Graig Mantle

Last weekend’s Throwfest, an annual event sponsored by the Craft Center, marked an anniversary of sorts for Nicole Balvanz.

At this time last February, then-freshman Balvanz was simply a volunteer for the event. But that was enough to hook her. A year later, she’s moving on up, now serving as a student manager for the center, and next quarter she will add ceramics instructor to her credentials.

“I kind of fell in love with it and haven’t left,” she said.

Upon entering Cal Poly as an art and design major, Balvanz had intentions of getting a first-class art education. And that’s what she has been getting – just not as expected. After taking a couple of studio classes, Balvanz realized that these classes were not what she expected them to be.

“I felt like the art was forced. I didn’t realize that there was going to be such a set curriculum,” she said. “I definitely liked (the major), but I wasn’t thrilled with the studio classes.”

So she switched to biology, a subject that has always interested her and that she did well in during high school.

But art has remained a big part of her life: She is still taking art classes, though as a minor, she is less confined to the curriculum.

And then there’s the Craft Center.

“I do more art now with the Craft Center than I did (with the art and design major) before,” she said.

Balvanz got her start in ceramics her sophomore year of high school, when a passionate art teacher instilled the love she had for the craft into her students. It has been a four-year love affair ever since.

“It’s a relief from other things. It’s definitely a challenge, and that’s why I enjoy it. It never gets old; there’s always room for creativity,” Balvanz said.

“I also like the fact that it’s a whole process. You throw the clay, trim it and then glaze it. You never know what it’s going to look like until it comes out of the kiln, so it’s really rewarding when a piece turns out good.”

Last year, wanting to keep ceramics up, Balvanz signed up for a class at the Craft Center. After hanging around the center through her class – and then volunteering at Throwfest – Balvanz decided to apply as a ceramics instructor, even though they weren’t hiring for the position at the time. Other student managers encouraged her to apply for the managerial position, though, and the rest is recent history.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of time spent at the center, but I enjoy it, especially because it’s on campus and I can kind of set my own hours,” she said.

She works about 20 hours a week, scheduling her hours around the time she has available. Next quarter, she will also begin teaching others the fine art of ceramics.

“I’m really excited. I’m definitely used to instructing people through workshops and Throwfest,” she said. “I’m really passionate about it, so that makes it easier to teach ceramics to others. It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m ready for it.”

And then there’s her quirky, fun personality that people seem to be drawn to. Fellow manager Matthew Burch, an industrial engineering junior, described Balvanz as a “totally random, outgoing person, who would do anything for her friends.”

Some examples: hosting an ’80s waffle-themed party, dressing up in spandex and going climbing at Poly Escapes for manager training, hunting raccoons on her roof and donning a dinosaur costume for a caveman party.

Whatever the case may be, Burch said, “she’s always at the center of randomness.”

“I don’t have much downtime during the week, but my weekends are always fun,” Balvanz explained. “I enjoy doing fun stuff with friends as opposed to going out and getting trashed at a party where I don’t know anyone.”

Her self-described craziest recent adventure was Throwfest.

Spending over 24 hours at the Craft Center (she was there from 9 a.m. Friday until 4 p.m. on Saturday) and leaving completely covered in clay, Balvanz stayed true to her character: working hard, but having fun in the process.

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