Cecil College was a perfect fit for First-Generation Alumna Jessica Cooke

Published on June 8, 2023

Jessica Cooke

ELKTON, Md. – Discovering one’s passion sometimes takes a lifetime. For others, it comes in an inspirational moment. That was the situation for Jessica Cooke when she first placed her hands in wet clay in the ceramic studio at Cecil College’s Elkton Station.

“Painting has been a passion my whole life. But if I hadn’t decided to attend Cecil College, I would never have discovered my love for working with clay and the empowerment it instills,” said Cooke, a 2018 North East High School graduate. “I now know the direction I wish for my life.”

Cooke planned to attend Cecil College for two years as it enabled her to keep her job and save money while working toward an associate degree. Fortune was in her favor as Elkton Station was closer to her home than Cecil’s main campus, which put the possibility of taking a ceramic course on her pathway to success.

“I tried out a class thinking it was something different in art, and that class was my introduction to ceramics. I loved it so much that I changed my major to fine arts,” said Cooke.

Upon graduating from Cecil College with an Associate of Fine Arts, she transferred to Salisbury University, where she carried over her passion for ceramics. Being in a university setting assisted in growing self-confidence on the potter’s wheel along with sculpting. Cooke found confidence through the ability to help classmates with challenging tasks in addition to her skill loading kilns, which is a very meticulous chore. In May of 2022, Cooke completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

“Jessi’s creativity, enthusiasm, and academic success made her a standout student in the Art and Design Program,” said Cecil College Art Professor Lauren Vanni, who runs the ceramic’s lab. “She was continuously recognized for her outstanding work, and she earned the departmental award in Art & Design in the spring of 2020. This award goes to an outstanding student selected by the art faculty. Her achievements continued as she pursued her bachelor’s degree at Salisbury University.”

All of Jessi’s wonderful qualities that made her a standout student then, make her an integral part of our team in the ceramics studio at Cecil College today. We are happy to have her back in the studio helping students as the Ceramics Studio Assistant. She is an inspiration to students.

Cooke has now returned to her first alma mater to perfect her skills as a studio assistant at Cecil College’s ceramics lab. This offers the opportunity to enhance her knowledge of pottery and ceramics. The continual challenge remains making glazes that produce the outcome she seeks for each pottery piece.

“Learning about glazes was challenging when I first entered the studio, which differs greatly from painting. A glaze may be brown in liquid form, but it comes out bright blue when you fire it in the kiln. Visually, it is different from what you expect it to be. I worked on a couple of pieces for hours, and I was very proud of them. Then, when they came out of the kiln, it was not what I expected,” said Cooke.

Realizing pottery and ceramics entail lifelong learning, Cooke follows several social media pages that provide various tips and tricks as well as subscribing to numerous YouTube channels which provided inspiration and knowledge. She is seeking everything she can learn and maintains a notebook to record the effect of each glaze. She says potters must remain open-minded about the outcome of each piece and how it will appear.

Working in the Elkton Station studio also allows Cooke to experiment with the different clay forms, as each has its unique quality. Porcelain, which comes from a refined clay fired at very high temperatures of approximately 1,200–1,450 degrees Celsius, is the most challenging material due to its lack of grog. Grog is a raw material usually made from crushed and ground potsherds, reintroduced back into crude clay to temper it before making ceramic ware.

Cooke, who is in the process of mastering working with strong and durable stoneware, enjoys applying the Raku technique. Raku is a Japanese style of pottery where the clay object is removed from the kiln at the height of the firing, causing it to cool very rapidly.

“There are Raku glazes that are not food safe because of the heavy metals in them, but you get a fantastic result after the firing,” said Cooke. She added that Raku ware is commonly found in tea bowls. “Working in the ceramic studio, I am doing what I love. I am helping other students, and I am learning new skills. It is an extensive learning process because I want my own studio someday. I cannot wait to get into the studio to work on my projects.”

Her dream is to establish an art studio where community members can come to make art and learn more about ceramics and painting, and she has begun to gather equipment, including a kiln given to her by a family member.

“I plan to save money in the next few years and determine the next step. In the meantime, I am trying to learn as much as possible,” said Cooke. “I want a pleasant, inviting environment. I would love to have a place where people want to come to create their art, discuss their work, and help one another.”

While pottery and ceramics are her primary focus, she hasn’t forgotten about her first love of painting, looking for a way to integrate both mediums. She states the most significant difference between her painting and clay is the ceramic piece is done when it comes out of the kiln, whereas her paintings are continually worked on by applying different layers.

“I use many painting techniques with clay, such as using a lot of underglazes and masking off where the clay will show through. I start with my sketchbook for the basic design. It helps to determine where to mask off a portion of the clay with wax and when to use a lot of layers. This is time-consuming, but I enjoy the outcome,” said Cooke. “I want my paintings and ceramic pieces to seem like they are talking to one another. I want them to feel connected to someone even though one is two-dimensional and the other is three-dimensional. I work on pieces simultaneously.”

Cooke plans to continue her education soon as the University of Delaware offers an MFA degree. Her current work will be part of the portfolio she will present as part of the admissions process, which is on display this summer at the Milburn Stone Theatre Gallery – “Memory Garden.” This exhibit runs through August 25. Through detailed paintings and playful ceramics, Cooke explores nostalgia, grief, forgiveness, and layered identity. Memory Garden uses sentimentality as a love letter for old childhood memories and to seek closure from inevitable realities.