WHITEMARSH – Late last year, The Queen’s Gambit sparked widespread interest in chess. The capricious Netflix miniseries, adapted from Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, rocketed sales related to chess. Participation in online chess games and the audience for tournaments were booming. The show’s impact reportedly surpassed the interest generated by Bobby Fischer’s 1972 World Chess Championship win, and brought actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who played protagonist Beth Harmon, to international fame.
Whitemarsh Art Center director Hadley Yates was among the millions who watched the fictional child prodigy’s meteoric rise through the fraternal levels of competitive chess, and she saw “the renewed interest in chess (as) strategic, stimulating and a good, inexpensive one Distraction from the world’s current chaos. “
Yates’ interest went beyond just playing chess, however, and was in creating a chess-making class as part of WAC’s widely recognized ceramics program.
“Last fall, when I was planning the art center’s winter pottery classes, I went to ‘The Queen’s Gambit’,” says Yates. “I was reintroduced to the sculptural elements of chess games and how the piece designs have their own interactive vocabulary and hierarchy. I thought that taking a chess game design course would allow students to create mini functional sculptures with different personalities. “
To this end, she hired artist Matthew Courtney to teach such a class and formatted the offering as an online course via Zoom with recorded tutorials. The series takes place on three Mondays (March 1st to 15th) from 7pm to 8pm. Basic tuition ($ 105 for WAC members, $ 110 for Whitemarsh Township residents, $ 115 for non-residents) includes clay, underglaze, and kiln firing at WAC headquarters, 100 Cedar Grove Road, Conshohocken. According to Yates, projects can be completed with tools “often found at home” – such as sponges, pencils, plastic knives, forks and spoons, brushes and chopsticks.
She considers Courtney “the perfect instructor for such a course”.
“His work is often playful and based on different world influences,” says the WAC director. “He makes abstract forms and forms of representation. He also switched seamlessly from in-person ceramic classes to online classes. “
Courtney was on board from the start.
“(When) Hadley suggested that I teach a short chess making class … I immediately said, ‘Yeah, that’s a wonderful idea,'” he recalls. “It’s a nice format for all kinds of ideas. Students can create an abstract set like this … (visual artist) Man Ray created a design that consists of essential shapes such as spheres, cubes and cones. You can make a set out of the traditionally recognized pieces. or they can make a figurative set of tiny sculptures of people or architecture – perhaps a set of the Philadelphia skyline with row houses for farmers, town hall for the queen, and the new Comcast building for the king. “
Courtney agrees with Yates that the course “is ideal for both beginners and experienced ceramic students” – in short, “a format all levels of students can attend”.
“An advanced student can make a board that is both a box to hold the pieces and play with, and their pieces can be carved animals,” he explains. “A beginner can make a simple flat board and pick an idea for the pieces that don’t require crazy skill to execute – maybe the Man Ray style board.”
“Perhaps after the pandemic, students can take their original chess games to the arts center and play a few festive rounds of chess in person,” says Yates. “I look forward to seeing the finished unique creations.”
For more information about the WAC “Design Your Own Chess Set” series or other classes from March 1st to 15th, please visit www.whitemarsharts.org and email [email protected] or call 610-825- 0917.