This is the written compliment of the thesis subject matter I have been researching for my BFA capstone project at DAAP! I am very excited to show the work that is the other half of this project, and for all who read this, I hope it is enlightening. Photos of the work to follow.
Purity of the Organic
Within nature, life and growth occur as a result of process, bounded by cycles and rhythms. Human beings innately connect to the organic forms and patterns found across the earth because we too are subjected to the elements of time, growth, death, and many other forces. Andy Goldsworthy mandates that “movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energy” (Goldsworthy). These patterns and shapes are often an effect of process, whether they result from the chance of naturally occurring forces or the involvement of the human hand. We respond to our surroundings, examine the energies that move us to imitate existing forces for the purpose of improving our experiences, livelihoods or merely to understand the world around us with significant meaning.
My journey for DAAP Senior Thesis 2014 began across the Atlantic Ocean in Italy. Living in Tuscany for three months in a small town named Cortona, I had the opportunity to separate myself from the familiar environment where I was used to creating. Traveling, especially to other countries, always fosters reflective thought, and as I started to adjust to a new environment, I became more aware of the similarities and differences I was experiencing. A strong sense of “here and there” enveloped me. In a foreign country with unfamiliar customs and language, I still belonged to the country I traveled from. Yet, I was attempting to embrace my new surroundings and communicate in Italian, though I remained tied to the people I had left behind. I felt caught in the middle. Even in my artistic practice, the skills of ceramic making traveled with me, but the studio, the inspiration and the clay itself was all very rustic and held a history unfamiliar to me, save through history books and textbooks. James Carl explains the effects of cultural collisions on aesthetic perceptions as the following. “While living abroad, one’s aesthetic faculties are naturally exercised in confrontation with new art forms and architectures; yet these same faculties are also instrumental in such simple decisions as the purchase of such common items as toothpaste or batteries” (Carl, 156).
Taking in the world around me with such heightened awareness and sensitivity of reaction, I inevitably began to focus on my own surroundings and interactions in the art I created. The work I began to produce addressed the connections that occur when people interact, especially within a shared experience. At first, I excluded myself from the scenario and attempted to examine the idea of these interactions and meeting points from a distance, but soon I realized the easiest way to collect information resulted from using myself as the center point of data. What came from my own interactions? How were my relationships being affected? These questions fueled my subject matter and became the focus of any work related to my thesis project since my experiential processes dominated my thoughts and reflective inquiries.
I began to predominantly illustrate themes of connection, shared experiences, interpersonal communication, and formative experiences. The work I created in Italy manifested in a series of five terra cotta plates, presenting imagery of my own interpretation of the general feelings of separation and connection that I had experienced while living in another country. The plates showed clean-lined ambiguous figures responding with lines, circles, and overlapping simple geometric shapes to render my reactions.
In addition, I created a large hand built pot mimicking the form of an ancient Etruscan pot that had impacted me when I chanced upon it in a nearby museum. For this piece, I juxtaposed symbols characteristic of Italy with symbols I deemed definitive of my own person, ultimately taking this archaic form and imparting my own qualities, history and characteristics onto it.
While still in a foreign country, these considerations of interaction, space, time, relationships and experience all seemed very vibrant and easy to address. However, once back in the States, the subject matter felt forced as I struggled to address the same subject matter back in my home country, and with a much wider selection of material resources. In my mind, I no longer needed to rely on myself as the center point of the themes I was examining, since I no longer felt that “here and there” feeling as strongly. Once again, I began to look at these themes objectively. Thinking to my final piece, ideas of installations that encouraged viewer interaction and participation bantered around in my head. But everything fell flat and became disinteresting.
Shortly after I returned from Italy, I had the opportunity of participating in a show titled “Un-limited” with a handful of peers. We gave ourselves no guidelines and started our new work a mere two weeks before we installed. With limited time and a chance to step away from thesis material that did not seem to be flourishing, I drew closer to processes and patterns that often result from free time doodles and experimental or “fun” art making. Though I did not spend much energy analyzing why these interests are so intrinsic to me, the work flowed from me because I finally felt happy and free to purely make work, as I drew closer to these patterns and inspirations that resonate within me. Natural materials in the forms of clay, wood, and plant life either inspired or manifested in every piece of the show, highlighting innate patterns rampant in the world around us. Additionally, my pieces addressed the inevitable processing and displacement that occurs when replicating from nature.
This is where I’m now finding my work, because it revealed shapes and forms that are innately interesting or impactful to me, such as circles, spheres, connecting lines, and clusters of shapes; organic, fluid forms that appear anywhere from bunches of berries, to dew drops on spider webs. Because I did not force this work, it was enticing to create and invigorating to display. The response to these pieces was much more positive than the work I had been trying to force. Interestingly, this new direction is not a complete and total departure from the previous pursuits; themes of interest still fall within experience and connection, but from a different viewpoint. Instead of strictly considering interactions from person to person, I am much more interested in the relation between people and nature. Specifically, my interest lies in the ensuing connections and understandings that result between people due to the common experiences with natural forms, organic patterns, plants, growth, and a renewed appreciation and awareness of the value of awarding attention to the earth.
