In October, Yellowstone Art Museum Education Director Linda Ewert invited me to participate in an art program at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, Montana. This would be the most challenging and rewarding community I had yet engaged in a Guardian Monster Workshop.
Forms for entry into prison quickly invoked a sobering reality. “In the event of a hostage scenario the volunteer acknowledges they will be subject to the same protocols as prison employees.” Wait. What? Am I expendable? Workshop participants are named as “offenders”. You suddenly become aware of how pointy every clay tool is.
Then the day arrives. All the paperwork has been filled out and approved. Sitting outside the prison gates waiting for 8AM, re-reading the last minute protocol reminders, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I was so eager to find out what the next two days would hold. When I pressed the buzzer on the intercom for entry I was greeted warmly. Ewert arrived too and we set about arranging furniture and distributing supplies.
As the women began to enter the room the non-verbal dialogue was fascinating, deafening, and then liberating. Liberating because there was no way we could manage everything going on in that room. We had no idea what their walks had been, what demons they fight. More than once I thought, “There but for grace, go I.”
The first job as a group was to establish a baseline for the duality within the idea of monster. We began our conversation by collaborating on a bank of words to describe monster: scary, mean, slimey, dark, huge, funny. Then we talked about what the physical manifestations of the descriptors might look like, resulting in a list of: horns, claws, scales, sharp teeth, etc. Now we confront the inquiry, “What does a claw actually do? What is the job function performed by sharp teeth?” The answers reveal the duality, a duality all people are familiar with, but a duality we forget. The duality of monster is one of those pieces of wisdom lodged in folds of our mind. If we keep getting shamed for using our claws, we lose sight of the fact that the claws are protecting something. Finally, I asked the women to take time to write down the job they needed their Guardian Monster to do.
Here’s a hard thing to keep in mind: The objects made in the workshops cannot be kept by the participants. The work may be on display within the prison for them to see and enjoy and take pride in, but they cannot possess the object.
The women take the intention and wad it into a larger ball of paper. This is the infrastructure for them to wrap clay around. We talk about how the heat of the kiln will meld the intention into the clay body. The details, textures, expressions, and stories they create span the breadth of human emotions.
The next time we met we entered into a darker conversation. Where the Guardian Monsters are meant to amplify the inner voice of our better selves, on the second day we confronted the Shadow Monster–the destructive side of monsters’ duality, with the intention of casting it out. The Shadow Monsters were grim, raw, dark, and finished so quickly I wondered if they were just making them to appease me. Until I read them.
I carried the Shadow Monsters away and destroyed them. On the banks of Rock Creek, I broke each bone dry Shadow Monster against the rocks. I named each fear aloud and dismissed it before burning the paper armatures. I told them I would kill these Shadow Monsters. And I did.
The gratitude, intuition, elegant savvy, and humanity they shared over the course of those two days was a gift. I was then and remain impressed by their creative agility and their ready access to the thin membrane between imagination and reality.
Jill Foote-Hutton lives in Red Lodge, MT where she runs Whistlepig Studio, LLC. This January she will be a Visiting Artist at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, FL. If you’d like to read the unabridged version of the prison workshop visit her blog.
Listening to stories of David Peters I’ve often wondered where the boundary is between ardent investigator and dogmatic zealot. For those standing outside the circle of wood fire (of which I am one) it is easy to tick the box marked “zealot” when stories of week-long firings, laborious reclamation processes, hours on bended knees, and sleepless nights roll out with seemingly obligatory cups of whiskey.
Any earnest maker, taken as an individual, regardless of their chosen process has a unique and engaging tale to tell. Actually neither description fully encompasses his practice. Ardent investigator makes him sound too analytical. Organized pragmatism is certainly part of the picture, but it is far from the full alchemy that is Peters. And dogmatic zealot is just beyond the pale. The only dogma he comes close to invoking is an epithet from his father, a wood worker, and a matriarchal lineage of accomplished seamstresses. You see he is one of the fortunate who grew up surrounded by people making things, instilling in him a moral code about making, “If you’re not gonna do it right, don’t do it at all.” It is a code I feel safe assuming all professional craft artists have heard and can get behind.
