USU grad student fuses two arts and melds the past with the present

by Marci Monson

The art of manipulating clay and other non-metallic materials into pottery and ceramics has been around for centuries. The art of digital photography and imaging, however, has been around for a much shorter time. So what happens when you combine the two period-differing art forms? Just ask USU researcher and graduate student Cole Bybee.

Bybee’s finished products are a combination of modern-day photography and ancient pottery—in rough terms, he pastes pictures of Italian buildings onto representations of Italian ceramics. The end result, however, is anything but rough.

To see his work is to look upon an anachronistic paradox, but the unique fusion of black and white photography directly onto traditional vases and vessels is far from disconcerting. Instead, the unique medium seems to come alive as Bybee’s digital depictions of Italian architecture meld with the clay. Both the photograph and the ceramic seem to benefit from the other.

Bybee studied as an undergrad at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, majoring in art and design with a concentration in photography and digital imaging. It was during this time that he took his first ceramics class as an elective.

“I was hooked!” said Bybee. “It was because of this ceramics class that I started paying particular attention to the recurring ceramic forms that I encountered on my many museum visits.”

Before graduation at Cal Poly, Bybee applied for California State University’s study abroad program in Florence, Italy and was accepted. While there, he studied at numerous museums, paying particular attention to recurring ceramic forms, and photographed the area. Bybee became especially interested in the centuries-old architecture in the country. He was amazed by the building capabilities of architects from the Renaissance, back to Antiquity.

Upon returning home, Bybee wanted to combine his two passions: photography and ceramics. He began experimenting with the processes of combining his photographs of Italy with ceramics fashioned after Roman pottery. These vessels mimicked many of the forms he had seen in his travels as well as pottery he studied in archaeological books. A successful combination of the two, however, didn’t come quickly. Bybee had many failed attempts with liquid photographic emulsions before he found the perfect way to fuse a printed image to a ceramic form.

Through research, Bybee found a company in the United Kingdom that made decal paper that can transfer to ceramic surfaces. The decals are applied to glazed ceramics fairly easily, but Bybee wanted to keep his pieces unglazed and porous—to keep their appearance close to the Roman originals on which he based his pieces. After a few tries, Bybee discovered that he could print his pictures on the decals using a special ink, float the decal off the backing sheet in a pool of water, and then place the decal on the ceramic piece. He finished the process with a turpentine solvent, which melted all the plastic out of the decal and the binding agent from the ink. Once he finally perfected the process, he began creating the pieces he had envisioned.

Bybee then began his graduate program in photography at USU.

“I searched for a program that was strong in alternative photographic processes but also had exceptional areas in ceramics, drawing, and printmaking,” Bybee said. He decided that USU was the perfect place for him to continue his education.

After a year in the graduate program, Bybee applied for an internship at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice. He wanted to continue to build on his modern art history knowledge and spend even more time photographing Italy for future ceramic projects. Once his internship was over, he continued to live in Venice and work for the Australia Council for the Arts in their exhibits at the 52nd Venice Biennale, one of the world’s most important critical forums for contemporary visual art. The Biennale is held every two years and displays art in more than 80 national exhibitions. As part of the council, Bybee worked to foster and promote Australia’s contribution to the curated show.

Bybee’s time in Italy only increased his interest in Roman ceramic form and function. Since returning to USU to finish his graduate program, Bybee spends even more time in the library researching and working on new ceramic forms to combine with his collection of images. He splits his days between studying photography and ceramics and teaching photography as a graduate instructor.

“I encourage experimentation while also putting great emphasis on a familial environment in the classroom,” said Bybee. “Students who feel comfortable around each other tend to learn more effectively from each other and have an open attitude toward experimentation with their artwork.”
Over the course of his education, Bybee’s enthusiasm and research methods have been recognized through several awards and internships, including a graduate teaching fellowship, a Graduate Student Senate travel grant, the Jon L. Morgan Artists Fellowship, the USU College of HASS Dean’s Purchase Award, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Internship, and a nomination for the 2008 Graduate Student Instructor of the Year Award.

Bybee hopes to continue fostering a desire for experimentation and research in his own life and in the lives of students. He will graduate from USU in spring 2009 and has already applied for teaching positions across the country. He plans to teach an interdisciplinary approach to art and photography, much like the attitude that he has used in his own artistic work and discovery.