I was given three rules to follow before experiencing downtown Las Vegas. Those rules were:

1) Do not take anything that anyone tries to give you on the street.

2) If you take a picture with one of the many people dressed in an outrageous costume, they will want you to give them money.

3) Don’t try and apply logic to ANYTHING you see.

Heading to Las Vegas for a gallery show and workshop at Clay Arts Vegas was one of the highlights of my year. I met some fantastic people, saw a lot of the non-touristy side of Las Vegas, and when I did venture into the glittery all-night party that is downtown Vegas, I was well prepared with amazing local guides and of course, the three important rules!

I have to say that approaching this trip, I essentially expected to work at the gallery during my workshop, and have the evenings basically on my own. Little did I know that the lovely folks at Clay Arts Vegas had carefully planned a different person affiliated with the gallery to be my city guide and friend each evening. When I told them I felt like I was being given the royal treatment, they told me- “Oh. We treat every visiting artist this way!” That, people, is a mark of a quality organization.

Coincidentally I had been to Las Vegas once before, so that took away some of the initial “shock and awe.” If you have never been to Vegas, prepare to be shocked and awed. When you fly in, the runway passes right alongside all the major casinos, which are all lit up like a giant neon arcade in the middle of the desert. The airport is filled with flashy slot machines and giant screens playing glitzy ads on a constant loop. It was in this environment that I first met John Gregg, a bastion of coolheadedness and one of the three co-owners of CAV (Clay Arts Vegas).

Peter Jakubowski and Thomas Bumblauskas round out the trio. These guys were all perfectly lovely to work with and have created a wonderful community of artists of all levels in clay. John took me by the studio the night I arrived and it was clear from the minute I stepped a toe in there that all the students feel fully invested in CAV as a source of community and camaraderie through clay. Several of them told me they will show up even if they have no projects to work on, or they’ll stay long after they are done, just to chat and hang out. The way they’ve structured their open studio hours and payment system is friendly to that type of interaction. I have worked in a few different places that offered open studio and figuring out how to charge for it always presents an organizational challenge. I like to see how different studios address it.

CAV’s logo includes the spire on the Stratosphere casino, because I swear if the light is at the perfect angle, CAV lies under its shadow just off the famous Las Vegas strip. CAV was nice enough to put me up there during my stay so I had just a short walk each day to and from the studio.

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The spire at the Stratosphere. You know you can pay an exorbitant amount of money to bungee jump off this thing? And there is also a  built-in TV channel on every TV in the hotel showing people do the jump- live? All true my friend.

Friday, I was offered the chance to see some of the beautiful desert scenery outside of Vegas at Red Rocks Canyon. When most folks think of Vegas, “beautiful desert scenery” is not usually the first thing jumping to mind, but I happen to like desert scenery a whole lot more than gambling so I jumped at the chance. It pains me to narrow my prodigious collection of photos down to just these few- my guide and I were stopping at each and every scenic pull-off, snapping to our heart’s content- but this post can’t go on forever so I picked just three.

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The evening was rounded out with Las Vegas’ monthly arts walk event, First Friday. Then Saturday morning, the workshop began!

I had just about 20 students participate, which made for a pleasantly bustling atmosphere in the studio. With a volunteer studio assistant and the CAV staff to back me up, things flowed very smoothly. I always like to start my classes by having everyone introduce themselves and tell how much experience they have in clay. I was excited to learn that I had the full gamut- folks who made a living as ceramic artists all the way to a few who had literally never touched clay. While a mixed class like this can be challenging to an instructor, I like them because they offer a lot of opportunity for peer learning and sharing within the class.

Our project was making a small sculptural bird and decorating it with sgraffito. I demonstrated the sculpting on day one and the sgraffito on day two. Realistically, I was thinking we would come out with some nice but fairly simple pieces. Well. Little did I know. These students blew that idea out of the water post haste. Here is what the group made:

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Wow! I would like to point out the penguin at bottom left nuzzling its baby chick, which has been illustrated on the chest. That was made by one of the beginners! And again. These birds were made AND decorated . . . in two days!! Betcha can’t even tell which one was my demo bird.

As far as I could tell, the students also enjoyed themselves immensely. I got a lot of positive feedback throughout and after the workshop which made the whole experience that much more pleasant.

But let’s not forget- our three rules of engagement! While there were no “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” moments, I did have a night out on the town with some of the CAV folks on Saturday night. As I mentioned before, I’m not hugely into gambling, and having seen the touristy side of Vegas once before I was much more interested in learning about the “real” Vegas- what locals enjoyed doing and where they spent their time. As you may imagine, when you live in Vegas full time all the glitter, lights, endless bachelor/ette parties, Elvis impersonators, scantily clad ladies, and general sensory overload tend to become just part of the scenery after a long enough time. But, I did get the distinct impression that my guides delighted in showing off the spectacle none the less.

We steered clear of the strip and headed instead to Container Park- an outdoor -for lack of a better word- hang-out area made entirely of shipping containers. Inside of the park you will find boutique shops, small restaurants and bars, a lawn and stage for concerts, and a climbing maze/playground that curiously seems to be even more fun for adults than for children. Guarding the entrance to the park is this guy:

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Yes, it’s a massive metal praying mantis that shoots fire out of its antennae. It also moves its head and looks at you. The thing seemed eerily cognizant of when people got near it until I noticed the operator riding on its back- see if you can see him right where the wing would come out from the body. I wonder how you get that job?

After the park we headed to Downtown Las Vegas- Fremont Street. Distinct from the strip, this is an area where some of the older casinos are located that they have turned into a kind of pedestrian mall/concert venue/massive outdoor bar. It is entirely covered with a vaulted screen that plays a light show each hour. It was hard for me to get a good photo so let me direct you here for a professional one. It is also where the Neon Museum is, so as you walk down the street you can see a lot of the neon signs from Vegas history. My guides had tons of great stories about eccentric hoteliers and high-rolling drama.

Here is where the three rules really had to kick in. There were tons of people wandering about in costume- the best one was an angel Elvis with an entourage of lady angel back-up singers with white wings and boa-lined skirts. There were also plenty of street performers and several stages with concerts going on. The concerts are free- you just wander in. Not only that, they have chart-topping names come through those stages as well as local folks. You never know who you might get to see.

About halfway down the length of the street my guides started talking about wanting to see the shark tank. Shark tank? I thought. As it turns out, one of the casino/hotels has a shark tank enclosed inside of its pool, with some very sinister looking sharks inside. You can ride a clear tube water slide right through it. Only in Vegas, people.

On my last night in Vegas I went up to the top of the Stratosphere spire- the 108th floor. The Stratosphere is near one end of the strip so from there you can see all the rest of it stretching out like a neon river. It was a nice closure to an utterly fantastic trip. I hope to be back someday!

In the meantime. CAV hosts many juried shows throughout the year, and ceramics folks, I encourage you to apply! That is how my fantastic relationship with CAV began. They just opened in 2012 but I have a feeling they will be with us for quite some time.