Richard “Dick” Wukich’s love of art started in high school, and it has since turned into a movement to support those in need locally and globally.
“It’s art to make positive social change,” Wukich, of Scott Township, Lawrence County, said of his work.
A retired Slippery Rock University art professor and founder of Potters Water Action Group, Wukich has shared some of his work with the Hoyt Center for the Arts in New Castle, where visitors can check out the “Art as Activism” exhibit through March 24.
He does mostly ceramic pottery, and the exhibit features a sample of his early works and newer pieces, some of which represent his nonprofit projects. Proceeds from the sale of his art benefit local charities that help with hunger and other issues, and providing clean water for third world countries.
At the heart of his work is the water filter project run by the Potters Water Action Group, which has chapters all over the world. Wukich is also the group’s international coordinator, and an SRU chapter is in the works.
“We have a simple solution that is doable,” Wukich said from his studio at Ithen Global, Grove City, where he’s been working on goblets for a Wine to Water fundraiser.
The group travels to small villages in countries including Nigeria, Haiti, Nepal, Sudan, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. They help the residents set up water filter factories and show them how to make ceramic pottery that serves as water filter receptacles.
Waterborne diseases kill about 5,000 people a day across the globe, and the group gives people the education and tools needed to maintain a supply of safe drinking water, Wukich said, adding that some of the people are already familiar with making pottery.
His love of pottery goes back to his art class at North Braddock High School taught by Charles Wilt, who inspired Wukich to pursue a career in teaching art.
Wukich’s parents, who didn’t finish high school, weren’t so sure that was the right career path for their son.
“The idea for me to be an art teacher was pretty radical,” he said.
Wukich recalls one day when the “brilliant” Wilt set up a kiln with some clay, and though he questioned it at first, he soon came to enjoy the challenge of mastering pottery.
He went on to graduate from Edinboro University with a bachelor of science in art education. The school didn’t have a “sophisticated” art program, but that didn’t stop him from practicing his craft and pushing himself to do his best.
Wukich learned many years ago that pottery is very physical and some struggle is necessary. To this day he has to remind himself to essentially work on autopilot, rather than interrupting the process to stop and think about what he’s doing.
Wukich, who also has a master of fine arts degree from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred, taught high school for a year before settling in at SRU, where he worked for 43 years, retiring in 2011. He started its ceramics program, and currently serves on the SRU board of trustees.
In 1999, Wukich took some of his students to Nicaragua to help communities rebuild after Hurricane Mitch.
It was then that Wukich became acquainted with Potters for Peace, a nonprofit that got its start with water filter work in Nicaragua.
“I was convinced that this was a thing of the future,” he said.
Ron Rivera of Potters for Peace visited Wukich in Slippery Rock several times, and Wukich eventually started his own group.
Rivera died from a lethal form of malaria he contracted in Nigeria, and both groups continue to work together to spread awareness of the need for safe drinking water.
“We picked up right where Ron left off,” Wukich said, adding that he’s also a member of Potters for Peace.
The Potters Water Action Group goes beyond simply teaching people how to make water filters. They explain how to market the product, ensure quality control, and practice good sanitary habits to help prevent the spread of waterborne illnesses.
According to the group’s website, the filter consists of a ceramic vessel made from a blend of local clay and a friable material like sawdust or rice husks.
The friable material is burned out and leaves micro-pores that filter out any particulate matter in the water.
Silver nanoparticles are then added to the filter, acting as antimicrobial agents. The filter is set is a 5-gallon bucket or large pot fitted with a spigot, and they have an active life of at least 24 months, depending on water quality.
Extensive testing has shown that the filters are 98 to 99.9 percent effective at eliminating waterborne bacteria.
The group partners with a variety of organizations to monitor the water filter projects.
Many people don’t realize that the water in their toilet is likely cleaner than the water used in third world countries, Wukich said. U.S. households waste a lot of water, and Wukich thinks twice before buying bottled water, especially since he has limestone springs and wells on his farm.
“My mother would be incredulous,” he said of imagining her reaction to bottled water.
About 70 percent of the earth is covered in water; 97 percent of that is saltwater and 3 percent is freshwater. Out of that 3 percent, roughly 1 percent is freshwater that can be consumed, though only .089 percent can be drunk without fear of getting sick, Wukich said.
“That’s not a lot of water,” he said.
He realizes he is lucky when it comes to having safe drinking water, and he’s glad that his group has the means to help those in need.
Villagers in Nigeria call him “Father Dick,” and he’s shared his food with starving children in South Darfur, Sudan. Helping folks in that area was one of the best experiences of his life.
Few roads were paved, and there was no lighting, but Wukich remembers watching the stars in the night sky and being surrounded by children who were excited to help with the pottery.
“It was exhilarating,” he said.
Back at home, Wukich and his wife of 45 years, Barbara, raise beef cattle and thoroughbred race horses. They have three children and three grandchildren.
He continues to help with Empty Bowls events; they’re held at area schools and feature soup bowls made by students, with the proceeds going to local food banks.
Wukich is planning the second annual International Water Filter Conference for SRU in 2018; he spearheaded the first in 2016.
He’s also working with former pottery students to develop the Slippery Rock Clayworks Collaborative. It will feature a commercial pot shop, water filter training center and open community studio.
The studio will offer classes and gallery space while raising awareness of and support for local issues.
“We have a thriving art community in this area,” he said.
Several of his students have started their own water filter projects, which makes him think back to his art class with Wilt. Wukich regrets that Wilt didn’t get to see what he started, though they did have a chance to catch up while Wukich taught at SRU, and a scholarship has been established in his name.
“I’d like a chance to say ‘thanks,’” Wukich said.
For more information about the Potters Water Action Group, visit www.potterswateractiongroup.org
The Hoyt Center for the Arts is located at 124 E. Leasure Ave., New Castle. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Info: Call 724-652-2882 or visit www.hoytartcenter.org