas, discovering things together). We had an amazing group of peer grads, and it's super fun to see them doing incredible things now.

Leo: Make the work that comes from your interests and not what the art world is interested in. Be true to yourself.

Tell us some of your career highlights since you left graduate school.

Claire: Neddy Artist Fellowship, Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, residency at Pilchuck Glass School and the Museum of Glass, Tacoma, solo exhibitions at the Center of Creative Arts in St Louis and the Henry Art Gallery

Leo: Artist Trust's Arts Innovator Award, Betty Bowen Award, residency at Pilchuck Glass School and the Museum of Glass as well, solo exhibitions at the Frye Art Museum and University of Wisconsin Milwaukee's Innova Gallery, public art projects around this region including Sound Transit projects at UW and in Redmond.

How did the MadArt collaboration come about?

Claire: We were invited by Alison Milliman, Founder, and Emily Kelly, Director and Curator. The space really promotes experimentation and projects that will expand what an artist has been able to do previously. It was their idea that we do a collaboration.

Do you have any future artistic plans in the works?

Claire: I want to do some stop motion animation and more writing.

Leo: I'll do another project with Claire anytime she'll have me! Otherwise, I'm working on a couple public art projects that will be getting installed in the next couple years.

What advice would you give to current or prospective students about the value of an arts degree and/or any specific things they should learn while in school?

Claire: I think it's important to realize that it will be what you make of it. You must give to get. Be an active learner: ask questions, show up, get excited for other students' successes. Take advantage of the space itself.

Leo: Your time as a student is an amazing privilege and opportunity. Use that time to work as hard as you can to develop your own artwork and assist and connect with those students working along side you.


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