The distinctive works of Barbro Åberg are imbued with a life of their own. They tell tales of ancient cultures and common human dreams. Their powerful symbolism wakes collective memories of early beginnings, of the passing of time, and of eternity, in a collage of glimpses of life.The works are not easily categorized. A Swede living in Denmark, Åberg manages to escape the shackles of both traditions, borrowing the best from each: the playful evocativeness of the Swedes and the rigorous analytical approach of the Danes. In addition, she spent ?ve years in the United States at the outset of her career; a period that still inspires her works with a sense of con?dence and adventure. It is in this amalgam of cultures-in this ?eld of tension-that her works exist.
“A recurrent theme in my work is a kind of search for the universal,” says Åberg. “My work is not private. Of course I am an ingredient in the work. And the intensity of the work process is re?ected in the work. If I wasn’t really present, you can tell by the ?nished work. Then, it’s of less consequence. A good piece has its own language, its own story. It’s alive somehow.”
Åberg’s work has various references. One is ancient scripts. She models Phoenician or runic inscriptions in three dimensions and in the process transforms her content to a more abstract result that merely hints at its origins.
Once, the result was so reminiscent of old navigational instruments or astronomical devices that a new theme spontaneously developed. Based on the original drawings of the sixteenth-century Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, she has created a series of works inspired by early astronomical instruments.
The cells of life are another reference. A recent piece, “Black Egg,” is a large sculptural rendition of a group of cells. Maybe a piece of human tissue magni?ed under the microscope. Or the cells of a beehive or a cut-through mushroom. The archetypal symbols of life are translated into clay, the very essence of renewal of life fossilized, forever unchangeable in an unsettling contradiction of meaning.
This article, along with three more, are featured in the free gift, Contemporary Clay Sculpture: A Collection of Four of Our Favorite Articles on Contemporary Ceramic Sculpture, click here for you free download now!
The strong ties to nature can be traced to her childhood. Åberg spent the summers by the Baltic Sea on the remote Eastern coastline in the very north of Sweden. “I spent hours alone roaming the beaches, my only company being the huge stones pushed onto the beach and into the sea by the ice cap,” she recalls. “There were large smooth stones, and stones with many grooves and great texture. Then there was a boulder ridge and pieces of slate that rose several meters up into the sky.”Åberg still carries the visual material of her childhood. But not everything is stored in the treasure chamber of the mind. She also takes photographs. Not in the sense of a traditional photographer but to capture ?eeting moments, to help store memories of textures, forms and motifs.
She works very intuitively. “I think ideas are born and then they develop,” she explains. “Time needs to pass before something appears. I follow my impulses. I trust them. An idea arises suddenly. Then I make a loose sketch or write down a few words to remember it.”
Often her works end up quite different from how she ?rst imagined. They change during the work process. She enters into collaboration with the work; into a kind of dialog. “I have to listen and look; it’s not just me making the decisions. Sometimes a piece is shouting at me to change it this way or that.”
But how did it all begin? Her career as a ceramist began in the U.S. in 1979. She had met a young American and moved to Oregon. There she went to college and took many of the art courses that were available, including ceramics. And that was it. She became the assistant to her teacher Nancy Travers, and she got a thorough foundation and learned many important practical skills. She also spent a year in Berkeley, California, working for various ceramics artists at the Berkeley Potters Guild. “They had a very different approach. There were no limitations and a great sense of freedom. You could do what you liked! The Danish approach is very analytical. These are two extremes. I try to combine both modes of working.”
After ?ve years in the U.S., she moved back to Scandinavia, where she studied drawing, painting and sculpture at art school in Sweden, and then ?nally graduated from the School of Arts and Crafts in Kolding, Denmark, in 1988. As of yet, she has never been tempted to settle on any material other than clay.
In 1990, she was introduced to a new clay body recipe by the American, Bob Shay, who gave a workshop at a Clay Today symposium at Hollufgård in Denmark. The clay was half ball clay, half perlite, a volcanic substance. The two together made an ideal material for sculpting.“I felt a freedom with this new material,” Åberg said. “I could do all kinds of things that I couldn’t do with ordinary clay. I started working very expressively. I didn’t want to control things too much. Perhaps I needed to liberate myself from my time at art school. I started to use bright commercial stains and acrylic paint, I built solid pieces, used cardboard boxes and ?lled them up with clay, and I combined clay with glass and heating elements.” But after a while, she grew tired of the many colors and resumed her interest in form.
“The year of 1999 marked a real dividing line,” she explained. “This is when I ?nished building my own studio. Until then, I had shared a studio with other ceramists in Århus. Working alone, my sculptures completely changed. They became lighter with more open structures. More re?ned. I spend hours on my work now. This latest piece, ‘Spiral Wheel,’ which is going to be exhibited at Meister der Moderne in Munich has taken me six weeks to make! I go to and fro. I look at it and I adjust. Usually I work on three to four pieces at a time, but this piece has preoccupied me completely.”
Today she includes paper ?bers in her clay and she has many customized recipes, some for large solid pieces, some for small works and some for pieces with an open structure. The surfaces are treated with a terra sigillata engobe, and occasionally the surfaces are scratched and marked with stamps. In her recent works, the surfaces are left unmarked allowing the form to stand out.
And no doubt, Åberg is extremely conscious of form. Yet her work is never devoid of content. More of a sculptor than a potter, she creates objects of great depth and long lasting impression.