|Grossmont College ceramics technician Al Ventura|
Grossmont College ceramics technician Al Ventura gets a thrill out of watching students discover the magic of creating art.
It brings back memories of his first turn at the potter’s wheel and the community college instructor who took him under his wings back in the ‘70s.
As the ceramics tech at Grossmont College, Ventura is the go-to guy for mixing glazes, making stains, and firing, maintaining and repairing 11 electric and nine gas kilns. It is often a laborious and dirty job, which explains the workman’s attire and apron. But Ventura is doing what he loves: sharing the knowledge that comes from 30 years of working with ceramics and witnessing the excitement of students throwing and glazing their first pottery.
Ventura’s devotion to his job and students hasn’t gone unnoticed. He recently was honored as the latest recipient of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Chancellor/Classified Senate Award, a commendation presented quarterly to outstanding staff.
He was nominated by sculpture technician Tom Fox, who praised Ventura for his rapport with students and outreach efforts, both on and off campus. Ventura’s annual jurying of the San Diego County Fair’s Student Art Showcase sparked an idea to elicit the help of Grossmont College students to design and paint the 8-by-20-foot mural that has been welcoming visitors to the Del Mar showcase since 2005, each year with a different theme.
Another outreach effort involving Ventura is the college’s Veterans Art Project, which each Friday gives military veterans a chance to spend a day in the ceramics studio to possibly benefit from art therapy. Counselor Mary Rider obtained the college grant funding the project.
“It’s a creative outlet for returning war veterans – no grades, no pressure – just a way for them to learn ceramics and share time with other vets who have been through the same kind of experiences that they have,” Ventura said.
At the Jan. 17 Governing Board meeting, Ventura was presented with an engraved award, along with a gift certificate from Barnes & Noble and lunch with district Chancellor Cindy L. Miles and Governing Board President Bill Garrett. Prior to the award presentation, a conga line of well-wishers surprised the Southeast San Diego resident, who also works part-time in the ceramics programs at two other community colleges. Ventura came to Grossmont College in 1993 as a part-time lab assistant before leaving in 1995 to accept a position at San Diego Job Corps, teaching art to teens and young adults for 10 years.
In 2005, Ventura was hired back at Grossmont College as a full-time lab tech. In the six years he’s held the job, Ventura has worked hard to improve the facilities housing the ceramics program, from refurbishing and organizing a dedicated area for glazing to building storage shelves to accommodate the needs of the steadily growing classes.
These days, Ventura does the prep work for five classes, each with between 30 and 40 students.
“I really love to work hard, to feel productive,” Ventura said about his hectic life that also includes an occasional venture back in the ceramics studio for some creative time of his own.
With a lifelong interest in art, the East Los Angeles native initially wanted to get into package design as he headed to Cerritos College, a community college in the suburbs of LA, but a time conflict led him to taking a ceramics class instead.
“Once I touched the clay, I never looked back,” said Ventura, a tall, affable sort whose double-pierced earrings and salt-and-pepper hair tied in a ponytail hint of an iconoclastic nature. “It was like being a kid again playing with clay.”
He dreamed of a professional career as a ceramic artist, continuing his training at Otis Art Institute, a leading art college in LA and working as a production potter in the studio of his Cerritos College mentor. But with three children to raise, he eventually took a job as a maintenance mechanic welder for Sears, a position he held for 22 years until the 1992 LA riots linked to the beating of Rodney King prompted the relocation of the Sears plant.
It was then he made the move to San Diego to try his hand at a full-time career in ceramics. At first, he continued traveling back to LA for jobs here and there, mostly assisting established artists in the area. But the more hours he spent working at the three San Diego region community colleges, the more he found himself relishing the time he spent helping students.
“Maybe it’s because I grew up in East LA that I’m able to connect with students like those at Job Corps and community colleges – students facing challenges and who have a lot going on in their lives,” he said.
Whatever the reason, Grossmont College benefits hugely from the dedication of workers like Ventura.
“Al’s contributions to the district are very deeply felt by everyone,” Chancellor Miles said. “We are blessed to have such hardworking, committed people serving the students, colleges and the district.”