When Tom Alward was in third grade, he wrote a letter to his future self to open when he graduated from high school. “I hope that someday I’ll be an artist,” he wrote.

Alward is making great strides toward that dream as one of only 10 students nationwide to be awarded a $15,000 Windgate Fellowship from the University of North Carolina’s Center for Craft, Creativity and Design.

Alward, 25, who graduated from Northern Arizona University last week with a ceramics degree, will use the funds to travel for three months in Australia, visiting studios of famous wood-firing potters. It will also help support his year-long artist residency at the Clay Studio of Missoula in Montana.

Nearly 90 students from 65 universities applied for the fellowship, which supports academic research and scholarship to increase the amount and improve the quality of student and faculty studies on arts and cultural issues. Students are awarded on the basis of artistic merit, the future promise of the individual’s work, and the potential for the applicants to make contributions to the advancement of their field.

Growing up in Prescott, Alward was surrounded by a family of artists. His grandmother was a potter and his mother is a quilter. His dad was a glass blower and now owns a bike shop, an art form in and of itself, Alward explained.

“Ceramics called to me and was intriguing,” he said, explaining how his art is heavily inspired by nature and draws on the subtleties and contrasts of ridged and rough textures. He pays close attention to the “contact zones,” such as where water meets earth, and emulates those distinctions using native clays and glazes.

Vase

Wheel-thrown stoneware clay, wood fired with natural ash glaze and coloration, by Tom Alward

“I really like the closeness to your medium when you go dig it up yourself,” Alward said. “You can explore with things and discover new particularities of a certain area. Also, you’re not consuming as much—you’re not being as commercial.”

While a student at NAU, Alward was awarded a grant to build a small, experimental kiln on campus using recycled materials and based on Japanese design principles.

Alward said going to Australia will be an “invaluable experience” where he can learn about real-life studio art and practices while observing the different stance that the country has on ceramics.

“I’m excited about pursuing an ‘alternative’ education after the traditional one,” Alward said. “I hope to further improve my work and perspective in the continuation of a life with clay. I’ve found what I want to do and can’t turn back.”