The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

Untitled (Curtain), 7 ft. 4 in. (2.2 m) in height, press-molded earthenware, fired in oxidation to cone 04, 2020.

Experience reveals that such apparently mutually exclusive oppositions as in or out, attainable or unattainable, known or unknown are less often sustained by clearly defined boundaries than by successive stages of transition, like the gradated tonal values between black and white. For ceramic artist Sarah Gross, gray zones offer the possibility of alternative perspectives on conventional polarities and have been of particular interest for the insight they might provide into “issues of power, desire, vulnerability, and visibility.”

Boundaries Are Not Barriers

An associate professor of ceramics at the University of Kansas, Gross has in recent years worked primarily on modular installations inspired by a long-standing interest in tiles. Since her days as a graduate student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she has engaged in research on architecture and ornamentation, but informal study of tiles, bricks, and pavers has been a habit since her childhood in New York City. “I was always looking down,” she says, remembering the hexagonal pavers of the Fifth Avenue sidewalk adjoining Central Park. Echoes of those distinctive modules reverberate in such installations as Consumption, a 36×5-foot (11×1.5-m) hexagonal-tiled red-carpet reference to what Gross describes as a “selfie-culture trend” of indulging fantasies of celebrity by “taking photos while posing in front of works of art to prove that you were there.” 

1 Consumption, 36 ft. (11 m) in length, slip-cast talc body, fired in oxidation to cone 04, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022.

The pathos of such an impulse implies a hollowness, a longing at the heart of experience, and relates the title Consumption to a grasping for fulfillment through quasi-possessive engagement with high-status objects. In Consumption, the tiled red carpet, a glitzy signifier of Hollywood-scale stardom, is separated from the viewer by an implied boundary of propriety and legality that arrests any impulse to step on the artwork, especially that of a breakable nature. But for aspirations, boundaries are not barriers. The mind can posture on the carpet where the feet cannot. At the same time, Gross thwarts any clear-cut ascendance from hoi polloi to VIP status even in the imagination. The lavish carpet on closer inspection conveys an impression of wear through unevenly sprayed patches of black beneath the alluring luster of red glaze. Even more resistant to the consumptive impulse is the fact that the pile of the carpet consists not of looped fibers but rather of thousands of slip-cast fingers. “The carpet is incentivizing, creating a space where people want to position themselves,” Gross observes. “It’s sumptuous and inviting and suggests celebrity, but it makes people uncomfortable when they see the cuticles and recognize fingertips.” 

2 Consumption (detail).

A Variety of Possibilities 

The theme of covetous grasping for fulfillment through relationships with objects that signify wealth or elevated social status carries over subtly into another of Gross’ modular installations, Untitled (Curtain), inspired by a decorative swag illustrated in an online catalog of home furnishings. The diaphanous elegance of that inspiration is converted deliberately into ponderous rusticity in the installation, which consists of units in which the coarse earthenware is packed as unevenly as in the body of a medieval brick. “I wanted a craggy, poorly press-molded surface,” Gross explains. “I was responding to a residency at c.r.e.t.a in Rome a few years earlier. I walked extensively and saw lots of historical ornamentation that included curtains, drapes, and tassels. When you start to look for those things, especially in Rome, you see them everywhere.” 

The slight differences in tone and hue between the units of Curtain were deliberately cultivated not only for the parallel to variations in architectural brick—“I love the appearance of a brick wall,” Gross attests—but also as a reflection on the multiple choices of color offered for the swag as a commodity in the online catalog. That variety of possibilities suggested interesting conceptual implications about personalized taste and aspirations to status through what is perceived as sophisticated decoration, but it also opened the possibility of producing differently glazed versions of Curtain using the same molds. “That was my original intention,” Gross discloses, “but after I’ve made something I have a tendency to move on to the next thing.” 

3 Harvest Wreaths, to 191/2 in. (49.5 cm) in diameter, earthenware, fired in oxidation to cone 04, 2023.

4 Harvest Wreath: Spring (detail), 19 in. (48.3 cm) in diameter, earthenware, fired in oxidation to cone 04, 2023.

Invisible Dividers 

The successors, the next things, proved to be complex explorations of ornament in the form of two press-molded iterations of a decorative motif: Festoon (Winter) and Festoon (Summer). The former resembles an enlarged sprig from an Elizabethan terra-cotta jardinière on which the pale orange surface white scumming—created by deliberately leaving the barium out of an earthenware recipe—suggests not only leeched salts on a weathered flowerpot but also a creeping of hoarfrost, an effect consistent with the subtitle Winter. The invocation of a season is apropos of Gross’ interest in “invisible dividers,” since prior to the increasing volatility of weather events with the acceleration of climate change, one season slipped imperceptibly into the next, the temperature and humidity rising or falling gradually over time. 

