Shaping the Sea: Ceramics professor finds inspiration in the waves

If clay is the ocean, then art professor Gerry Punt is the moon, fluently pushing and pulling the tides of the earth into the shape of a bowl. Leaning over his creation in a faded worn-out hoodie, he uses a rib —a small rounded tool— to shape the precise curves.

As he folds through the motions of sculpting, glasses on his forehead pushing back long grey hair that waves with the rhythm of his hands, he makes shaping the bowl look innate. It appears as effortless to him as breathing.

According to junior August Brown, Punt can even make pottery blindfolded. Which makes sense, as he has been sculpting for over 50 years.

The Beginning

Punt describes his passion for ceramics basically as dumb luck.

He grew up in Orange City, Iowa, and his parents ran a car dealership. Being raised in a small Midwestern town, he didn’t learn much about art, and so his first experience with the craft began with his freshman year ceramics class in high school. He didn’t have a particular interest in the class, but his junior year the school began following a “modular schedule,” an experimental school schedule popular in the 1970s where students had more freedom in how they spent their learning time. For most students, this meant spreading out their 18 “mods” that lasted 20 minutes throughout the school week.

But Punt figured out a way around the system. If he took only shop and art classes, he could condense a five-day school week down to two days. After Tuesday, he’d spend the rest of his week working 40 hours at his parents’ car dealership. He made a lot of money, but the summer after he graduated high school, he had an epiphany. He remembers that day vividly: It was morning, and as he was sitting at his accounting desk, he realized, “Man I really hate this, and I’m going to be stuck doing this for the rest of my life.”

This was the first time he had ever even considered going to college. Two months later he enrolled in what he knew best: art.

Back then, he didn’t know many other artists from the Midwest.

“I think growing up in a small town in Iowa, I didn’t know that artists were still living in the world,” he said. “I knew that there had been artists back in Renaissance time, but I didn’t know that they were still living today. I hadn’t really met an artist, and I didn’t know that was something a person could spend their life doing.”

Exploring North America

Punt said he didn’t need a lot of money growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. He said money today “discourage[s] people from diving head over heels without a backup plan.”

After graduating college, he did just that. He spent three years traveling around the continent without any sort of backup plan: walking with pack donkeys, hitchhiking, riding freight trains, backpacking four or five weeks at a time and canoeing down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

This journey began in a similar fashion to Punt’s decision to go to college — impulsively. He and his brother had planned a small hike in the Ozark Mountains with his brother’s pack donkeys. They had originally planned to use their uncle’s horse trailer to load the donkeys, but their uncle ended up needing the trailer for something else. They were bummed at first, but then his brother suggested, “Well we’re just gonna go for a walk anyways. Why don’t we just start here?”

The next morning they built packs and headed down the gravel road by noon. Their plan: Go south as far as possible, then east until they could continue south. And so — with no map, no firm directions — they just walked.

The Art of Windsurfing

Punt still has the adventurous drive that carried him throughout his twenties. For the last 40 years or so he’s spent every summer on the Southern coast of Oregon by Gold Beach, riding waves that tower over him like skyscrapers.

A place where a single gust of wind can send you flying 40 feet in the air, windsurfing on Gold Beach isn’t for the faint of heart. The wind is an unsteady, erratic beast that can change from 5 to 45 miles per hour “just like that,” Punt said, snapping for emphasis.

That’s why when he goes windsurfing, he rides prepared. When he sails out into the ocean, he takes what he calls his “big toy box”: Five different sail sizes, three different mast sizes and a couple of booms (booms attach to the mast, gripped for control of the sail), mast bases, a wetsuit, booties, a harness and all the spare parts to replace everything that breaks.

Despite Punt’s knack for navigating the waves, the competitive nature of professional windsurfing has never attracted him. He said it’s “something I always wanted to do for the joy.”

Punt started windsurfing on the Columbia River Gorge back in the ’80s, drawn to the craft — and the coast — thanks to his days racing Hobie Cats on Lake Okoboji. He happened to meet someone who knew how to windsurf, and the speed, maneuverability and independence that windsurfing granted Punt inspired him (and about a dozen others from South Dakota) to head to the West Coast.

That’s where, back in 1987, he met Eric Schroder, a shy windsurfer who ended up becoming his closest friend.

At first, Schroder felt uncertain of Punt. Schroder said that people who windsurf generally keep to themselves. The first day they met, there was no wind on the waves, so most of the surfers silently passed the time. Punt, now affectionately nicknamed “Boss” thanks to his natural leadership abilities, put all of the lone wolves together and organized a small hacky sack tournament.

Schroder laughs as he recounts that moment. “What’s he up to?” he remembered asking himself. “I don’t know about this guy.” Over time, he realized that that’s just the kind of person Punt is.

Water and Earth

Out on the Oregon Coast, Punt has also found a love for fishing. The way that Punt describes the water during these fishing outings — another influence on the way he works with clay — feels deeply personal and poetic.

One fog-heavy evening, he was fishing off a rock wall that had deep water next to it.  With the cusp of night-time approaching, he watched the shoreline in his kayak, mesmerized. The ocean waves slammed against the rock wall. The wall had already been shaped by the powerful current, the hard surface carved with intricate tunnels and arches.

“When they were hitting these rock walls instead of breaking and losing all their energy like they do when they come up an incline, they were just refracting and bouncing back off of these rock walls,” Punt said. “But when they were hitting these irregular lines they weren’t refracting back in straight lines — they were coming back in different angles.”

