Greenbelt artist-in-residence, Gina Mai Denn, ended up telemarketing and living with her parents when she couldn’t find an art job after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
She recalled selling Betty White an inflatable raft and getting a call from Dr. Joyce Brothers while taking phone orders in her next job at Joan Cook Catalogue in Florida. She had switched jobs because she didn’t like telemarketing, and her numbers showed it. “I don’t think I made one sale,” she said.
Times were hard for the 1990 graduate of Alfred University in New York. Her first jobs were letdowns considering how hard she had worked to become an artist.
She had been forced to fight to get accepted into the fine arts program in the first place. Alfred had turned her down as a freshman because she didn’t have a portfolio and then again in her sophomore year. So she had gone into their liberal arts program instead.
Art had been Mai Denn’s favorite subject since childhood, so she didn’t give up despite the setbacks and maneuvered her way into the same classes that freshman fine arts majors took at Alfred. Midway through her sophomore year, she compiled a portfolio made up of her classwork and, finally — she was in.
Though it seemed like the end to her struggles, more hurdles lay ahead. Mai Denn longed for detailed instruction but at Alfred, “it was more about art than learning the skill,” she said, “it was more like demos and then try it on your own.”
Mai Denn struggled. “I crushed most things I made — they just fell apart,” she said.
Now Mai Denn is creating pieces she can be proud of as well as teaching the potter’s wheel and ceramic arts in the Greenbelt Community Center and at the University of Maryland’s Art and Learning Center. When it comes to instruction, she knows how important the details are and wants her students to get what she said she didn’t.
“Every once in a while,” Mai Denn told Patch, “I’ll say to my students, ‘You guys are throwing better at the end of this class than I was after a year.’”
Mai Denn’s turnabout came in 1992. Friends had been asking her to come live with them in Maryland. She was a vegan and animal rights activist, which seemed like a good fit with their all vegan household. Plus, Mai Denn felt she had no life in Florida. Before she knew it, she was boarding a train and headed for Adelphi, Md.
For around a year and a half, Mai Denn had made very little pottery, but the Art and Learning Center happened to be a convenient stop on her way home to Adelphi from her new job at Beautiful Day Trading Company in College Park.
At the Art and Learning Center, Mai Denn rediscovered herself as an artist. They gave her cleaning work, and Mai Denn got a free open studio in exchange. “So I was the studio slave,” she said. “I continued to work in clay and I got better while I was there.”
In 1996, some studio space opened up in Greenbelt, and Mai Denn applied for it. It turned out, Greenbelt was interested in more than just giving her space and asked Mai Denn to teach classes.
With fear and hesitation, she agreed. Fortunately, her first few classes went well, alleviating some of her concern. Knowing what had not worked well for her, Mai Denn taught in a different way. “I always tried to explain in detail what I was doing exactly with my hands,” Mai Denn said.
It worked, and Mai Denn kept right on going. She has taught pottery and ceramic arts ever since to adults' and children's beginning and intermediate classes in Greenbelt, where she resides with her husband, John Cooper.
Friends of New Deal Café Arts ( FONDCA) is sponsoring Mai Denn’s “A Small Case of the Blues” exhibit in the through May 2. It contains some of her favorite pottery and ceramic creations, some artistic and others functional — some both. They represent a variety of styles and techniques, including one of her favorites — texturing.
“That’s what I’m going for — beauty,” Mai Denn said, explaining the motivation that drives her to create. When it comes to her title, Mai Denn squirmed at the idea of being type cast as a potter. Summing it up she said, “I’m just someone who likes to play with clay.”