Taking clay to extremes


Hoof Heels by Roxanne Jackson

Ceramic artists are very familiar with the “craft vs art” debate. Many will tell you that if you work with clay, you can expect to be summarily lumped in with the rest of the craft world. No matter what your work looks like, you will be associated with teapots and mugs.

However some ceramic sculptors are defying stereotype, making their way into art museums and contemporary galleries.

Northern Clay Center is currently showing two group exhibitions in its galleries, and three of the artists stand out for their work in sculpture.

First and foremost is Roxanne Jackson, who came to clay relatively late in life.

When I was in grad school making my work I was adding all these elements like beef jerky and dried fish parts. And I was told by my colleagues that I couldn’t do that, because this was “ceramics.” But I was a botany major undergrad, so I didn’t have that background of what you can and can’t do.

Jackson’s pieces explore the blurry line between our animal and human nature. Her “Hoof Heels” were inspired by the work of a German fashion designer who creates incredibly expensive shoes using actual animal hooves. “It’s a fascinating modern day references to pan mythology – my version hopefully plays with these tensions of the whimsical and the horrifying,” says Jackson.


Ouroboros by Roxanne Jackson

Jackson’s also interested in challenging traditional ideas of beauty. Her sculpture “Ouroboros” was inspired by the mythical snake that eats its own tail. Using the forms of a zebra head, a woman’s face and a dog’s snout, she depicts birth and death together in an form that is both grotesque and sublime.

I think there’s a really thin line between what’s horrifying and what’s beautiful. A great example is birth – birth is grotesque and kind of disgusting. The visuals, the liquid, the colors, but of course it’s a miracle, it’s life!

Jackson also points to our fascination with horror movies; is it our more base animal nature that makes us want to look?


Comfort Creature by Elizabeth Coleman

While not as grotesque visually, Elizabeth Coleman’s pieces combine elements that are both innocent and raw in a way that leave the viewer unsettled. Exhibition Curator Jamie Lang says she’s working with unfired brick clay and her own memories to create a haunting sense of nostalgia:

They’re memorials, honoring elements of childhood, innocence lost. Using the teddy bear that everybody has – it’s a pneumonic device that brings people back to their childhood. Brick implies permanence, something everlasting.

Coleman says she’s transforming her childhood friends into “immortal watchers” and “guardians” similar to the Japanese “Haniwa” – terra cotta figures that were buried with the dead.

The second gallery at Northern Clay Center is dominated by a sculptural piece by David Swenson. Hanging from the ceiling by a single cord, his “Handelier” is approximately six feet tall and seven feet wide, and is made almost entirely of… handles.


Handelier by David Swenson

Swenson, who works at NCC, is playing with one of the most utilitarian elements in pottery, and through repetition turning it into a thing of ornate beauty. He’s even created small platforms onto which he’s placed miniature “handelabras.” By leaving the work unglazed, he’s drawing the viewers’ attention to the process and the materials.

Each of these artists is working with clay, and they obviously have attained a mastery of their “craft.” But their work would be equally at home in a fine art gallery or museum. Exhibition curator Jamie Lang says he hopes the show will help to break down some stereotypes about ceramics.

I think there are more people like [these artists] out there, but people haven’t had the opportunity to see the work, or they don’t know to look for it. Having artists like Roxanne Jackson in the show I hope will bring in new people through our doors – people who might not normally consider the Clay Center a destination.

The two exhibitions – “Three Jerome Artists” and “Fogelberg and Red Wing Fellowship Artists” – are on display through February 27.