A Closer Look
Aisle talk with Margaret Boozer
Luce Foundation Center for American Art
3 May 2007
Eight Red Bowls: A Celebration Of Clay…
This is a pivotal piece for me, and the beginning of a very fruitful vein of work. It is made from Maryland red clay, discovered right out the back door of my studio.
Hamada said if you find good clay somewhere, you should move there. I was fortunate to find it right where I was.
I made this piece in the spring of 2000. I had been working in my current studio for about 4 years. One day I looked out the back door at the red bank by the railroad tracks…and it suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at clay. I went over, dug in from the dryer surface to the softer clay further down, extracted some clay and made a little pinch pot…the red color was amazing, so smooth and pliable, with no sand at all. I don’t really throw a lot of pots on the wheel, but feeling this clay made me want to make some bowls just so I could experience the feel of it moving through my hands and test its plasticity.
So I made the bowls, and I learned a lot about the clay. But I felt like a bowl, or a set of bowls, didn’t really reflect back to me my whole experience of this clay. I wanted something more, something of the ground in it. So I mixed up a bucket of slip, poured it out into a frame on the floor of my studio, and dropped the bowls into it. On one end of the spectrum, I had the puddle of slip …no touch, just the material doing what it does. On the other end, I had the articulated pot- conceived, executed, handled- how many hours of touch and thought in one pot? I liked the idea of bringing these two points together in one piece and found tension at the intersection of the two. The bowls began to break down and dissolve into the slip, and the slip, drying to a taught surface tension, began to crack in a pattern affected by the bowls. I think the impulse to do this came from standard studio process… recycling pots. You drop a pot in the recycle barrel, and every time you open it up, you see that the pot has disintegrated more. This piece arrests that process at a certain point and preserves it.
Also, at the time, I was very drawn to archaeology. In the fall 1999, I saw The National Gallery’s exhibit Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology – an amazing show with some compelling images that stayed with me. In particular, I was taken by a photo of a rectangular excavation pit, with a pile of bowls unearthed in one corner…preserved in their casual arrangement where they were discarded after the funeral feast.
This idea of using clay from the ground was a really an interesting layer of content for me. I began prospecting for clay. Also taking pictures as I went. Often my compositions become a response to how I find clay in the environment, whether it’s tool marks at a construction site or natural weathering of strata on a riverbank.
As I worked, I found it intriguing that a close-up, intimate view of cracked clay looks like aerial views of landscape and maps. Why do state boundaries take the shape they do? Clay behaves on a small scale how earth behaves on a large scale- Boundary often lines follow rivers and mountain, which follow natural faults and stress points in the earth.
As I continued this work, it seemed to be more and more about mapping and memory- microcosm and macrocosm. And in this way, you can shift back and forth from the material to the metaphor. How you can see it as cracked clay and also assign it a larger meaning. Clay has become both material and content for my work. It retains its connection to earth and brings in associations of fertility, stability, permanence and sense of place.
Sense Of Place
In talking about clay as landscape and trigger for memory, I thought it would be nice to bring in the work of Wayne Higby, right across the aisle here. Wayne was one of my teachers at Alfred, and I feel very honored to be having this ceramic conversation with him here at the Luce Center.
Wayne Higby- Lake Powell Memory—Winter Rain is one in a series inspired by visits to the flooded canyon of Lake Powell in Utah. Wayne Higby lightly sketched into the porcelain a rippling lake bordered by the raised outlines of towering mountains. The diagonal lines that cut across the landscape signify sheets of rain; the rough edges of the slab of clay and its two accompanying “boulders” suggest the jagged cliffs nearby. Higby’s interest in Asian ceramic techniques led him to glaze his work in celadon to produce a pale, misty effect.
Higby draws on the tradition of ancient Chinese and Japanese landscape artists, who use their work as a way to connect with the natural world.
-from the Luce Center exhibition text
In a similar and complimentary way to my process, Higby’s tears and breaks, really just hunks of clay with minimal manipulation, start to read as landscape, weather, mood, memory and particular place. Higby invests these hunks with meaning, and we understand it.
White Table Canyon (1981)– This bowl- really a collection of lines, shapes and colored glazes, organized within the architecture of a bowl. The bowl holds space, even though we can’t touch it, we understand the physicality of inside outside. We understand that the space of the interior continues even though it is hidden by the lip- and we bring that understanding of space to the reading of this collection of lines as depiction of space.
The space inside Wayne Higby’s White Table Canyon is confined by its form, but it suggests a canyon that stretches on forever. The dark edges of the cliffs move from inside the vessel to the exterior, signifying that the landscape is not enclosed within the walls of the bowl.
-from the Luce Center exhibition text
Talking about this work today reminds me of a quote by one of my favorite sculptors, Tony Cragg, on why it’s important to make sculpture:
Trying to understand the physical world and to use it as a language is really a sign of the loving respect for the material we exist in and are made of.
– Tony Cragg
Not a bad job to have. Thank you.