The Venus: A Legacy in Clay

Venus, 4 ft. (1.2 m) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6, 2017. Photo: Erin Shafkind.

I visited George Rodriguez in his studio shortly before his 2017 solo show for Foster/White Gallery in Seattle, Washington. A piece that stood out amongst his sculptures was The Venus. A couple of weeks before the opening she was built but still wet clay. He talked about the stress of working at the eleventh hour, but this is how the process goes sometimes. Not ideal, but reality.

When I gazed at her I was struck. I was appalled and fell in love at the same time. She had exaggerated genitalia, nipples, and buttocks. I wondered whether it was okay for a man to make this type of representation. Was I appalled because of my own body issues? I saw the immediate relationship to the Venus of Willendorf, who I imagine, at around four inches tall, would fit in the palm of my hand. Rodriguez’ Venus by comparison is big and heavy, yet sweet; standing at around four feet high. Her stylized hair buttons, components of Rodriguez’ style, related to the small Venus. He loves ornament and floral decoration, and yet this sculpture is simplified in contrast to his other pieces. Usually his figures include wider color ranges and have a lot more sprigs attached. The sides of her body were adorned sparingly with jewel sprigs. Her face is a version of Rodriguez’ own. He’s been using his face on sculptures since 2004 and created a press mold in 2011 for his Rodriguez series. His Venus is tenderly holding a baby who fits snug under a breast and is cradled by her arms, mimicking the Venus of Willendorf’s body position but in a pose of mother with child. She’s not only fertile, she is nourishing, she is life and love.

The limestone carving of The Venus of Willendorf was discovered in 1908 near the village of Willendorf in Austria and is estimated to have been made 30,000 years ago. This expanse of time places her beyond our ability to know with certainty why she was made.

Art history books and classes, like all history, are premised upon a prevalent set of theories and perspectives. The ones I learned were primarily from a Western European slant. We saw Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and his Olympia, and other Odalisques, famous armless women like Venus de Milo and The Winged Victory. I was curious about the reverence for these objects and how armless symbols of women reinforce subliminal ideas regarding helplessness and submission. These memories are important to what I saw not only in my art history class, but also contemporary expectations when it comes to the female body.

All of this brings me back to Rodriguez’ sculpture. A four-foot-tall Venus with large breasts and genitalia who holds a suckling baby. Rodriguez and I talked about what he referenced in terms of how women have been represented throughout art history, as well as how their bodies have been and are viewed, along with peoples’ views of acts like breastfeeding in public and what that means for us culturally today. Deliberately using his own face, acknowledging his process as self and human exploration, Rodriguez takes on a complex set of personae. I believe all art is self-portraiture, whether your actual likeness is in there or not and Rodriguez owns this. By making pieces that are himself and at the same time are icons, other genders, other races—other in general—he actually helps to acknowledge our humanity within his sculptures.

1 Venus, 4 ft. (1.2 m) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6, 2017.

2 Venus (alternate view), 4 ft. (1.2 m) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 6, 2017. Photos: Erin Shafkind.

“Will she be glazed?” I asked. “No,” he said, “She is finished, just the clay body unglazed.” Venus is made from Akio, a strong, architectural clay body from Tacoma’s Clay Art Center that works very well for large-scale sculpture, and was originally formulated for artist Akio Takamori.

Takamori, a sculptor who worked primarily in clay creating large-scale figures and pots, and who began teaching at the University of Washington (UW) in 1993, had long been an inspiration for Rodriguez. Part of Rodriguez’ application to the UW, where he attended graduate school from 2007–09, was a piece called Ring around the Rosy, which had several of his inspirations dancing together, one of whom was Takamori. Not only would Takamori be Rodriguez’ mentor, but he would become his friend as well. Takamori passed away in January of 2017, but his body of work remains a rich source of inspiration in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

For his Venus, Rodriguez added red iron oxide to the Akio clay body to darken her skin. The baby’s lighter skin tone is the clay body’s natural color. The baby suckles the iron-earth mother.

Before I left the studio, Rodriguez asked me to help put Venus and another piece into the kiln. This was no simple thing, but Rodriguez was relaxed and his calm nature eased my anxieties. My brain screamed, “Oh my gosh, what if I BREAK this piece!” He told me where to put my hands and how to shift my weight. I held my breath. “These little parts down here might break, no big deal if they do,” he said. And one did! But it was on his side—phew. He spit on it and pressed it back into place. Ceramic artists know about breaks, cracks, and the inevitable. Constant failure and success are rolled into the process. Rodriguez has said, “I usually make every piece twice.” I’ve adopted this as a mantra while making my work and tell it to my students frequently.

We don’t know the truth about the Venus of Willendorf; art historians and anthropologists posit theories about why the figure was made and there have been discoveries of several other Venus forms. Even calling them Venus is an interesting take on Western civilization and Roman mythology. Rodriguez’ Venus joins this family of icons as a symbol of art history and its powerful legacy of representation and meaning, or perhaps mistaken Western representation and meaning.

In the gallery, Venus was surrounded in an aura of her stability and timelessness, comforting in her iron-rich beauty and exclaiming, “Mother, inspiration, art object, sculpture!” She stands so bold and certain. She took my breath away differently than when I helped load her into the kiln. She was legacy wrapped in clay. A figure made from the clay body developed by a man who was a mentor to so many others. She is a nurturer. A woman. A form. Powerful and shameless in her stance, she radiates raw earth and ground from a craft person’s hand.

She is no one’s and everyone’s Venus.

the author Erin Shafkind is an artist and educator in Seattle, Washington. Learn more: www.erinshafkind.com, Instagram: @eshaffy.

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