UM ceramics professor wins prestigious $50,000 arts fellowship

By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian | Posted: Monday, December 14, 2009 11:50 pm

buy this photo Missoula artist and University of Montana ceramics professor Beth Lo puts the finishing touches on a new sculpture late last week in her home studio. On Sunday, she and her husband, David Horgan, traveled to Los Angeles, where Lo was presented with a $50,000 grant from United States Artists. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian



For three months, Beth Lo has sat on a $50,000 secret. On Monday night, the celebrated Missoula artist could finally explain that twinkle in her eye to friends and colleagues, when California-based United States Artists publicly announced that Lo had been named one of its 2009 USA Fellows.

“It’s been hard having to keep this secret for so long,” grinned Lo late last week in an interview with the Missoulian. “But at least it was a good secret to have to keep.”

In the American arts world, there are few more prestigious honors than the 50 fellowships doled out annually by United States Artists, a four-year-old organization founded jointly by some of the biggest names in cultural philanthropy, including the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Prudential Foundation, and the Rasmuson Foundation.

Awards are given annually to artists from across the visual, literary and performing arts. Recipients are nominated through an anonymous process. Lo said that, as of last week, she had no idea who had nominated her for the award.

“It was a complete surprise,” she said of learning, late last spring, that she had been nominated. “I was thrilled just to be nominated for something like this. I thought it was a long shot, but you can’t turn something like that down, so I went ahead and filled out the application.”

Lo submitted photographs of 10 of her recent works, along with essays explaining her artistic focus. In September, she received a letter telling her she had received the award.

On Monday night at a celebration in Los Angeles, Lo and the other 2009 fellowship recipients were scheduled to be presented with the $50,000, unrestricted grants.

While the award is the biggest yet – financially, at least – for Lo, she was hardly an undiscovered talent. After receiving her MFA from the University of Montana in 1974, Lo went on to teach at UM and exhibit her ceramic work around the United States. Her work has been exhibited at the International Sculpture Objects & Functional Art Fair  in New York and Chicago, and she received a fellowship for visual art from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994. She is also a past recipient of a Montana Arts Council Individual Artist Award.

Lo employs traditional Asian techniques such as calligraphy and origami, and borrows themes from more contemporary forms including souvenirs and toys to create her playful, refined sculptures.

“As much as this is a great financial reward, it’s also a huge affirmation or sense of confidence-boost that my decision-making process is good and my worldview is good and I should keep on doing what I do,” said Lo.

United States Artists “believes that society will get something back from supporting the arts in this way, and I certainly feel an obligation to do what I can to honor that and fulfill my part.”

United States Artists was originally founded in response to an Urban Institute study showing that while 96 percent of Americans appreciate the arts, only 27 percent believe that artists contribute to the good of society.

“Artists fuel the nation’s cultural vitality and illuminate the issues and complexities of our time,” said Susan V. Berresford, USA board chair and former president of the Ford Foundation, in a prepared statement announcing Lo’s award. “Yet many of our country’s finest artists struggle to make ends meet. Now more than ever, we need a resource like United States Artists to invest in working artists and promote their contributions to society.”

Lo said she’s not sure, yet, what she’ll do with the grant money.

“I think I’m going to be fairly deliberate and slow about making a decision, but I have several things I’d like to do,” said Lo, listing possible travel to China or Europe among her professional aims, as well as the completion of some children’s books on which she’s been working.

Then again, maybe she’ll use some of the money to finally install a proper kiln at her home studio in the Rattlesnake Valley.

“When we put this studio together, we built a pad for the kiln, but never were able to afford the kiln itself,” said Lo. “It’s nice to think that we could finally do that.”

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, or on