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.
In our fast-paced world full of cross-country and even cross-world communications via the world wide web, there are a few who find deep connections in the terra firma. David Peters embraces the earth as a partner in the creation of his work. He utilizes geological survey maps and other tools to find deposits of clay throughout Montana, prepares these clays for pottery use, and then makes ware utilizing traditional methods. Hear David describe his complete process during his Emerging Artist presentation at the 2014 conference in Milwaukee.
“i spend many of my days beyond the reach of digital communication tools.”
In contrast to the changing seasons, currently in the mode of closing another chapter of life, 2014 Emerging Artist Mel Griffin has been opening one. Planting seeds with deliberate and thoughtful choices, Griffin has stepped away from a peripatetic life and stepped into ownership of a new home and studio. After two years at the Archie Bray Foundation, she is permanently staking her claim in Helena, Montana.
Carefully considered decision making is engrained in Griffin. If you happened to catch her interviews on Ben Carter’s, “Tales of a Red Clay Rambler” or read her demonstration article from the March 2013 Ceramics Monthly, you would have certainly grasped a sense of this deliberateness. It is a trait she credits her father with instilling, and a trait, which led her to re-assess the model of the village potter. She witnessed a successful model as an apprentice some time ago, working for a traditional, production potter who created a thriving market desirous of handmade goods.
“Then the internet happened.”
The model she apprenticed under was blown apart.
Since that time Griffin has struck a balance between organic and methodical investigations of new frameworks for her studio practice. She has observed and, in turn, defined, her practice with an elegant, self-reflective sense of authorship.
Many craft artists have been considering similar questions for over a decade. Large portions of craft artists are also deliberately thoughtful types. Certainly, more than one ceramic artist has decided to stake their claim in Helena, Montana.
So what sets Griffin apart within a stratum of like-minded makers?
Well, her deliberateness and self-reflection set her apart when she articulates her passion for drawing. In her approach to drawing we can see a reflection of how she has, overtime, not only deconstructed her process, but also deconstructed her studio practice. It is also possible to see, plainly, the parallels of material investigation inherent to paper and clay in her hands. She is refreshingly bold when she admits to capitalizing on the meditative qualities of production pottery to support her drawing, the primary focus of her practice. In a statement made during her interview with Carter, Griffin made harsh assertions regarding the quality of her cups, prompting the question, “Why not just draw on paper?”
It’s not the first time she has entertained the query. “If I’m going to draw on a piece of paper, I have to be interested in the paper itself.”
When this particular lens of inquiry is widened, reframing the question to ask instead about her favorite substrate for making marks–there we will find Griffin inspired by clay. “In drawing you are using line variation to generate mass and in painting you are using blocks of color to build, so it’s two different things. I don’t paint with clay. I draw with clay. It’s just this simple.”
She cited an interview with Molly Hatch from the podcast “After the Jump”, wherein Hatch stated that drawing was at the origin of all of her work. Griffin identifies, “For her [drawing] is the same thing. One of the things she does with [drawing] is make pots, and that’s the way I feel about it. I like to make pottery. I like the way it enters peoples’ lives. All the things people say they like about pots? I like it too!”
And so her substrate is decided, but the substrate is never the defining factor. Through hundreds of drawings she finds a surface. Then from her repertoire of forms, which is getting pared to an ever-exclusive roster these days, she decides what will best serve the surface.
Griffin arrived at her current process–surface before form–through a series of encounters over the course of her evolution as an artist. At the risk of over simplifying, it seems to be a repeated series of steps: exposure, practice, reflection, cull, implement. Drawing is one of her a natural aptitudes, but her deliberate self-reflection led her to ask what about drawing was most alluring and how could she capture the essence of her subject matter. She asks how can those drawings be realized in a way that is accessible to the largest audience. She affirms the spirit of the drawn mark through repetition with equally expressive gestures in the pinched rim of a form in earthenware. She is paring down the inventory of forms she draws on because her process has led her to see that tiles insert themselves into domestic spaces just as readily as a cereal bowl. She also gives a nod to Forrest Lesch-Middleton, for being a lodestar in regard to commercializing contemporary ceramic tile.
