Ceil (Leeper) Sturdevant Retires After 40 Years at Ellis

For the past four decades, Ceil (Leeper) Sturdevant’s clay studio has been a safe haven for Ellis students. Tucked in the back corner of the Fine Arts Building with a “Caution: Pyros Within'' sign on the door, her room has been a sacred hideaway for scores of Ellis artists over the years who have discovered the beauty of molding and making within its walls. And while the studio holds significance to Ellisans, it’s really Ms. Sturdevant herself and the impact that her teaching style and talent have had on the entire community that will leave a lasting impression when she retires at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.
Ms. Sturdevant began her teaching career at Ellis in 1981 as a Lower School Art and Clay Teacher. She taught in the Lower School for two decades before focusing solely on ceramics, and under her leadership, it has become one of the most sought-after electives in the Upper School and one of the finest programs in the city of Pittsburgh. Scaffolded by age, Ms. Sturdevant’s curriculum was designed to meet students where they were, so novice ceramicists and advanced ones alike had the opportunity to build their confidence and develop their skills in her studio. Under her careful and skillful instruction, students learned how to hand-build and throw work on the potter’s wheel, make figurative, architectural, and vessel forms, and participate in alternative firings—something highly unusual for a high school program. 

Her classes were steeped in tradition and personal narratives, but throughout it all, Ms. Sturdevant’s focus was always on progress, not perfection. So much so, that if you ask any Ellis clay student, past or present, what they learned in her studio, one phrase you’re sure to hear repeatedly is “wabi-sabi.” A Japanese philosophy and aesthetic principle, wabi-sabi promotes finding beauty in imperfection and has served as the mantra for Ms. Sturdevant's clay classes.

“Ceil taught me one of the greatest lessons that I've carried forward in life: wabi-sabi. I imagine that I am one of the hundreds of alumnae who are lucky enough to remember her key lesson of finding beauty in imperfection,” shared Ellis alumna Alyssa TREMPUS Kinney ’07. “I cannot imagine that there is a student who doesn't feel impacted by the time they spent in her studio, feeling their own power to find beauty in what they were about to create, perfect or not.” 

One example of wabi-sabi in action is Ellis’ annual clay-firing celebration, Raku, which was started by Ms. Sturdevant over 30 years ago. The tradition has brought multiple generations of Ellis students together to fire their handmade clay pieces in the Raku kiln at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

“When you apply wabi-sabi to yourself, you realize that your own imperfections, your unique identity, and what makes you different from someone else, are what make you special,” Ms. Sturdevant said. “Art comes from the heart; it has to be something that’s important to the creator. Throughout my time at Ellis, I’ve watched students use art to connect with their identities and determine what’s important to them.”

It’s not only rich traditions like Raku that Ms. Sturdevant will leave behind; it’s her own artwork and the art of her students that grace the hallways, classrooms, and corner nooks of the School that will remain in her absence. From the Lower School to the Upper School, Ms. Sturdevant’s touch is everywhere you look at Ellis. It’s in the courtyard in the form of tiny ceramic birds hidden under the wisteria along the Lower School building; it’s in Alumnae Hall in the form of a Mayan and Japanese-inspired mural; it’s in the Upper School lobby in the form of a figurative sculpture she designed to mark the opening of the building. Ms. Sturdevant also made her mark outside of the art studio—she led mini-course trips to Belize, Japan, and Egypt and facilitated memorable experiences like working with ceramic archaeologists and exploring the Tokoname pottery trail.

A supremely talented figural sculptor in her own right, Ms. Sturdevant’s personal artistic practice developed at Ellis as well, in part thanks to her colleagues and the support of the Ellis administration. “Ellis helped me grow not only as a teacher but as an artist,” shared Ms. Sturdevant. “When I was younger, Ellis funded me to go to my first artist residency at Anderson Ranch. From then on, I would do a residency program most summers to hone my craft.” 

Since her first visit to Anderson Ranch, Ms. Sturdevant has participated in artist residencies across the globe, visiting places like Hungary, Japan, Mexico, and Greece to share her expertise and artistry. She has also exhibited her work, sat on artist panels, and delivered workshops and lectures both locally and internationally. 

“Ceil has made the school and the arts program at Ellis so much richer,” shared Linda Tonetti Dugan, Visual Arts Department Chair. “She is uplifting, positive, and kind. When students go into her room, they feel seen and supported. She creates alongside them and shows them that they too are artists. She has encouraged all of us in the art department to be more active in our own practice as well.”

Whether encouraging her students to explore new techniques in the studio or leading a tea ceremony at Raku, Ms. Sturdevant has inspired thousands of Ellisians to believe in themselves and their abilities. And thanks to her, the love and creativity that spills out of her studio, which decades of students have attested to, has spread to the whole school and is reflected in the creativity of her students and the gifts she leaves behind at Ellis.
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