Gazing at an architect's model for a boxy building with curvaceous atriums inspired by ceramic pots, the Northern Clay Center's executive director vociferously denied the aspirations it suggested.

"I want to be clear that we have absolutely no plans for a new building. None. Zero. Nada," said Emily Galusha.

Still, the model is an imaginative articulation of clay's expressive potential and a fitting capstone for the center's "Architecture and Ceramics" exhibition. On view through June 29, it features ceramic sculptures inspired by building types including Midwestern grain elevators, New England barns, New York streetscapes and Southwestern pueblos.

The model building was designed as a hypothetical new home for the center by Philadelphia ceramicist William (Bill) Daley and his architect son, Tom Daley. The senior Daley, who has a decade-long association with the Minneapolis organization, is known for huge red clay urns whose interiors and exteriors bulge into intricate geometrical forms. Invited to present a series of symposiums and workshops at a Korean museum a few years ago, he was stumped for an idea until a Clay Center board member suggested a building that looked like a Bill Daley pot.

"He has these extremely complex ideas about inside and outside spaces and their intersection," said Galusha. "And he's especially interested in a shape called the vesica, which is the eye-like form created when two circles intersect."

Daley's portion of the show includes the model, drawings and five of his immense vessels. More than 4 feet tall, they bulge with sleek symmetrical buttresses and Art Deco-style undulations. One side of the imaginary Clay Center building also erupts with two curvaceous forms akin to boat prows flanking a multi-story entrance.

Clay through time

Architecture and ceramics both deal with "formal issues such as scale, the relationship between inside and outside, and the containment of space ... but ultimately what binds them is their important roles in the history of civilization, their shared connection with human use, and human life -- and art," writes guest curator Rob Silberman, a University of Minnesota art historian.

Photos of a dozen historic and contemporary buildings made of clay or ornamented with ceramic tiles provide historic context. They range from the Taos Pueblo begun around 1000, to a lavishly tile-decorated 17th-century Iranian mosque, a 1923 chapel at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and a tile-clad 1931 New York City skyscraper.

Although featuring just five artists, the show effectively conveys the intellectual potency of clay's interaction with architecture. A Santa Clara Pueblo Indian, Nora Naranjo-Morse is a sculptor, poet and filmmaker. Her "Genesis" installation is the most conceptual work, a ledge of simple clay shapes that simultaneously suggest architectural forms, alphabet letters and basic building elements -- arches, window openings, door frames, wheels, ladders, tunnels, gates.

Dan Anderson of St. Paul makes teapots, tea caddies, mugs and other vessels in the form of miniature industrial complexes. A former ceramics professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, he fashions tea sets in the shape of Midwestern grain elevators, water towers and factories garnished with Pop-style stencils of logos for food, feed and oil companies (Coke, Purina, Amoco, Gulf).

Born in Uruguay and trained as a painter, Lidya Buzio has long resided in New York City and Long Island. She treats her oval bowls and sculptural vases as earthenware canvases for lonely urban vistas reminiscent of the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper. Narrow ledges and protrusions serve as cornices and accents to the building shapes, all enhanced by her beautifully moody surfaces.

Another Pennsylvanian, Robert Winokur, has reduced the forms of New England barns and houses to eloquently minimalist sculptures. Made of salt-glazed brick clay, his sculptures are studies in psychological extremes. Severely simplified, his brooding plum-colored boxes speak of autonomy and isolation. One is a miniature stage-set version of a windowless 19th-century prison cell, lit only from a skylight above the bed. Another poignantly enshrines a tiny house within a larger barn-like structure reminiscent of the barren building Georgia O'Keeffe immortalized in her painting of a barn near New York's Lake George. A third, dedicated to St. Francis, includes an oddly androgynous figure casting a bird to the skies. Pure poetry.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431