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.