Northern Clay Center examines the elements of ceramic art

Northern Clay Center‘s latest exhibition – “Elemental” – presents four artists who explore themes of fire, water, earth and air, all through the medium of ceramics.

The theme is particularly fitting, because those are precisely the four elements of pottery. The challenge for each artist was to highlight one element over the other.

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Artist Paula Winokur has three complementary pieces in the Northern Clay Center show: “Ice Cores,” “Calving Glacier IV,” and “Above and Below”

Ceramicist Linda Swanson was commissioned to create a piece that emphasized “earth,” which was a bit of a twist for her since water is so prominent in her work. But it’s also fitting, because she uses water to reveal and transform a platform of bentonite clay that contains metallic oxides.

“A lot of the ceramics that we normally experience are in their finished permanent state, explains Swanson, “but as a maker there are all these stages the materials go through – soft to hard, impermanent to permanent. I found that by working with water I could make these stages visible to the viewer – I could reveal aspects of them that are normally only privy to the maker.”

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“Temperamental Earth” by Linda Swanson, 2013

In Swanson’s “Temperamental Earth,” nylon sacks suspended from the ceiling slowly drip water onto the surface of the clay. Traditionally, Swanson says, earth is thought of as the most stable element. She wanted to look at how the earth is actually in flux. So as the water drips, the bentonite swells and buckles, and reveals an array of colors as different metallic oxides are exposed.

“Sifted into the clay are different colors of iron,” said Swanson. “Red, yellow and black iron; a lack of iron results in white clay. In ancient Greece, those colors also happened to represent the humors of the body. They saw the body as a microcosm of the universe.”

Over time, the water will stop flowing, and the clay will dry out and contract.

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Air/Breath by Del Harrow, 2013

While the gallery as a whole reflects a minimalist feel, the individual pieces range widely, exploring everything from issues of personal loss to the degradation of the environment.

One piece incorporates electricity (a contemporary version of fire) while another includes video. Swanson says together, they challenge common notions of what ceramic art is.

“Elemental” runs through May 12 at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis.