UNC Asheville Welcomes Cherokee Ceramicist Tara McCoy, Endowed Artist to Share Art and Knowledge

Tara McCoy, Cherokee ceramicist and NEA endowed artist, demonstrates shaping pottery using Cherokee tools and techniques with a class of UNC Asheville students.Tara McCoy, Cherokee ceramicist and NEA endowed artist, demonstrates shaping pottery using Cherokee tools and techniques with a class of UNC Asheville students. Photo Courtesy of Kilyne Oocumma/The Center for Native Health
December 7, 2023

In a groundbreaking initiative, Tara McCoy, a renowned potter and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), has become the first endowed artist in the “Celebrating Cherokee Heritage through Art and Making” grant. This collaborative effort is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the University of North Carolina Asheville.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support arts projects in communities nationwide,” said Maria Rosario Jackson, NEA chair. “Projects such as this one with UNC Asheville strengthen arts and cultural ecosystems, provide equitable opportunities for arts participation and practice, and contribute to the health of our communities and our economy.”

McCoy’s work has been featured in the Museum of the Cherokee People and the Asheville Art Museum. She dedicates herself to various community programs, including the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, The Center for Native Health, and the Ray Kinsland Leadership Institute, where she serves as a Right Path Leadership Specialist, developing selfless leaders deeply rooted in Cherokee cultural identity.

Her role as the inaugural recipient involves creating educational experiences for UNC Asheville students and sets the stage for empowering Cherokee artists by expanding the knowledge of pottery practices thousands of years old.

“Cherokee people have always been intelligent, creative and had foresight of what the future holds for us. We are always planning on how we can better our tribe. Cherokee pottery is one of the oldest artforms in North America. We have stories and designs incorporated into our pottery that are thousands of years old,” McCoy said. “Colonization and forced assimilation are devastating to our cultural preservation. We have lost a lot and a lot of it was taken from us purposefully, but we are also trying to revitalize a lot of culture and pottery is one way we are doing that.”

McCoy hosted UNC Asheville students on the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina, where they engaged with local artists about the history of Cherokee pottery and art, and visited the Qualla Arts and Crafts and the Museum of the Cherokee People. She has also demonstrated handbuilding techniques to students, offered lessons on incorporating story into art and hosted a pit firing with Matt West, lecturer of art at UNC Asheville, who instructs the Sculpture I class. Students will also use tools in UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio to create wooden paddles used in some pottery building techniques. 

Susan Reiser, senior advisor to the Provost and principal investigator on the grant, said she is excited for the future of the residency.

“I am very grateful: grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with and honor Tara, grateful to Matt West for bringing the project into his sculpture class, and grateful to the NEA for seeding what we hope will be an ongoing Cherokee artist residency that over time encompasses traditional media—from ceramics to wood and stone carving—as well as new media,” Reiser said.

Reflecting on the significance of the grant, McCoy expresses gratitude for the opportunity to use her art as a tool for cultural awareness.

“It’s very fulfilling to be able to use my art to facilitate awareness and provide an opportunity for others to learn about Cherokee people, history, and culture. To be able to live and create in the exact homelands of my ancestors; to touch and feel the same dirt they did is nothing short of amazing. It’s like reaching out and touching my ancestors,” she shared.

This is a continuation of an existing partnership between UNC Asheville and McCoy. McCoy helped support the creation of ᎠᏏᎾᏏ  ᏃᎴ ᎠᏙᎴᏆᏍᎩ  “asinasi  nole  adolegwasgi”: Cherokee Potters Master Apprentice Program. This project, funded by a SOUTH Arts In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Arts & Culture Project Grant, supports projects that promote sharing, teaching and preserving folk arts and traditional culture of Central Appalachia.

The collaboration not only provides a platform for artistic expression but also facilitates the exchange of knowledge about clay processing and firing techniques. McCoy sees this as an opportunity to bridge the gap between academia and traditional Cherokee knowledge, advocating for a stronger Cherokee presence on campus and in Asheville.

“Cherokee people who are not involved in academia still have a lot of education or cultural knowledge that is overlooked because they do not have degrees. Not just in art but in all subjects including engineering, agriculture, astronomy, history, etc. Projects like this one allow for that knowledge to be utilized and passed on. I hope the students realize that Cherokee people are alive and thriving. That they learn about our culture from us and hear us tell our stories and history.”

The culmination of this collaboration will be showcased at the art exhibition scheduled for February 7-15, 2024, at Highsmith Gallery on the UNC Asheville campus featuring some of McCoy’s work as well as the students’ works, many of which are influenced by McCoy’s teachings. The gallery opening will be 7-8 p.m. on February 7.