Clay Culture: Innovative Human

An exhibition of work by ten ceramic artists examines our impact on a changing environment, and asks us to examine how we can make a difference.

After 20 minutes’ ride along the Monongahela River, the bus pulled up to what our guide proudly identified as the first and last functioning steel mill around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This relic of a past era evoked nostalgia for a time when we made things and America was great, meaning we had buying power and financial security, but we also used rivers as toxic dumps and cargo highways. After snapping selfies with the still-pumping icon of the industrial revolution, we ceramic artists made our way into the exhibition across the street entitled “Anthropocene, The Innovative? Human.”

1 Brooke Noble’s Collateral Consequence, 20 ft. (6 m) in length, slip-cast porcelain, mixed media, 2008–present.

Acceptance and Adaptability

Artist, educator, and curator, Shanna Fliegel, gathered the works of ten ceramic artists compelled by climate catastrophe and the sixth mass extinction to create engaging and tender works that stare the apocalypse right in the face. Many clay people are notorious hippies, environmentally tuned in, literal dirt worshippers who, out of necessity, seek to form community in order to pool labor and share kilns. What few people outside the clay community know is how hard we work to maintain a clay habit—the physical brutality, the mental accommodation for unpredictability, the habitual acceptance of loss. “It’s only mud, we can make another” is our initiation and our mantra. What we value is know-how and process. These strike me as the very qualities best suited to the Anthropocene: acceptance and adaptability.

The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) found the perfect location for this exhibition in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Unsmoke Systems Gallery exists in the repurposed, formerly abandoned Catholic school in a town that, in its heyday, housed 30,000 unionized steel workers and whose population currently hovers at 3000. The space oozes intentionality and resilience. Entering the gallery, I was confronted by a mound of bird corpses piled on the floor, the cast and assembled porcelain works by Brooke Noble titled Collateral Consequence. I could not help but be reminded of entire populations of fish, mammals, and fowl dropping dead, sometimes literally falling out of the sky—killed by bacterial and viral infections proliferating in the warming climes of the Anthropocene.

2 Merrie Wright’s Switchback Landscape, a study of pale blue and teal, porcelain, mid-range glazes, 2017.

3 Crystal Morey’s A Vulnerable Paradigm of Wonder: Grey Wolf, 8½ in. (2 cm) in height, handbuilt porcelain, 2017.

Works of Anthropocene

James Barker’s works felt to me like archeological treasures laid out on dystopian flea market tarps, vessels of a misused past arranged amidst the bright red foliage of an alien invasive species. Lauren Skelly Bailey’s Constructing Awkward Beauty, a small community of coral or fungal structures, seemed to sprout from the gallery floor around a load-bearing pillar, bringing to mind both mycological community and a recollection of the bleached out and dying Great Barrier Reef. Almost as if offering an alternative to that irreplaceable ecosystem, Bailey’s poetic tableau Submerged suggests irradiated algae riddling a bit of space junk. Lisa Truax’s petri-dish-like wall sculptures of glazes mixed with locally collected materials feel like geologic or atmospheric samples taken from radically changed soils. Merrie Wright’s dainty sculptures of tenderly rendered and painted rubble Switchback Landscape ask: having broken the thing, how do we still love and reinvigorate it? The form is devastated, and the pieces cannot be put back together; instead, the shards are lovingly painted and arranged to serve a new purpose and composition.

4 Shanna Fliegel’s Math Will Save Us, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, stoneware, low-fire washes, glaze, slip, 2017.

Delicately reclining on a shelf, a palm-sized figure in porcelain by Crystal Morey titled A Vulnerable Paradigm of  Wonder: Grey Wolf, suggests a capacity for human hybridity or maybe human rewilding—an ecological practice that has healed landscapes, as famously happened in Yosemite when wolves were reintroduced. Morey’s figurine may be suggesting a wilding of our intellects; the she-wolf’s mane mutates into foliage and her fangs are bared, neither in howl nor snarl, but perhaps in song. Mel Griffin’s adorable creatures rendered in sgraffito and glaze onto clay tablature, with titles like Lonely Orangutan and Drowning Polar Bear, tug the heartstrings with cute anthropomorphism of wild beasts while reflecting the cruelty of undepicted humans as the cause of their isolation. Similarly rendered, Shanna Fliegel’s Math Will Save Us, a painted tableau of calculus and a tandem bicycle, could be interpreted as either prayer or cynicism. The tandem bicycle is unmanned and the handlebars possibly face in opposite directions.

Beauty in the Transition

All of the works in this exhibition suggest there will be beauty in the environmental transition, that we must seek it and connect with it. In finding it, may we fall continuously into the kind of love required to change our relationship with the planet. The exhibition statement asked us to imagine a planet absent of architecture, agriculture, and technology. There is a prevailing line of thought that we humans ruined everything and don’t deserve the planet anyway. I think this is a dangerous cop-out, primarily because it still maintains the perspective that we are separate from the Earth. I found in these works the avocation that we are uniquely entangled in a problem of geologic significance and proportion. The future is uncertain—we are at peak oil, we are at peak water, we are advancing furiously into the terrific predictions our brightest scientists predicted 40 some years ago at Exxon.

5 Lauren Skelly Bailey’s Constructing Awkward Beauty, porcelain, stoneware, slip, oxides, glaze, flock, resin, gold, 2017.

6 Lisa Truax’s Peripheral Vista, ceramic, glaze, locally collected materials, 2017.

And still, we love, we create, and we use clay.
Art still asks to be made and seen.

It is necessary to see ourselves as part of a collective and to understand that fundamentally, we are collaborating. We can rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic or we can work in service of a new story. We are brilliant, each of us having a vital and critical gift to bring to one another and to receive from one another. This is a how art can serve us, in generosity and ineffable connection.

the author Tara Daly is a San Francisco Bay Area artist. She is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and member of the Berkeley Potters’ Studio. To learn more, visit http://tarakdaly.com.

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