His personal creed, the soundtrack in his head, seems to go something like this, “You make things because you love making things, but you also make it WELL because that’s just what you do. You are making objects and putting them into the world and they should be done right. People who do so have a deep love and passion for the object and for what the object brings into daily life.” When you hear words like this spoken with conviction, clarity rabbits in, spotlighting the error of the question posed. Neither option is accurate.
Peters has always had a desire to go deeper, and anyone who has looked at his practice or talked with him knows it is true when he says he is, “…passionately in love with learning and discovery.” He starts down a path of exploration, of poking around to see what potentials he can find. On that journey he gets inspired, learns something new, thus setting off another path of exploration. “Next thing you know, I’m driving all over Montana digging clay.” This kind of quality curiosity earned him one of the Emerging Artist accolades from NCECA.
Peters has never blindly repeated a hollow story of tradition. Rather he asked relevant questions only a maker entranced by tradition, while rooted in modernity could ask:
What impact has the democracy of industry had on contemporary ceramics, the genre of wood firing specifically?
How can local materials exploit the volatile interactions of wood and clay?
What technology is available today and how can it positively impact my process, from design through the firing?
Questions that led him to learning Rhino and using computer-aided drafting to design forms at various scale; forms giving him the most real estate on which to record the atmosphere of the kiln. A kiln designed and subsequently loaded with the use of CAD. Mapping his results in CAD allowed him to maximize atmospheric results and holding capacity. I would encourage anyone interested in wood firing who has not read Peters’ thesis to do so, and not because of the solutions he finds. Rather I would encourage you to read it, because of the questions he poses.
This characteristic–the ability to ask, his insatiable curiosity–led me to an entirely new interpretation of Peters as a maker. It struck me that he is as self-reflexive as Cervantes was in penning Don Quixote. Peters always seems to be aware of his windmills, but it doesn’t stop him from embracing them. At his core, Quixote was a reformer, and he was not limited by pre-existing paradigms. And so Peters acknowledges his process has been quixotic, which allows for extreme romanticism and visionary goals. Unlike Quixote, Peters recognizes his labor intensive process cannot carry on indefinitely.
“I just turned 34 in January. I have a bum knee and a shoulder with what I think is a torn rotator cuff. I think I’m feeling my [mortality] and I need to start paying attention to my health and to my sense of well-being, not just making things. And sacrificing all to do that. I think there was a time and a place for that and I think I learned a lot from it and am reaping the benefits of it, but I also think I can’t stay on that trajectory. The reason I feel torn about it is because I do realize people appreciate [the work]. People see the work getting a certain level of notoriety. They see the work in exhibitions. They see the work selling. But the actual financial and physical reality of the situation is often a mystery to other people.”
And there is so much more I want to tell you about how the quality level of inquiry from Peters is redefining his future. I want to tell you about the conversation he had with Kurt Weiser who told him, “We’ve all gotta work Dave,” as they discussed a more viable earning style.
But blog posts are not New Yorker articles.
Suffice it to say, Peters is asking himself how the wood fired aesthetic can be redefined through the design process and how investing in design as a “day job” can support his more romantic notions of local clays in a wood fired atmosphere. He and Mel Griffin are in the research and design phase of custom tiles with an eye toward industrial production. Pursuing opportunities beyond the handmade and beyond the ceramic community, he was just awarded Northern Clay Center’s Warren MacKenzie Advancement Award Grant to study ram press technology with Mark Pharis. After a week-and-a-half spent on mold making they cranked out 75 mortar and pestles in two hours.
Peters believes quality has many guises, “You can make a really bad teapot and it’s made by hand. And you can make a really good teapot and it’s mass produced. I think it’s more about the quality of the choices you make and the parameters you set up for yourself in terms of the design.” Check out a recent film short produced with Peters as the focus. It’s called Clay and it was created by MSU Bozeman Senior Zane Clampett. You won’t be sorry, it’s well worth the eight-minutes and then some.
I would like to bring this article and this year of blog posts full circle. Even within our tight knit world of ceramics there are factions. This is not news I’m sure. It has been my objective to not quantify the work of the 2014 Emerging Artists. I believe any maker working at their level is earnest about making good work. Rather I sought to present portraits of these individuals and pull away some assumptions. It has been more than a pleasure to get to know them. It has been a little like getting to talk to the subject of my favorite autobiography. All defied and expanded upon my expectations. So, I encourage you to have a conversation with someone outside of your genre this year in Providence. Maybe you’ll find another quixotic sucker, just like the one you see in the mirror each day.
