Cocktail party is a work of art

Teaching artist Sergio Ceron guides sculptors at the Hyde Park Art Center. / Photo by Viqi French

It might just be the messiest cocktail party ever.

But when the Hyde Park Art Center hosts Cocktails and Clay from 8 p.m. to midnight every second Friday of the month, a wide swath of Chicago area residents come willing to test the combination of social and creative impulses.

Participants tour the galleries and groove to the sounds of a club music DJ or a jazz band. They sip wine and other beverages from the cash bar. And then, in small groups, they move into the center's ceramics studio.

One recent snowy evening, the event's guests trek in from as far away as Barrington, Naperville and Wilmette. 

They're a congenial bunch of mostly late twenty-somethings and a few forty-somethings, whose clay creations are as diverse as they are.

The event's teaching artist, Sergio Ceron, draws out the group's creative impulses by assigning the people at each work table a one-word concept to sculpt. 

From his mound of clay, a South Shore resident fashions a rotund, bearded man. When asked on whom he has based this rough-hewn image of "love" he explains that this is his vision of an African voodoo diety worshiped in Burkina Faso.

According to this affable clay-player, "lots of little old South Side ladies pray to Wiise for protection."

At another table, a trio of University of Chicago pre-med students tackle the theme "death." While slicing and piercing their projects, one giddily discusses his day at school. This was his first day slicing and piercing a cadaver, too. For this future doctor, the scalpel seems inescapable.

A demon sculpture by student Astrid Fingerhut at the Hyde Park Art Center's ceramic studio / Photo by Viqi French

At a third table, where "sex" is the theme, a man dubs his creation, "I Need A Little Head" - an effort that  yields something like the Beetlejuice character as a sex ogre.

His is the largest clay sculpture among the group and  attracts women from distant tables who present tiny heads of clay to attach.

When it is time to bring in a new group of sculptors, some participants have trouble tearing themselves away from their mushy projects, despite the sounds of music and partying that beckon from the art gallery.

Eventually they rise from their muddy tables and take turns washing their hands to return to the cocktail party outside. They leave behind a pile of amorphous clay creations.

None of the pieces will be dried, fired, glazed or taken home. Before the night is over, everything - and possibly everyone - is smashed. Clay is recycled for use by the next group.

The Hyde Park Art Center is at 5020 S. Cornell Ave. The suggested donation for participation in Cocktails and Clay is $15.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that this event begins at 8 p.m. and that participants are asked for a suggested donation of $15.