Nell COX Yates ’02, Visual Arts Educator and Owner of Birdhouse Ceramics

It’s no exaggeration to say that Nell COX Yates ’02 sees art everywhere. A secondary art educator since 2009, Nell has spent the past 17 years working with students of all ages and sharing her love of ceramics and 3D design in a variety of studio settings. From serving as the Visual Arts Department Chair at Viewpoint School to owning and managing Birdhouse Ceramics, a small-batch pottery studio, out of her home in California, this lifer has made a colorful career out of a passion that was sparked in Ellis’ own art studios.
Years at Ellis:
Kindergarten to Grade 12
B.A. English and Studio Art, University of New Hampshire; M.Ed. Art Education, Lewis and Clark College
Ventura, CA
Visual Arts Educator and Owner of Birdhouse Ceramics

Where did your love for art begin?
My love of art definitely began at Ellis in Ceil Leeper Sturdevant’s Lower School art class. She gave us an amazing opportunity to explore our creative process at such a young age, and I fell deeply in love with creating and getting messy very early on. Later, in Sara Sturdevant’s Art in Society class, I was opened up to the idea of art history and conceptual art. I remember being a 16-year-old, wandering through the International exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and never having felt so alive as I looked at and analyzed the various artistic expressions in front of me. I was hooked! 

What’s an experience or accomplishment that had a significant impact on you?
When I was in college I worked as an intern with a professional potter. I spent four years working in his studio, arranging his art shows, welding metal stands for pottery, and building kilns. I went from being a student in the arts to suddenly being catapulted into the art world. It was incredibly empowering and gave me the confidence I needed to stay in the field. 

What’s something you learned about the visual arts at Ellis that you find yourself sharing with your own students today?
At the beginning, it’s all about process and exposure. Of course the final product is rewarding, but investing yourself in the process each day and exposing yourself to new experiences, classes, and techniques will give you the skills that you need to really explore the materials in front of you. This foundation taught me to really push myself and helped me flourish in my love for experimentation. 

What is your favorite memory of Ellis?
Oh wow, there are so many. I would definitely highlight the Raku firings that we did yearly and the wood firing that we did my senior year. Both of these experiences helped to motivate me in art beyond the walls of the classroom and really showed me the power of experiential education. Also, getting to see my Class of 2002 classmates every day! I really took that for granted.

What’s a lesson you learned or a skill you developed at Ellis that you find especially valuable?
The power of listening. Throughout Ellis, I always had teachers that would take the time to sit down and listen to me. I wasn’t always having an easy time, but I knew that I had the support of my teachers and friends, and that made all the difference.
At Ellis, students are encouraged to be changemakers. In what ways do you think you’re a changemaker?
I’d like to think I am a changemaker in the lives of my students. I find so much joy in helping them find their creative paths in life or even just giving them a space where they can create something with their hands and get away from the craziness of life. Being a teenager in today’s world and managing the amount of societal and academic pressures they have can be overwhelming. I hope my classes can provide a space where they can find something new about themselves and breathe a little deeper.

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a student?
I think I would tell her to believe in the process. It often feels so hard, but through it all you learn so much about who you are and what you want out of life. This is something I still tell myself every day, but I know I needed to hear it when I was young.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Mindful, committed, empathetic. 

If you could invite any three people from throughout history, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would you choose and why?
  1. My grandmother, Frances. She was an artist and oil painter and died before I was born. I’d love to talk to her about art and motherhood and how she used her creative process to push herself forward.
  2. Karen Karnes, an absolutely groundbreaking female potter from the mid-twentieth century whose parents were Polish/Jewish immigrants.
  3. My daughter, Ada, 15 years from now. An activist, artist, and creator right now at age eight, I can’t wait to hear what she has done to change the world around her.