Earlier this week while working on a commissioned jar for kombucha…
I was mid-coil, bent over the cylinder, with my nose buried in the scent of wet clay. Honestly, the essence of muddy water emanating from the humid core of the vessel was intoxicating. It might sound melodramatic, but that makes it no less true. I kept putting my nose back over the top so I could smell the wet clay again.
It seems to me our community is full of stories about the alluring first touch of clay, yet somehow the other senses get short shrift. The smell of wet clay immediately took me back to playing in the mud on the banks of the lake where I was raised. That smell is youth and home and long afternoons with my sister covered in lake mud from head to toe. I can’t say I put two and two together in my first official ceramic class, but the connection crashes into me in mid-life nostalgia.
It is two-fold.
First, I want to focus our attention on the ability clay has to captivate our imaginations through all of our senses, turning every ceramist and ceramic lover into a synesthete. Second, I am laying groundwork to acknowledge how soundly Renee Brown taps into the same level of excitement, awakening our imaginations by indulging our visual sense.
This Friday, “Profusion”, Brown’s first solo museum show opened at the Missoula Art Museum. The installation was inspired by a trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It was there where Brown had something of a sublime experience, walking anonymously in the shadows, mesmerized by the exhibition of mineral specimens. “It was beautiful and womb-like. Everything was painted deep red, EVERYTHING. The only lights were pinspots on the specimens. You walked into this space and you disappeared as the viewer.”
She has recreated this experience for her viewers. A bit of targeted sensory deprivation through a unifying, cave-like backdrop allows the field of vision to be flooded with Brown’s fantastical eye candy.
She makes annual pilgrimages to Tucson to immerse herself in the Gem And Mineral Show that overtakes the city. It is the largest display of its kind in the nation and the second largest in the world. “I’ve stopped taking pictures, because it’s overwhelming.”
She spends up to five days observing and absorbing, trusting that the accumulated data will come out of her subconscious back in the studio. And it certainly seems to. The jewel of “Profusion” is an eight-foot wall composition, the largest work Brown has undertaken. It is an explosion of invented growth. Radiating lichenite, a mineral of Brown’s own imagining, is edged in gold and infused with turquoise and violet hues. Thick, geometric plates in pale yellow interrupt the circular lichenite fans asymmetrically; while botryoidal forms, rendered in glass, bubble forward luring the viewer in to gaze at the treasures just beneath the surface.
Somehow, unlike other ceramic sculpture inspired by the natural world, Brown’s interpretations of nature are so over-the-top, so SUPER NORMAL, they tend to awaken the five-year-old geologist in us all. Perhaps this is because the minerals inspiring her creations are the minerals employed to make the very material she is working with? But a visceral response to this symmetry can’t be all it is. Viewers, regardless of their backgrounds are lured in with their eyes like crows to a ruby. The visual impulse is so strong they NEED to touch the work. (The museum docents will have their work cut out for them.) Perhaps the attraction is so strong because Brown employs whatever material she needs to achieve the imitative effect she is after. Crushed glass, encaustic, wood, acrylic—all materials are fair game, so long as they serve the work. Perhaps, on the whole, the audience is not used to seeing this section of nature, the mineral world, in this magnitude. It takes effort to unearth these colors, textures, and shapes from the ground and Brown has unleashed an amplified version, putting the viewer on unsteady footing.
This is the moment she cherishes, when a viewer can’t quite process what is real and what is fantasy.
“In that moment, that look-it’s-something-shiny-childhood-moment, everything has stopped for them.”
The exhibition will be up until June 20, 2015, so if you are in the region this summer visit the Missoula Art Museum website for their hours and put it on your schedule. Otherwise, you can keep up to date with the work of Renee Brown by visiting her website: reneebrownceramics.com. To read more about the exhibition check out “Renee Brown’s ‘Profusion’ of Ceramics” published in the Missoulian and “Science Glam” in the Missoula Independent.
