David J. Tischfield ’09

Ceramics is normally a field dominated by women,” notes David J. Tischfield ’09. “I get known as the pottery guy.” A Neurobiology concentrator in Leverett House, Tischfield is one of two winners of the Louise Donovan Award, which is presented to those who have been influential behind the scenes in the arts at Harvard College. Tischfield has produced the “Clay All Night” pottery event for the last three years, teaches four classes every year in the Ceramics Program’s satellite-studio in Quincy House, and frequently exhibits his own work on and off campus.

David’s interest in ceramics began early, and he cites his high school ceramics teacher and a pottery-enthusiast neighbor as his greatest influences. “I lived in my neighbor’s pottery studio and threw on the wheel obsessively,” David says.

When he was 16 he worked as an assistant in his high school ceramics studio: “My teacher really tried to foster my growth as a ceramics artist.” His neighbor, a dentist by trade, taught him not only the fundamentals of pot-making but the science behind firing kilns, making glazes, and forming clay bodies—skills seldom taught in typical classes but that are essential to the art of ceramics. David also picked up rare methods, like raku, a Japanese technique where the clay is baked in an outdoor bonfire instead of a traditional kiln so that it acquires a metallic, earthy sheen.

Finding similarly passionate potters was more difficult upon arriving at Harvard. “There are no other undergrads quite as involved as I am,” he says, “but I hope to change that.” He fosters undergraduate excitement about ceramics by producing “Clay All Night,” an all-night biannual event where he teaches students to use the pottery wheel and model clay. He has also demonstrated pot-making techniques for archeology classes and has shown his own work at art shows around campus and in Boston art galleries.

Surprisingly, his love of ceramics has played into his chosen field of neurobiology: “You need an artistic eye to do a lot of the science, because so much of what you see under the microscope needs to be transferred clearly onto paper.”

But there is also a practical, physical element. “My hand skills have developed,” he says. “I have become extremely good at doing surgeries and other lab techniques, like putting really thin brain sections onto slides and injecting embryonic cells with needles that are 50 microns wide.”

For Tischfield, ceramics have also facilitated forays into entrepreneurship and community service. Besides teaching volunteer workshops for SPARK, an after school program in Boston for inner-city youth, he works on “La Casas de Experanza,” a micro-enterprise project aimed at helping develop the slums of La Prusia, near Grenada, Nicaragua, by giving them the means to support themselves in an independent, sustainable way.

“I’m researching environmentally conscious kiln options and developing a business model,” he says. “As of now, it’s basically 200 families living in shacks of tin and wood on the side of dirt paths, but that is beginning to change.”

Upon graduation, Tischfield is going to continue to run the Ceramics Program’s studio as a non-resident tutor in Quincy—after he spends the summer at what Tischfield calls “the Harvard of ceramics” in Jingdezhen, China. He has received a fellowship to study in Jingdezhen, a village of 325,000 craftsmen and artists built on the site of a 2000-year-old porcelain-producing factory famous for its tradition of flawless pottery.

“Ceramics is something I’m always going to do,” Tischfield says. “I’m definitely going to have a kiln in my backyard. I can totally see myself doing what my neighbor did—being a 45-year-old doctor, coming home after work, lighting a cigar, turning on the radio, and throwing some awesome pots.”