A Clay-Filled Life for One Ford Modeler

Mar 18, 2021

March is Women’s History Month. The Ford design group is commemorating this by featuring a weekly profile series focusing on women clay modelers. With their subtle expertise, artistic touch and meticulous attention to detail, these women bring a unique set of skills and experience to their craft at Ford.

Now a Ford clay modeler, Anna Burke arrived in Detroit knowing no one in the area. It was a daunting experience joining a company in a new area of the country and doing it alone. But her role at Ford allowed Burke to meet others as passionate about clay as she is, and she slowly found her footing in Detroit’s vibrant art scene.

Originally from upstate New York, Burke was always a hands-on, artistic person who remembers taking as many art classes as she possibly could in grade school. Eventually, she migrated toward 3D art, working with plaster and clay. This led to an interest in ceramics after high school, so Burke attended New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

It wasn’t until Ford recruiters arrived at Alfred University looking for sculptors that Burke found out clay could go beyond pottery and tableware.

“I didn’t know you could make cars of clay at the time,” said Burke. “Even the professors were fascinated when Ford brought in 4/10th-scale clays of Mustang and F-150.”

She was introduced to cars at an early age and remembers going to car shows with her dad. So the recruiting event had her revisiting her car-filled childhood, and she asked former Ford modeling manager Lloyd Vandenbrink all kinds of questions about the design studio. One was how many women worked as clay modelers there, to which Vandenbrink replied, “Not enough.”

Burke decided that needed to change, and she turned in her portfolio to Vandenbrink, which led to a three-month summer internship. Now, she’s a full-time clay modeler with more than three years under her belt. She has worked on programs such as the 2021 F-150, an upcoming small pickup and next-generation F-Series Super Duty.

To ensure she is continuously learning and keeping her skills sharp, Burke preaches “staying in the clay.” That first involved volunteer work, like cleaning out clay ovens and serving as a teaching assistant at Lawrence Tech University. Since 2019, she has been a night class professor there teaching clay surface development.

Clay is a major part of Burke’s life at home, as well. She joined Glastonbury Collective in 2017, and lives at the old stone home-turned-art studio in the Rosedale Park community of Detroit. Arriving from New York, she quickly made friends with other clay modelers who are members of the art collective, and when they needed another roommate, she saw an opportunity to continue her passion for clay modeling at home. Glastonbury Collective has a home studio in the basement, with kilns, clay wheels and a woodshop. Living here with other sculptors and creatives allows for endless conversations and critiques of clay practice, from fine art to industrial applications.

The work is different at the art collective, creating vessels, mugs and other types of pottery, versus the clay model shaping Burke does at Ford, but each has its own challenges.

“What I love about clay modeling is that it’s problem-solving with your hands,” said Burke. “You’re solving problems in 3D, and it’s much more efficient to make changes on the fly with clay than with other types of materials.”