Art department undergoes changes


Liam H. Flake

Inge Balch helps senior art student Talon Strouhal with a glaze. This semester marks Balch’s final one at Baker.

Inge Balch, professor of art at Baker University, will be retiring after the spring 2022 semester. Balch has been a professor at Baker for the last 34 years and in that time has been responsible for the development and operation of the school’s ceramics program. Her departure will mark a transition in the studio art department and its major requirements.

Balch graduated from Kansas University in 1986 with a Masters of Fine Art in ceramics. In spite of signing on as a lecturer at Kansas University, Balch agreed in 1988 to teach at Baker University for what was initially intended to be a single semester.

In front of the building’s largest kiln, Balch adjusts a larger ceramics piece. (Liam H. Flake)

“The semester became 34 years and I have enjoyed it very much,” Balch said. “Gonna miss those darn students.”

Balch describes that when she arrived at Baker, the existing art program was substantially different from what it looks like today. The art department moved around many times, with painting being located in the basement of the gym at one point. 

This era marked what Balch refers to as the “heyday” of the ceramics department, with students sleeping overnight on the floors of Bennett Hall while working on projects.

Programs offered included textiles, printmaking and some metals. Since that time, however, Balch explains that the art program has become more of a luxury than a necessity in the school’s educational priorities. Eventually, Bennett Hall housed only Balch’s classes: ceramics and one section of Visual Language.

Senior art student Saigen Conrad dusts off a piece. Conrad and Strouhal will have pieces in an art exhibition in the Holt Russell gallery. (Liam H. Flake)

Among Balch’s proudest accomplishments in her career was the operation of the Orton Cone Box Show, an international event that featured pieces that fit in 3x3x6 inch boxes. Balch ran the event for 25 years, both at Baker and later out of her own residence. She cites that the show made Baker University internationally known in ceramics.

Balch says that one of the biggest drawbacks of her time at Baker was the building itself. When Balch signed on in 1988, she says she was promised a new building. 

“This building was only built to last for 20 years until the new art building was built,” Balch said. “It’s like living in a coal mine. Silicosis of the lungs, from all the dust.” 

Balch describes that the problem comes from the lack of ventilation, which becomes problematic due to the byproducts of the using the kiln. This becomes hazardous for lung health in long-term exposure, which can be seen in the discoloration of the walls. 

However, despite recurring plans for new buildings, finances for such projects never came through and Bennett remains home to these programs. 

Despite this, Balch asserts the most rewarding part of her career is the students. Among these students is Senior Talon Strouhal, who is majoring in Studio Art. Strouhal describes that Blach has provided her with solid support and education over the last four years. 

Strouhal works on glazing ceramics. (Liam H. Flake)

“I just love being around Inge. She reminds me of my grandma and it is just a really great interaction when I am around her,” Strouhal said. 

Sophomore Aaliyah Bueno is completing an independent study in ceramics under Balch. 

“I thought she was very wise and witty when I first met her,” Bueno said. “I definitely loved how honest she was with art and how she told you the truth without worrying about hurting your feelings.”

Balch’s to-the-point approach is a trait that is appreciated by many in her classes, including Strouhal. 

“[Balch] is very straightforward. She definitely tells you how it is but that’s what I love about her,” Strouhal said. 

With Balch’s departure, the Studio Art program faces unprecedented change. According to the department chair, Joe Watson, the school department has elected not to replace her with another ceramics instructor, choosing instead to instate an artist in residence program. 

“We are going to give that a go. We are going to see how it feels,” Watson said.

A selection of pieces from the Orton Cone Box Show can be found in three cases on the third floor of the Collins Library. (Liam H. Flake)

The program will employ different artists each year, each with a different specialty who will teach both classes in their own area as well as general education courses. 

Additionally, the artist in residence would complete their own work and work towards a show in the Holt-Russell gallery. One potential instructor for next semester is an artist who specializes in graphic novels and comics. 

“I think it’s really an exciting opportunity to expose our students to different kinds of art,” Watson said.

Bennett Hall, Watson states, will be available for the visiting scholar’s use if desired. All present ceramic equipment will remain with the potential for future use. Additionally, Studio Art major requirements have been adjusted to better allow course substitutions for current Studio Art majors.

Though Balch will be leaving campus this spring, her legacy will continue on through Bennett Hall and the impact she has made on the department.