Gary Erickson’s office space at Macalester College offered a window into his life. Ceramic art pieces crafted by him and by his students. Books of art. Recipes for ceramic glazes. Recipes for soup served at a recent food bank fundraiser he organized.
Inside his desk were undoubtedly hints of the salsa dance classes he taught and his upcoming art residency in China.
Erickson, a visiting assistant professor of art at Macalester was a gifted ceramics artist and a dedicated teacher to hundreds of students over two decades.
He died May 18 of heart failure at age 60.
“What Gary brought to ceramics studies was unique,” said Ruthann Godollei, chairwoman of the Art and Art History Department at Macalester College in St. Paul. “He was full of enthusiasm. What he did worked. We received wonderful works from his students each year.”
“He was dedicated to being a better teacher all the time,” added Keith Williams, chairman of the art department at Concordia University in St. Paul and a longtime friend. “Even on the golf course, we’d talk about that.”
Erickson was born Dec. 22, 1955, in Rush City, Minn., to Lawrence and Wanda Erickson. A graduate of Rush City High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Hamline University and a master’s in fine arts from Alfred University in New York.
His abstract ceramic sculpture was exhibited nationally and internationally, ranging from the Minneapolis Institute of Art to galleries in Cuba and China. His sculpture is in many private and public collections, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery.
Erickson began teaching at Macalester in 1995 and conducted ceramics workshops at colleges across the country, said Williams. An avid dancer, he taught salsa classes at Macalester, in his own studio and even during his trips to China, said longtime friend Janeen Rae of Minneapolis.
Erickson injected humor and creativity his teaching, said Godollei. He also “put ceramics in the real world, they weren’t just beautiful objects.”
His students, for example, would make ceramic dishes and then gather at his studio to share a meal served in their creations. Students also made the bowls that the soup was served in at his “empty bowl” food fundraiser.
Erickson even managed to mix his love of Latin dance with his class. “I remember him having his students mix clay with their feet — to salsa music,” Godollei said.
Erickson generously shared his studio with his students, inviting them for social gatherings and often conducting their critiques at semester’s end.
“Gary built community in his classroom,” said Rae. “And he knew how to turn teaching into fun.”
Erickson had a special bond with Jingdezhen, China, known as its “porcelain city,” where he traveled each summer. He also participated in artist exchanges in Cuba. He received several grants, including from National Endowment for the Arts, the Minnesota State Arts Board and a McKnight Artist Fellowship.
Erickson’s work reflected multicultural influences, as well as the natural world around him. The shelves in his studio, for example, held clay mugs and whimsical vases; colorful leaf-imprinted wall tiles, including some overlaid with Chinese motifs, as well as delicate spiral abstract artwork inspired by the rhythms of salsa music, said Williams.
Friends describe Erickson as a man who loved good food, good music, a great round of golf or a day on a fishing boat.
He carried his creativity into ordinary life, said Ellen Grams, Erickson’s sister. She recalls her brother building a “whiffle ball baseball stadium” outside her home near Harris. “It had bleachers, outfield walls, advertising, and even lights for night games,” Grams laughed.
“He was always so much fun,” said Grams.
Erickson is survived by mother, Wanda Erickson of North Branch, brother Todd Erickson of Taylors Falls, and sister Ellen Grams of Superior, Wis.
A celebration of Erickson’s life will be held at 2 p.m. June 19 in the chapel of Concordia University. An exhibit of his work opens at 1 p.m. at the Concordia Art Center that day.