I recently participated in a panel discussion at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Ross Art Museum in Delaware, Ohio, for the exhibition, “Figuring Our Humanity” (through February 9). The show featured two-dimensional prints from the museum’s collection along with figurative ceramics by Jim Bowling, Sarah Hahn, Kyle and Kelly Phelps, Tara Polansky, Richard Swanson, Paul Wandless, and Janis Mars Wunderlich. At the panel discussion, several of the participating artists and I talked about the roots of individual creativity, approaches to figuration, and the enduring importance of making figures in (and on) clay as a form of artistic expression.
Prior to the panel discussion, I researched the past and present function of figuration in ceramics. Intriguingly, art historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists studying narrative and figurative works created by several civilizations (including the Ancient Greeks and the Maya peoples) emphasized that people from these cultures did not view the spiritual or mythical world as separate from that of everyday human life. Rather, these planes of existence were inextricably intertwined, with gods, mythical creatures, heroes, and everyday people coexisting.
Contemplating such a different worldview, and its influence on both artist and viewer, made me think about how contemporary ceramic artists develop a creative voice. There are a myriad of strategies, some of which we cover in this issue, including exploring fundamental differences in paradigms (like the separation or unity of the spiritual and physical worlds discussed above), questioning and analyzing existing perspectives or processes, meshing many distinct elements to create a unique whole, and mining the potential in liminal or in-between spaces.
Gerardo Monterrubio’s narrative work, which is featured on the cover of this issue, is created with layers of underglaze pencil drawings, brushwork, and overglazes. The images depict an amalgamation of characters from historical to contemporary, real to mythical, and everyday to legendary. Like ancient Mesoamerican and Greek ceramic vessels and sculptures, his narratives weave all of these seemingly disparate realms together. In this way, Monterrubio shares his personal experiences and perspective as an artist who is an immigrant, grew up in a devoutly spiritual family, acknowledges and challenges stereotypes, and confronts deeply rooted societal problems. The pieces he creates invite the viewer to investigate collages of vignettes, deciphering their distinct and interrelated meanings over time.
Exploring identity, cultural exchange, and handling materials in a way that asks viewers to slow down and observe closely so that meaning can unfold is also an important part of both Louise Deroualle and Sandy Lockwoods’ artistic processes. In the feature article on Deroualle’s work, Angela Youngman shares how the intricate, introspective surfaces of her sculptures are first created by layering slip over glazes and developed over multiple firings. Similarly, Lockwood’s focus on materials, process, and movement leads to nuanced objects that connect and ground her and her viewers to the natural environment.
Noticing their surroundings, as they are and as they change, has led both Mike Helke and Christopher Staley to interesting creative processes. Helke starts with recording, then refining an observation from daily life into a fundamental question that can be applied to the studio. He then sets about answering that question in clay. L Autumn Gnadinger observes that Christopher Staley’s process for creating a recent body of work included not only a focus on exploring fundamental form, but also on depicting things caught between easily defined states.
All of these approaches to creativity involve deep probing and questioning by the artists to distill what moves them to make, what they want to communicate, and how they can connect with others to create shared meaning.