The first sculpture Melissa McCormick created from clay was a telephone.
Ed Noonen remembers depicting a “punch-drunk” boxer.
This was when both artists were teenagers, before they moved to Lawrence, before they met and before they ever took a ceramics class. But as teenagers living in different cities, both learned of their affinity and talent for sculpting.
After they met in a ceramics class at KU in 1983, they never parted. Noonen earned his BFA in May 1985, and McCormick earned hers six months later. They bought a kiln, two wheels, a clay mixer and “lots of junk” they lugged from place to place as they struggled to manage both work and art.
They married in 1989 and spent their 20s working but not realizing their artistic or professional dreams.
“Having a free-flowing art career would have been too stressful,” Noonen says.
“We knew even then that it takes more than talent and even the love of art to make a career of it,” McCormick adds.
Both found work in food service, and wherever they moved they set up their wheels, wired the kiln and prepared to create — but they never found much time for ceramics.
“I kept telling myself I was working on my portfolio while I tended bar,” McCormick says. “But I wasn’t.”
Noonen was the first to discover a more fulfilling career when he joined Douglas County Fire & Medical in 1991.
“It allowed me to grow professionally while continuing to help people,” he says.
By 1998 McCormick had also discovered the career that would provide stability and security: pharmacy. “I made a list of the qualities I wanted in a job,” she says. “I wanted to help people, learn new things, do something with my mind, and work with the public.”
“Turns out she’s a science nerd,” Noonen adds.
“Oh stop!” McCormick says. “I just achieved goals I set for myself in a way I never did with art.”
The couple moved to west Lawrence in 1999 and continued to work in new careers. Noonen rose to the rank of lieutenant, and McCormick, after graduating with honors with her Doctor of Pharmacy, started working for Dillons. When McCormick’s father suffered a stroke, the couple brought him to their home, and gradually art became a thing of their past.
Within a period of three months, however, they lost McCormick’s grandmother, her father and a close friend. Later they lost Noonen’s father and a brother.
“I know it’s cliché, but after those deaths we realized how short life is,” Noonen says.
They discovered Lawrence Art Center’s open studio and realized how much they missed the fulfillment that art provided. Wanting ceramics to again be a part of their daily lives, they built a house and studio in 2008.
Although Noonen calls the studio “years of accumulated junk,” it would inspire any artist. New life was given to a sink from Dillons’ floral department, cabinets from former downtown restaurant Paradise Café, tables from the Sunflower Ammunition Plant and one fabricated from a bowling alley lane, and a granite wedging table from Warren-McElwain Funeral Home.
As for their art, these days McCormick is most interesting in exploring the relationship between the man-made and natural world. She is specifically interested in the images people use to depict nature as something holy at times and menacing at others.
She is preparing to enter an art show, her first since college.
Noonen’s art is more functional; he recently crafted a set of dishes as a wedding gift The works he is most proud of, however, are those that help families reflect on and celebrate their loved one’s lives.
He has made several urns, including for McCormick’s mother and for Lawrence’s longtime fire chief, Jim McSwain, who died in 2008. The urn had a prairie fire design and embossed bugle insignia.
Rachel McSwain said her husband wanted something for her and gave them free rein in the urn’s design, which included a phoenix on the top that McCormick designed.
“It is absolutely gorgeous,” she says. “A lot of thought and love went into it, and I am so grateful to have such a beautiful piece of artwork that would have meant a lot to Jim.”
“The thing about Melissa and me,” Noonen says, “is that we are a perfect complement to each other … We’ve had this life journey together, from buying our first kiln to caring for our parents, to being involved in the medical field …. We’re perfectly suited to share this studio because even though we express ourselves differently through clay, it’s complementary….That’s our life, a collaboration.”