Adam Shiverdecker’s body of work presents a unique opportunity to consider the role of the artist. Any work of art, taken as a singular object, is like contemplating one measure without the context of the entire melody. And, usually that is the slice we are given as the audience of visual art. Perhaps it is the pursuit OF context that keeps us, the audience, excited, researching a maker, pursuing their evolution and watching the symphony unfold over time. But what is the other side of that quest? Is a maker pleased to have baited us enough to follow him to the next refrain or is he fighting the compulsion to share the entire overture? Is that even possible? How ready are the audience and/or the maker, at any given moment to engage in an active dialogue? Of course there are levels, and depending on the perspective/mood of the maker/audience, we may be engaging very different conversations at any given moment.
The first Shiverdecker object I encountered was an amphora at the Bray in 2011. The form immediately took me to that quiet, nostalgic place in my head where I covet relics and decay. The grid of wire defined the infrastructure of the amphora. Clay remnants clung to the grid—just fractured memories. On that day, the conversation I engaged with the amphora was ephemeral and poetic.
It was during this residency at the Bray that Shiverdecker posed an academic question for himself and spun the wheel of random selection to focus on a particular form. He landed on the amphora, seeing it as the diner mug of antiquity. The amphora’s ubiquitousness extends beyond its origin point, retaining the ability to draw an audience in to many conversations.
If one wishes to approach from a purely formal vantage point, one may. The amphora has provided a backdrop rooted in the foundational history of western culture where Shiverdecker has toyed with several visual devices. The grid, most often realized as a wire support structure has, in other renderings, morphed into fat, segmented coils that dominate the form while other times the grid fades to faintly map the surface of the amphora, a plotting grid thrown over recognizable topography meant to systematically control the viewer’s gaze.
From here, if one wishes to open the door to ethical conversations one may because the grid, as a mapping device, quickly connects to another form Shiverdecker utilizes: the drone. Thrusting his audience forward through history and technological advances, we consider another gaze entirely, the gaze that watches all of us. He pushes the comparison between the two cultures further along with drawings of Grecian warriors alongside modern military vessels upon the vessel. Until at last time is inconceivably compressed when he takes these objects off the surface of the amphora and realizes them in space. A fleet of submarines, drones, fighter planes, and Grecian urns loom in the phantom space Shiverdecker has created for us, a term he applies to his installations suggesting he wants us to feel the pain of the memory of loss his leviathans carry with them.
At any point, the viewer is free to retreat (or never advance) and relish the methodical process the maker has developed, enabling him to realize improbable feats of scale and texture in his objects. At any point, the viewer is welcomed to languish in the beautiful sleekness of the forms. Shiverdecker certainly did in his last exhibition at Greenwich House Pottery with a shelf of deliciously polished porcelain urns, meticulously meditated over with tone-on-tone markings.
For symmetry, let’s get back to thinking about the role of the artist. Because Shiverdecker would like to help us imagine, “…what would happen if the entire military arsenal were simply pushed into the ocean.” His renderings are one consequence for us to ponder, but they open the door to consider others.
Throughout the making process an artist has several conversations going in his own mind at any given time. The participants in the discussion rotate through the personas and perspectives within the maker’s imagination. Beginning as a cacophony, the conversation is slowly edited into identifiable refrains. The process requires examination and labor. More labor and re-examination. Eventually there will be room for an audience to engage in the conversation too, but then the initiating conversant, the maker, must release control of the lead.
At this point it’s useful to turn to our old friend Henry Sayre, who defined four roles of the artist in the text “World of Art”.
- Produce a record
- Express emotions in a tangible or visible manner
- Reveal universal and hidden truths
- Show the world from a new vantage point
More often than not, these roles overlap in a beautiful and eloquent tangle. Shiverdecker is producing a record of American Exceptionalism as he re-imagines over investment in myriad military vessels. His work casts a backward glancing spotlight on the universal truth that is human competition for dominance. The process he uses renders this truth with tangible melancholy as he imagines a future world where these vessels are nothing more than relics. He does all of this while drawing our attentions to gridded structures and surface planes divided by color and texture. He leaves the door open for us to pick up the conversation where we are so inclined.
Keep an eye out for new work this fall at the Clay Art Center, details can be found at www.adamshiverdecker.com. Most recently, Adam was part of the panel discussion, “Clay Crosses Over” at the recent College Art Association Conference in New York. Currently Adam is the Studio and Fabrications Manager at Greenwich House Pottery.