Punt says the repetitive harshness of the waves hurling themselves towards the rock wall created foam. The juxtaposition of the deep, black water and the white foam that stretched and pulled across the surface of the water like taffy created awe-inspiring designs in the waves.

The calamitous beauty left him speechless. Punt said he had recently watched the experimental film Koyaanisqatsi.

“I felt like I was sitting in the movie, sitting out there in my kayak, watching the foam expand and contract and relate to the shape of the wave,” Punt said.

These intimate scenes inspired his way of approaching the surfaces and patterns of his ceramics.

As Punt wraps his hand around the clay, adeptly maneuvering his fingers to round the curvature of the bowl, it seems like making ceramics is effortless. But the shapes, textures, glaze, even the placement in the kiln all have a purpose. He says that forming the bowl is like stretching a canvas, and the surfaces he wants to replicate often influence the form his bowls take. He thinks about the proportional relationships in each part of a piece, and he says that the shapes he forms become self-portraits of a sort.

Growing up in Northwest Iowa, Punt originally perceived the surface of his work as more land oriented.

“My work [was] like the fields, I would plow and till and rough up the surfaces, not unlike the farm roughs up the landscape,” he said.

But now the movement of water inspires Punt on the pottery wheel.

In one of his most recent pottery series, the clay takes these ideas and forms with the interactions of land and water: the blue-green glaze on his cups, the movement of the surface, the color of the earth. Like the breaking of saltwater against the shoreline, Punt experiments with breaking the flow of his pieces —sometimes accidentally, sometimes necessarily, sometimes intentionally.

“We create barriers that are hard to break for ourselves,” he said. “Sometimes it’s important that we do.”

Teaching the Current

During his time traveling the continent back in his twenties, Punt had experienced many life or death situations, and he’ll passionately tell of his adventures to anybody who asks. But after three years exploring the United States, Canada and Mexico, he felt like he wanted to stop and take the opportunity to create relationships that last over time. And teaching seemed to be the perfect gateway into doing that.

Punt got his first teaching job at Northwestern College, and soon after received a call from former art professor Carl Grupp encouraging him to take a position at Augustana teaching ceramics. He split the second semester between Iowa and Sioux Falls.

After that first split year, Punt thought to himself, “Man, I can’t believe I always get all the best students on campus in my classes. I must be really really lucky.”

He said that pretty soon he realized that all the students at Augustana were like that.

Today inside of Punt’s ceramics studio at Augustana, where hundreds of pots and plates and bowls — most of which he has made — adorn the walls, students are encouraged to explore and refine their techniques.

He has four different groups for the students to choose from: throwing (shape a nine-inch cylinder of clay by the end of semester), lines (“how your eye flows across something you’ve created,” said Brown), modular (having a variety of modules and putting things together) and abstract (as the name suggests). At the beginning of the semester he explains what each group is, then allows the students to choose what they want to focus on in ceramics.

Brown said they have cathartic fun while learning in Punt’s class.

“I don’t know how to describe it but it’s really— I can’t stop doing it.”

Brown is in Punt’s throwing group, and over the semester they’ve made a variety of bowls (and even a flower pot).

As a professor, Punt teaches instinctually. He can recognize what’s wrong with a person’s technique and how to fix it just by looking at their piece.

He encourages all of his students to just “go make things” said Brown. He allows his students to come into the studio to work anytime, encouraging them to learn by experience. Even on a snow day this spring when classes got canceled, he assigned his students the task of building something with the snow.

“The goal is always to make something better than you know how to make,” he says.

Punt says everyone will fail sometimes, but that when they do, it’s important to be aware, make a discovery and learn from it.

Friend to All

Outside of the classroom, Schroder says that Punt loves kids, is a great cook and, most importantly, is still a fantastic teacher.

“I guess if he stopped running out of things to teach me, I’d probably stop hanging out with him,” he joked.

Punt taught Schroder everything he needed to know about windsurfing, art and kayak fishing. Schroder made and sold windsurf boards for over 20 years, and Punt painted on his shop’s wall in big bold letters: “there are no mistakes in art.”

Schroder says there are two things that make a good friend: being non-judgemental and allowing people to have their own truth. Punt has both qualities.

“He’s the same Gerry talking to a homeless person as he would be a millionaire or a moviestar,” he said. “And I mean that literally, he doesn’t know the difference.”

Now, as Punt nears retirement age, he is deciding how much longer he wants to stay working with Augustana. He loves the school and the students, but he and his wife want to live closer to his daughter (and her 18-month-old baby) on the West Coast — where he goes windsurfing.

In the meantime, he’ll continue making ceramics and surfing in the summers. His tendonitis prevents him from throwing clay for large bowls like he used to, but he’s happy watching and encouraging the arts community in the Midwest as it continues to expand. Art has become a part of the culture here, and he says there are lots of serious artists in Sioux Falls.

“I don’t think art is ever making something that [you] completely understand. […] That would be manufacturing,” he said. “There’s always a vague idea that you’re working to clarify in some way. And it may not be that it ever becomes completely clarified, but I think that over time elements of this lack of clarity come into focus.”

Yet, as he sits, spinning a mound of clay that will dexterously transform into a work of art, he still embraces the artistic process, an idea that eternally flows in and out like the ocean waves.