Good Life

PSU art professor works to create scholarship in honor of former student

Art professor Christopher Staley will hold a pottery sale to raise funds for a scholarship in memory of a former student.
Art professor Christopher Staley will hold a pottery sale to raise funds for a scholarship in memory of a former student. Photo provided

Inside Christopher Staley’s office at the School of Visual Arts there’s an abundance of pots and cups — but a conspicuous lack of plants or coffee.

In fairness, Staley is a distinguished professor of ceramics and not a frontrunner for the cover of “Better Homes and Gardens” — a fact that has probably served him in good standing during any one of the number of exhibitions that have featured his pottery.

These are places like the Garth Clark Gallery in New York City, The Works Gallery in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.

It’s the stuff that resumes are made of, but in black and white it’s still visually less impressive than the collection of handcrafted ceramics lining his workspace, a tactile and tangible record of his career — or his life, really.

And they’re up for sale.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday Staley will host a pottery sale at the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania in Lemont, where 80 percent of the proceeds will go toward establishing a scholarship in honor of Taylor Watkins, a 2012 Penn State graduate who succumbed to cancer in June 2013.

It’s a unique opportunity for Staley to use his art not to bolster his own legacy, but to fortify the memory of a student and friend.

“I think everyone has a fear of just being forgotten,” Staley said.

Why art matters

It’s a common prompt, one that Watkins answered in an essay at some point during his three-year tenure as Staley’s student.

It’s a gift of a question really, the kind with no right or wrong answer that students either relish or despise depending on how deep they prefer to wade into this particular pool.

Odds are that Watkins was a better swimmer than most. In his essay response to the prompt he talks about how by the age of 11 he was already a battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. During his time in the hospital he watched another young patient — a friend — succumb to leukemia.

Watkins survived, but the treatment temporarily took his hair — something that other kids were not shy about pointing out.

It was probably very hard — but Staley didn’t know Watkins then. His memories begin with the ceramics studio at the School of Visual Arts .

“He was a really kind guy,” Staley said.

There are other details — little things that only a teacher would notice, like Watkins’ proclivity for working with wood or the fact that he had a really sophisticated awareness of how pots related to one another.

“You could tell that he found something in the clay, that he could shape his own sense of who he was,” Staley said.

Gone

It was late in the spring of 2013 and Staley was on his way to Florida.

Watkins had graduated from Penn State and taken a position at a school in Great Barrington, Mass., a young career cut short when a routine surgery to remove his appendix revealed the presence of a tumor, a symptom of High Grade Malignant Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

Doctors determined that even with chemotherapy, they could maybe buy their patient another year, tops.

Watkins declined treatment and went to stay with his mother and grandparents in Florida. Staley arrived for a visit shortly before hospice workers began coming to the house.

“It’s powerful to be talking to someone that young. He knows he’s going to die and you know he’s going to die,” Staley said.

The professor told Watkins that he wanted to see if he could get a scholarship set up in his name, something that he thinks made the young man happy.

“I wanted to follow through on that,” Staley said.

Taylor Watkins died almost two weeks later.

... But not forgotten

To become a reality, the Taylor Watkins Scholarship Fund needs to raise a total of $20,000, some of which has already been secured through Kickstarter and letters that Staley penned to friends.

His pottery sale will feature pots, cups, jars — a place for everything and everything in its place.

“I like to think there will be a decent turnout, but I don’t know,” Staley said.

Provided enough money is raised, Staley hopes that a scholarship can help keep his former student alive, not just in name, but in the tales people will tell.

“In the end our lives are about relationships and part of the glue that holds relationships together are stories,” Staley said.

Those who can’t make it to the sale but would still like to make a donation can contact Don Lenze, director of development in the College of Arts and Architecture, at dml102@psu.edu

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