WHITEMARSH -- Late last year, “The Queen’s Gambit” triggered widespread interest in the game of chess. The moody Netflix mini-series, adapted from Walter Tevis’ eponymous novel, sent chess-related sales skyrocketing. Participation in online chess games and audiences for tournaments boomed. The show’s impact reportedly surpassed the interest triggered by Bobby Fischer’s world chess championship win in 1972 and propelled 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 prodigy’s meteoric rise through the fiercely fraternalistic echelons of competitive chess, and she saw “the renewed interest in chess (as) strategic, stimulating and a good, inexpensive distraction from the world’s current mayhem.”

But Yates’ interest went beyond simply playing chess to the notion of creating a class on creating chess sets as part of WAC’s widely-respected ceramics program.

“Last fall, while I was planning the art center’s winter ceramics classes, I began watching ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’” Yates says. “I was reintroduced to the sculptural elements of chess sets and how the piece designs have their own interactive vocabulary and hierarchy. I thought that a chess set design course would enable students to create mini functional sculptures with distinct personalities.”

To that end, she enlisted artist Matthew Courtney to teach such a class and formatted the offering as an online course via Zoom with recorded tutorials. The series is scheduled to take place on three Mondays – March 1-15 – from 7 to 8 p.m., and basic tuition ($105-WAC members, $110-Whitemarsh Township residents, $115-non-residents) includes clay, underglazes and kiln firing at WAC headquarters, 100 Cedar Grove Road, Conshohocken. According to Yates, projects can be finished with tools “commonly found at home” – for example, sponges, pencils, plastic knives, forks and spoons, paint brushes and chopsticks.

She considers Courtney “the perfect instructor for such a course.”

“His work is often playful and draws from multiple world influences,” the WAC director says. “He does abstract forms and representational forms. Further, he seamlessly transitioned from teaching ceramics in person to teaching online.”

Courtney was on board from the start.

“(When) Hadley suggested I teach a short class on making a chess set…I immediately said ‘Yes, that’s a wonderful idea,’” he recalls. “It’s a nice format for all kinds of ideas. Students can make an abstract set like the one…(visual artist) Man Ray designed that’s made up of essential shapes like spheres, cubes and cones; they can make a set using the traditionally recognized pieces; or they can make a figurative set made up of tiny sculptures of people or architecture – maybe a set of the Philadelphia skyline with row houses for pawns, city 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 more experienced ceramics students” – in short, “a format that all levels of students can participate in.”

“A more advanced student may make a board that is both a box for storing the pieces and for playing on, and their pieces may be carved animals,” he elaborates. “A beginning student can make a simple flat board and choose an idea for the pieces that doesn’t require crazy skills to execute – maybe the Man Ray-style board.”

Regardless…

“Perhaps once the pandemic is over, students can bring their original chess sets to the art center and play a few celebratory rounds of chess in person,” Yates says. “I look forward to seeing the finished unique creations.”

Additional information about WAC’s March 1-15 Design Your Own Chess Set series or other classes is available at www.whitemarsharts.org and via email to office@whitemarsharts.org or phone call to 610-825-0917.

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