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Fargo ceramics artist Joshua Zeis talks about shaping life and being called to clay

The Arts Partnership catches up one of its recent grantees about his introduction to ceramics and what it means to him now.

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FARGO — Zen Buddhists have a popular mantra: “No mud, no lotus.”

It’s meant to symbolize that truth and beauty are forged from our greatest struggles.

In many ways, Fargo ceramicist and 2021 The Arts Partnership Individual Artist Partnership grant awardee Joshua Zeis, whose main medium is clay (aka mud), has a foundational understanding of the lotus; that from mud comes — if not something beautiful — something profoundly human.

“My experience with clay is like a charge,” he says. “That charge is how I connect to it.”

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Wood Fired mugs that Joshua Zeis made from Hebron Clay in 2017.
Contributed / Joshua Zeis

Zeis has had this connection to clay ever since a misty day in 2007 when he found out he was going to be deployed as a medic to Iraq for the Army National Guard.

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While Zeis was driving on his way to break the news to his sister before telling his parents, he stopped his car next to a sunflower field outside West Fargo and started walking into the long stalks.

“I was just going and going, and my feet kept getting heavier and heavier. I looked down and my feet were just covered in clay,” Zeis says. “I just started to laugh.”

Relieved of some emotional tension, he knelt down and gave into the pull of the earth against his body.

“I just pushed my fist as hard as I could into the ground, and I pulled them out and I just felt the clay on my hands. It felt like I was being hugged,” he says.

The experience left Zeis with a feeling of acceptance. Something bad could happen in Iraq (and it did) and something good could happen, too (it did).

A brick of North Dakota clay

By 2008, a year into his deployment, Zeis had lost a good friend in battle and barely escaped a fatal encounter himself.

His brother Zach Zeis, then a ceramics student at North Dakota State University, shipped a brick of North Dakota clay to him in Iraq, which was donated to the school by Hebron Brick .

“I just thought that was super special having a piece of North Dakota with me there and reminded me of the place that I came from. That's the first time I'd ever done anything with ceramics (clay). And I was just hooked,” Zies says.

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Joshua Zeis learns about ceramics in FOB Anaconda, Iraq, in 2008.
Contributed / Joshua Zeis

During his downtime, he ordered and read book after book about clay, ceramics and technique.

It was a mental and emotional evolution that eventually shaped his future.

“I had these thoughts like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it home.’ So I started to think about what I wanted to do and what made me happy,” he says.

By the time he got home in 2010, he’d made up his mind: “I went in thinking I was going to go to medical school,” he says. “Instead, I turned to clay.”

Zeis enrolled at NDSU where he went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts, and later a master's from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Reshaping experiences

Honorably discharged in 2013, Zeis remains active in the military veteran community and has contributed extensively through art to tell the stories of war.

In 2016, Zeis earned funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities offered by Dr. Christina Weber from NDSU to work on a project helping veterans cope with returning from war.

“Project Unpack: Telling Stories, Creating Community,” displayed at the Rourke Art Museum + Gallery in Moorhead where he debuted his portion of the exhibit, “Return,” showcasing his experience rucking a 100-pound block of ice on his back across 20 miles of open North Dakota road.

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Photos were taken by photographers Mark Anthony and Dan Koeck while Zeis walked.

As the ice melted down his back during the walk, his message symbolized the shedding of traumas, memories and stories of war, a poignant representation of surviving combat for veterans across the country.

Photos from “Return” are still drawing crowds at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County’s “Warriors in the North” exhibit (now through March 6).

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"City Geode, installed on the southeast corner of the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, was a 2019 student group project while Joshua Zeis was an adjunct at North Dakota State University.
Contributed / Joshua Zeis

Doing the work

Since graduating, like many emerging artists, he holds several jobs. He’s a part-time advanced ceramics teacher at the Plains Art Museum and a full-time project coordinator at Hebron Brick.

Zeis also co-owns Mothership Workshop , an art and furniture design studio he opened in 2017 with business partner and longtime friend Mike Nelson.

As a 2021 TAP IAP grant recipient, Zeis used his $2,500 in funding to pay for an "amazing" kiln.

“I just didn't know how awesome it was to finally have one," he says.

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Building some props at Mothership Workshop in 2020
Contributed / Joshua Zeis

He and Nelson have put work on hold at Mothership to work on a 10-by-12-foot mixed media art mural commissioned by a local company that visually depicts stories collected during “Project Unpack.”

“We're going through those stories one by one, and we're illustrating our response to it onto a wall," Zeis says.

Shaping the craft

Like the shape-shifting nature of the earth, Zeis says he lets the clay choose the story it wants to tell.

He follows techniques developed by avant-garde artists of the Japanese Gutai movement in the 1950s where artists attempt to “marry the human spirit with material.”

“It's like a handshake with the material,” he says. “It’s about the experience with clay and the process of working with it and letting it tell the story.”

What perhaps is more set in stone, however, is the artist’s unwavering attention to detail.

“Ceramics has really allowed me to look at the tiny, little details, and the individual moments, and take time to look back and try to understand them,” Zeis says. “It’s through art that helps me pick up on the subtle minutiae of day-to-day life and really appreciate them. Even the quiet moments.”

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Joshua Zeis during a 2018 live performance raw clay install in Madison, Wis.
Contributed / Joshua Zeis

Snow sculptures, too

Fargo artist Joshua Zeis and his team, Snokraft (led by chainsaw artist Jay Ray), are heading to Lake Geneva, Wis., on Feb. 2 for Winterfest 2022 and its highly competitive national snow sculpture competition.

It’s the first time North Dakota will be represented in the competition. Team North Dakota has a National Snow Sculpture Competition fundraising pitch on GoFundMe seeking to raise $5,000 to cover travel expenses and lost wages.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit www.theartspartnership.net.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit the artspartnership.net.
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