Confident posture. Direct gaze. An assured knowing her handshake will be firm. The word TRUE comes to mind. TRUE in the sense of direction or plumb. While “earthy” is not an apt description, “grounded” certainly is. Lauren Mabry is a bright, young smile giving us a crooked wink. Her works have been placed alongside Peter Voulkos, Richard Notkin, and Steven Young Lee in American Art Collector. Her work has been paired in exhibition with Shen-Chen, a classically trained and contemporarily minimalist Chinese Landscape painter with a lifetime of experience behind him. She most recently followed in the footsteps of Don Reitz when she was invited to participate in Mission Clay Products Arts & Industry Collaboration. Next month she will have a solo exhibition at Belger Crane Yard in Kansas City and her works are already in notable museum collections.
The field of ceramics certainly seems to be celebrating Mabry’s efforts. And yet, I fear this is one of those times when the subtle lack of confidence embedded in the field has the potential to, at best, slow her down. At worst, it could become hazardous dead weight limiting her trajectories. Let’s not be the good friend on rhythm guitar, strumming out “we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy”, keeping the band from signing the big contract. I’m concerned because there seems to be a growing pattern of leaning too heavily on labeling Mabry’s objects “painterly” and inattention to generating contextual responses. Except once. American Art Collector did place her in a continuum.
I encountered this problem over and over and over again.
Is it her youth? The lack of time on the continuum?
Here’s the thing—this young artist has not only had the limelight fall on her in a fleeting gesture; she has managed to keep the momentum rolling. Since she is working so hard, the least we could do when writing about her work, is see it in a broader context and celebrate the uniquely ceramic traits, including in our conversations a broader historic timeline. Time to stop instinctually tacking “painterly” on as unnecessary, limiting baggage.
If we are going to create parallels with painting, let’s get more specific. Mabry handles glaze like Eugene Delacroix handles paint in his sketches, but he always remained more attached to a form than Mabry ever does. Perhaps Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold is a better comparison? And we would have to zoom in tight to Monet’s Blue Water Lilies to get the same effect Mabry creates. Actually, isn’t that exactly what we do, standing in front of impressionist work, force ourselves as close to the painting as is allowed in order to be engulfed in the depth of color and brush marks? Mabry has pulled us in already, enabling a deeper inspection of color interaction because she is painting with melt rather than mimicking it.
Paint can only interpret what is an intrinsic quality of glaze. Mabry capitalizes on this and attracts her audience the same way Ron Nagle draws our attention to a hazy, tense line between colors upon his forms. We are familiar with Lisa Orr’s unapologetic squawking of glaze chemistry. Mabry chimes in on the conversation Orr is having, but she removes the complexity of utility. Utility becomes a ghost. She has distilled the vessel to the curve. If she didn’t need a form to hang glaze on, utility would only be an honored memory. Yet she hangs on to the curve, employing the invisible centripetal force to keep her focused.
Dipping way back into the annals of ceramic history, we could look to Mayan cylinders. The well-preserved originals, unlike Mabry’s cylinders, are matrices for representational illustrations. However, both use the cylinder to move a viewer around a curve without beginning or end, leaving the concept of time and space open to interpretation. The comparison becomes more evident when the Mayan illustrations are abstracted by the erosive hand of time.
Mabry enjoys pulling us around the curve of a cylinder and pushing us away. The vessel has provided a baseline for her to reinterpret the interactivity inherent in utilitarian objects.
Ultimately, this is not an in depth review. It is a plea to resist pigeonholing Mabry’s contributions so soon and to encourage a deeper mining of her objects. She can take it. She is plumb. To see her career unfolding is to marvel at her apt navigation of success. She is effortless on the way round a steep and, potentially, unforgiving curve.
For Mabry, it is a curve dripping with potential and depth.
Keep up with her schedule a www.laurenmabry.com and take some time review her growing archive. After the Belger Crane Yard exhibition, the following dates are on the docket:
Group exhibition with Giselle Hicks and Kathy Erteman
Santa Fe Clay- Santa Fe NM
April 17- May 30
Group Exhibition with Peter Pincus and Michael Fujita
Opening: Sun March 22
Closing: Sat May 2
location New Art Center in Newton, MA