5 Festoon (Winter), 5 ft. 2 in. (1.6 m) in length, earthenware, fired in oxidation to cone 04, 2023.

Climate change, or more accurately its bleak impingement on the mind, is intimately relevant to Festoon (Summer), a modular work issuing from the same molds as Festoon (Winter). Although notably more somber, the mood of the work is contested, deriving from the pairing of despair and hope ebbing and flowing like the tidal transitions in tone and hue. “I was thinking about possible futures,” Gross explains. “Since becoming a mom I’ve felt much more despair over climate change. During the pandemic, plant-inspired elements entered my work. The only way that I could contemplate the future without going to a very dark place was to think, if I plant a seed, it’s going to grow. The directional idea came from wanting to make a piece that looked dead on one side and alive and full of color on the other.” 

In practice this meant coating the surface of the seven-section relief in a glaze resembling cast iron, then adding tints of color only to the right-hand sides of the stylized fruits and garland elements. Consequently, an optimistic viewer walking from left to right confronts a transition from solemn gray to a palette of increasingly assertive hues, while a pessimistic viewer walking from right to left sees those gradually displaced through an extinguishing of color under a uniformly dark field. 

6 Festoon (Summer), 5 ft. 2 in. (1.6 m) in length, earthenware, fired in oxidation to cone 04, 2023.

Cyclical Time and Politics 

There is little difficulty in drawing an analogy between the pairing of these directionally opposed gradations and an imploded national unity in which division along a political chasm has caused the collapse into relativism of once commonly held distinctions between truth and falseness, justice and injustice, integrity and corruption. The “politicization of Covid-19,” Gross notes, was a significant factor in the despondency of Festoon (Winter). In this light, a related transitional work titled Harvest Wreaths consisting of a row of four separate invocations of seasonal crops—artichokes in spring, tomatoes in summer, pumpkins in fall, and oranges in winter—might seem to raise the fragile hope that our current sociopolitical trajectory is not inalterable and that an enlightened flame might once again light the fallen national lamp: “In researching wreaths and their origins,” Gross says, “I was excited to find that they’re symbols of cyclical time.” 

In another work in which the polarities of hope and despair are implicit, the former musters a notable vigor and seizes an overall advantage. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in Courses of Action, a 2023 work of public art referencing homelessness and created for display in the Lawrence Library Plaza in Lawrence, Kansas, the hand asserts itself more forcefully than in the relatively detached Della Robbia–like molded forms of the festoons and wreaths. In the sculpture, which invokes a titular pun to connect potential paths forward with traces of actions, a series of “gestures” recorded in courses of bricks, Gross exploited the inverse of the thrusting fingers that gave Consumption its off-putting relief surface. Each of the 240 handmade bricks of Courses of Action, mortared into a minimalistic house with a pitched roof but no means of entry, bears the equivalent of a concave signature in finger marks. The polarities of in and out coalesce in these expressive impressions that visibly and texturally insert the self into the otherwise inaccessible structure. 

7 Courses of Action, 4 ft. (1.2 m) in length, earthenware, fired in oxidation and reduction to cone 04, mortar, plywood, cement board, steel, 2023. Photo: Aaron Paden. 8 Courses of Action, 4 ft. (1.2 m) in length, earthenware, fired in oxidation and reduction to cone 04, mortar, plywood, cement board, steel, 2023. Photo: Aaron Paden.

In the context of political polarization and the city of Lawrence’s efforts to combat homelessness, Courses of Action is situated to spawn the kind of discussions ideally encouraged by public art. For Gross, the project provided a unique opportunity to maneuver her art outside the hothouse of the gallery and onto a field of discourse that she might otherwise only have investigated abstractly. From the process came hints, perhaps credible, perhaps entirely quixotic, of a potential to soften categorical boundaries on the common ground of touch and through a common recognition of humanity. “I took a day installing the work,” she says. “People came and talked with me, and I got a sense of their different attitudes about public art, the unhoused population of our city, and the housing crisis. And they touched the clay. It was a classic example of seeing a handprint and matching it. You match your hand to the one that’s already there.” 

the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.