Ceramics Monthly: Why did you focus on the historic El Camino Real Route between Catholic missions for an outdoor installation?

Jenni Ward: I had been researching umbel flower structures (an umbrella shaped flower) for a body of work and came upon a story about the wild mustard plants of California. The story has many variations; most are believed to be folklore, but the basic premise is that the padres (priests) who formed the missions left behind a trail of mustard seeds as they traveled from Mexico through California so that bright yellow mustard flowers would mark the path between each mission for the 600-mile pilgrimage. I loved the idea of being able to track your path through the wilds of the world by following a color. This image stuck with me. While wild mustard flowers are not the umbel-shaped forms I’d been researching, I loved this story so much I decided to combine these concepts to create an impactful installation. Curator Susana Arias invited me to create a piece for the University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum’s “Environmental Installations” exhibit and I dove into making over 200 abstract, saffron-colored flowers.

CM: How did you plan for an outdoor installation?

JW: Since Santa Cruz has a moderate climate, I didn’t need to be concerned with freezing temperatures impacting the clay but the pieces did need to be sturdy enough to withstand six months of general weather conditions, the wildlife, and public interactions. I’m attracted to the umbel flower structures for the visual volume they create while remaining delicate and light; however, this also meant that they would be very fragile to create entirely out of clay. I decided to use high-temperature wire to help create the flower structure; this maintained the shape I loved and gave the durability needed for an outdoor installation.

CM: Were there any surprises that occurred when making, planning, and installing the piece?

JW: The exciting and equally nerve-wracking thing about creating installations is that you really don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve invested a ton of time and materials into making the parts, then you just have to hope that your vision of putting all these pieces together actually works. I thought that I would arrange the flowers into clusters, mimicking a field of actual flowers. I tried that at first, but honestly, it looked pretty crappy and I started to worry about the success of the piece. Then I realized that in my trips unloading everything from my car, I had trampled the knee-high meadow grass into a narrow path and that made it all click. I had been inspired by the idea of a pilgrimage, by following a path of a color and so the installation itself should be a line. I started measuring and hammering in stakes again and hours later, had it all laid out and flowers installed. I was happy with figuring out the layout but something was bothering me about the piece. I went back the next day and started pulling out a few pieces. The path that I had created wasn’t intentional enough, it just sort of wandered, so I redrew it in a long winding wiggle and then reinstalled the flowers. The piece stretches 100 feet across the meadow and I encourage visitors to walk the path. When you walk it, you notice the individuality of each flower, view the piece from multiple perspectives, and can really engage with it.

Photo: Nina Hipkins.

Topics: Ceramic Artists