From hundreds of drawings, a handful of animals will make the journey from observation, to translation through marks onto the surface of a form. From her new studio, she will develop the most efficient way she can find to produce substrate: tile or platter or bowl. In her new home she will continue to run everyday, a meditative practice to awaken her body to new observations in an ever-changing landscape under the wide Montana sky. And, because she loves pots and the community that has supported her opportunities for deliberate self-reflection, she will continue to make them.
Keep up with her latest offerings at MelGriffinCeramics.com, and if you haven’t already give these two podcasts a listen while you happily toil away in your studio. Tales of a Red Clay Rambler, Episode 31 and Episode 35
2014 was an exciting year for the Arts/Industry program. Not only did we celebrate our 40th Anniversary with a sweeping retrospective exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and a well-attended opening celebration, but we also had many opportunities to work with the NCECA Milwaukee conference!
The Arts Center partnered with NCECA to offer a special preconference tour of the Arts/Industry studios at Kohler Co. and of the exhibition Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation. It is always a pleasure to give group tours of the Arts/Industry factory studios and introduce visitors to the artists-in-residence, but never more so than when we have an interested and engaged audience. We also hosted an NCECA bus tour of the Kohler Design Center and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and we were part of the 2014 Collector’s tour, led by Leslie Ferrin.
The Arts Center offered NCECA members free admission to the opening of Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation, and we were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response of conference attendees ready and willing to make the drive from Milwaukee to Sheboygan after a busy week of workshops, exhibitions, and lectures. Thank you! We were thrilled to see so many of our alumni, friends, and supporters.
Arts/Industry also partnered with NCECA on the 2014 emerging artist awards by offering a residency to an NCECA emerging artist. We are pleased to announce that David Eichelberger will be an Arts/Industry artist-in-residence during summer 2015. David was formerly an artist-in-residence at Penland School of Crafts and is currently teaching in Floyd, Virginia.
In some ways, we wish that the NCECA annual conference could always happen in Milwaukee so that Arts/Industry could be geographically nearby, but we are looking forward to being in Providence in 2015. Please stop at our resource table to learn more about the many opportunities the residency program offers.
Although Arts/Industry: Collaboration and Revelation, the exhibition, has completed its run, the companion book of the same name is available in both hard and soft cover. The volume covers the history of the program from the perspective of its founder, Ruth DeYoung Kohler. It also includes essays by Arts/Industry alumni and hundreds of gorgeous photographs of work produced by the artists-in-residence! You can purchase the book online at www.jmkacstore.org
In a 46-minute performance talk, Artist, Theaster Gates will present a new work that traces the creation of several artistic narratives that point to the rich and dynamic possibility of clay within his larger practice. The Need for Blackness suggests that there is a need for a more critical examination of the histories of black legacies within Ceramic traditions. Using collections of images that he has gathered from the Museum of the Art Institute, the University of Chicago and found images of clay, The Need For Blackness, will explore the complexities of clay and race within the contemporary art canon, craft traditions and the so called Minor Arts. Gates will be accompanied by Yaw Agyeman, principle vocalist for Gates’ performance ensemble, Black Monks of Mississippi. Thanks to the Chipstone Foundation for their generous support of this keynote presentation.
NCECA is excited to announce the revival of our podcast! This season premiers with an episode recorded live at the 2014 Conference in Milwaukee. Igniting the Workshop Circuit, a popular panel led by moderator Tommy Frank with panelists Linda Arbuckle, Bill Griffith & Sandi Pierantozzi is available directly on the web here, or you can subscribe to it in iTunes and get new content delivered directly to you. We have lots more exciting episodes coming up, so tune in!