Faculty Profile: Reinterpreting human sexuality through art

Photo by Nicole Smith.

Cattle rancher, ceramist, volunteer firefighter, father and more, Dean Adams is a modern renaissance man.

Born in San Francisco but raised in Billings, he is an MSU faculty member who has been teaching in Bozeman since 2001. Many students may recognize his name from foundation art classes, or maybe from his internationally recognized, slightly controversial ceramics collections.

One of his most famous collections is composed of chickens and birds with heads shaped like penises. While one might imagine vulgar and shocking images of male genitalia, the pieces are beautifully made with rich and bright colors, beautifully sculpted feathers and features, and tastefully simple heads.

When asked about the collection, Adams spoke about his childhood as the son of a therapist whose specialty was working with rape survivors. This led him to become confused about the role of sexuality in our culture at an early age.

“I thought that all men were rapists, and in a heterosexual sense, by association, all women were victims,” he said. “As I hit puberty I was terrified of my own sexuality.” This misconception led him to spend much of his life figuring out sexuality and its place in America.

In contemporary media, and traditional American culture, Adams described media interpretation of male sexuality as being “exemplified by aggressive male behavior, and by violence, through negative interpretations.”

The chicken pieces contradict that interpretation as playful representations of something that Americans have demonized and overly sexualized for hundreds of years. The viewer is meant to look at the object as something that is neither significant, nor vulgar, but a beautiful part of everyday life.

Adams has also been instrumental in orchestrating other important projects like the International Wild Clay research project and Montana Clay, which focuses on harvesting local clay from the surrounding mountains and plains of Montana. The clay has rich and unique textures that one cannot find anywhere else in the world.

Part of the appeal to working with local clay is that it is different, Adams said, and there is something special about using a pot made of clay that was harvested and thrown in the area in which you live. He described it as a puzzle to work out the difficulties of the clay. With the new clay there are unknowns such as new kiln temperatures, glazing and many other issues that a ceramist encounters on a day-to-day basis.

Whether through harvesting clay or making penis sculptures, Adams is a fascinating person and an important part of MSU’s faculty.  Whether you are taking his class or would like to hear funny puns about bird peckers, Dean Adams is the man to meet on campus.