Grinnell Artists: Katie Ackerman

Katie+Ackerman+19+has+mastered+the+art+of+both+photography+and+ceramics.+Photo+by+Sarah+Ruiz.

Katie Ackerman ’19 has mastered the art of both photography and ceramics. Photo by Sarah Ruiz.

By Emma Friedland
friedlan@grinnell.edu

Katie Ackerman ’18 is a self-professed control freak. Whether it’s finishing her biochem problem set, applying for medical school or making plans with her friends, there’s always a lot to be thinking about — and that’s why her escape through art is so important. Ackerman has been practicing photography since she could hold a camera and ceramics since she started high school, and in her fourth year of college has mastered both crafts.

“Clay has a mind of its own,” Ackerman said of her work with ceramics. “Sometimes you want to make a bowl but you make a vase instead, sometimes you want to make a vase and you make a bowl instead. … It reminds me that you can’t control everything. It allows me to escape from the stresses of Grinnell, the stresses of life — it’s my sanctuary.”

Ackerman began studying ceramics in high school in Idaho, largely influenced to add an art class to her science-heavy curriculum by her mother, a computer programmer with a degree in fine arts who published a book on paper collage. Ackerman soon found that she had a knack and a passion for creating wheel-thrown pieces, such as bowls and vases, as well as busts. She now works as a co-manager of Grinnell’s own ceramics studio.

“I’ve been focusing on getting faster lately — the longer you work with the clay, the harder it is to keep its shape. I can throw a medium sized piece in 15 to 20 minutes, which is on the faster end for most people,” Ackerman explained. “It’s really rare for me to give them away, I get very attached. … Most of my sculptures I don’t give away at all because I’ll spend a couple of months on a bust. I want to keep it and I want to see it every day.”

While pottery forces Ackerman to let go of some control and allow the clay to shape her work,  her other passion, photography, plays an equally important role of keeping her present in the moment. This is especially true of her favorite photography style, macrophotography.

“A lot of times, my brain’s really busy. I’m thinking about classes or social stuff or grad school, and macrophotography especially allows me to be like, ok, let me just focus on this little tiny flower,” she said.

Although Ackerman’s biggest passion lies in wildlife and macrophotography, she has also set up something of an enterprise in another of her great talents: sports photography. She has been capturing sports teams and games throughout her time at Grinnell, and beginning this year has been paid for her art as Pioneer football’s official team photographer.

“I used to run cross country and track, so I would go and take pictures of people I knew. Then started taking pictures of people I didn’t know. Soon I just knew everyone,” Ackerman explained. “This year, one of the football managers approached me asking me if I would like to be the football team’s photographer. … I traveled with the team to most of their games. I photographed them mostly during games, but sometimes before games, at the hotel. Those are some of my favorite pictures because it’s just more casual.”

Just like macrophotography and pottery, sports photography requires a high level of focus and knowledge of the medium.

“You have to know the sport,” she said. “You need to know what’s going to happen before the football gets to the receiver, or before they shoot the basket. You have to anticipate, because if you’re just following the ball you’re too late. They’re down the field, or the play’s over, or whatever it is.”

Following her success working with the football team last season, Ackerman has been recruited by other teams, including the basketball team this weekend, to photograph at their home games for the rest of the semester.

Ackerman’s diverse interests, from biological chemistry to ceramics to photography to violin, may, on the surface, appear somewhat disparate. However, although Ackerman often turns to her art as a release from academic pressure, she recognizes a critical connection among all these disciplines as well.

“Creativity’s really important in science. It’s how we get new studies, we find new drugs, we discover new things. Without creativity, none of that would happen,” she said. “Throwing on the wheel’s all physics … mixing glazes is all chemistry, it’s knowing what compounds will work together when heated to form a certain color.”

As Ackerman looks towards her future, hopefully in medical school or another graduate school program, she is sure to keep art as a central part of her life. With photography, that’s easy, as she can take her camera anywhere. Ceramics is a little trickier, as it simply requires so much stuff — Ackerman joked that her dream is to one day make enough money to have a ceramics studio in her basement. For the time being, however, she will be able to rent out public ceramics studios to create new pieces.

The connection between Ackerman’s artistic passions has come out in surprising ways as well.

“I’ve gotten some of the football players into the ceramics studio, to teach them how to throw on the wheel,” she laughed. “They’re great students. I’ve gotten two of them in and they’ve each made good pieces, I’m working with a couple more to get them in here.”

Katie Ackerman ’19 has mastered the art of both photography and ceramics. Photo by Sarah Ruiz.
Painted Lady Butterfly take noutside of Noyce Fall of 2017 by Ackerman. Contributed.
Contributed.