Two of the most recognizable organic forms in existence are that of the circle and sphere. In many ancient cultures ranging from the Ancient Egyptians to the Celts, the circle is a symbol of wholeness, unity, earth and infinity. (Gadalla). “In Ancient Egypt, the cosmic creative force, Ra (Re), is written as a circle with a dot or point in the center. It is a circle moving in a circle—one and solitary. The circle symbolically represents the Absolute, or undifferentiated Unity” (Gadalla). Within Celtic tradition, the Five Fold Knot is a knot comprised of five overlapping circles that references the merging of nature’s four elements which are water, air, earth and fire in addition to a fifth which represents the center of the universe, sometimes referred to it as “aether” (“Symbols and Their Meanings”).
This form presents no beginning and no end, and appears seemingly everywhere in nature: from tree rings, to ripples in a pool of water, dew drops on a spider’s web, to eggs holding new life, the very constellations in the night sky, and the sun and the moon. This life-giving shape is simple, yet visually striking, especially in multiples. Wassily Kandinsky comments on the circle: “The circle is simple because the pressure of its boundaries by comparison with those of right-angled is equalized” (Grande). Circles are edgeless and aesthetically welcoming, as the eye is invited to continue and follow the form continuously. The easiness of the forms suggests that circles and spheres are the most organic of shapes because of the fluidity they provide. Fascinated and captivated by this undeniably simple, familiar form, I have observed circles entering my work over the years and they play a significant role in the presentation of my interests. When people think of anyone who works with ceramics, the first thing that comes to mind is often the potter’s wheel. With this image comes the notion of turning lumps of organic material clay on the wheel in circular rhythm to create circular objects. Clay inevitably becomes the ideal medium for the discussion of organic matter and circular representation because it is a medium that is truly the former and is historically entwined with the second, in that clay has been used for thousands of years.
My starting point began with the wheel. In the show [Un]limited, I penned a series of drawings that were reaction drawings to patterns incorporating circles that I find in nature, illustrated through my own interpretation. Constellations brought about drawings of clusters of circles connected to lines, webbing across the paper. Flowers, fungi, dewdrops and branches inspired their own abstraction. With the intention of bringing this work into the 3-d realm, I began to throw shallow, straight walled, and flat-bottomed dishes with porcelain, to serve as a canvas for painting similar designs and patterns in the bottoms of the dishes with underglazes. Though the paintings are visually striking in the 3-dimensional dishes, there remained a “flatness” that required something more.
At this point in the process, technical issues multiplied. The dishes I threw suffered cracks in the bottoms because of how thin I ideally wanted them. By creating a mold of a similar dish form, I eliminated the problem and began slip casting the dishes, allowing for faster results in multiples, minus the cracks. No longer so precious, the dishes have become a playground of discovery and experiment, compared to the initial carefully planned and tedious pieces. The shape and dimensions of the dishes are similar to petri dishes, and I have embraced this interpretation and used it as the foundation of my final thesis project. From that point, delving into the historical origin and the modern uses of petri dishes became an important and informative conversation regarding the development of my final piece. In 1887, a military physician named Julius Petri designed a dish to be used for the culturing and examination of bacteria and microorganisms, to be later known as the “petri dish” (Science Diction). These controlled environments for exploration fascinate me, and in addition to serving a pragmatic scientific purpose, these dishes present incredible color, dimension, and information about the natural world. One artist who has been influential in my research process regarding petri dishes and their intended function is Klari Reis, who created an installation of petri dishes featuring beautiful paintings reproducing organic cellular imagery on the insides of the glass. Just as she showcases actual patterns, shapes, and colors that manifest from genuine experiments with microorganisms, I intend to bring light to interesting, beautiful patterns and forms evident in plant growth and natural formations. However, instead of copying directly from nature and visually illustrating literal petri dish research of biological reactions and findings, I am conducting research of materials in my own slip cast petri dishes, using the slip to create my own biological forms and patterns.
Clay becomes rock-like when fired: immovable and strong. It no longer moves the way it was capable of before it becomes vitrified by fire. Even though the porcelain hardens during the firing process, through my application of slip via slip trailing, my aim is to adorn my “petri dishes” in a way that the fired porcelain still reads as alive and organic. Pushing the slip through a metal tipped plastic bottle, I am in control of the liquid clay, which allows me to form bubbles, drips, lines, and stacks, essentially drawing with slip. This process is very playful, and instead of beginning with an image from nature, I draw first, and recognize in retrospect what natural forms my patterns imitate the most. My slip towers could reference stalactites and stalagmites, and the slip bubbles eking over the edge of the dish read like Bleeding Tooth Fungus.
With an interest in preserving and accentuating the natural beauty of the organic shapes and patterns evident in nature, my work draws from these incredible details to prompt the viewer toward a deeper consideration and awareness of the elements that often go unnoticed. Regarding the application of slip on the interior of the dishes, the interest for me does not lie merely in the replication of patterns and designs evident in nature, but more so to look, absorb, and intuitively create with those images in mind. My process of handling the interiors of my dishes can be summed up as drawing with slip. While petri dishes are used for experiments and the study and examination of microorganisms, I look at my dishes as a breeding ground of experiments of material. As I push the clay slip to its limits, I am simultaneously testing its capabilities, while learning new processes and reactions of the medium.
This idea of re-connecting to nature and deepening our awareness of what the natural world offers is not a new concept. Within the last decade, there has been a clear resurgence of effort toward preserving the environment and paring down on processing that produces artificial replacements for materials that can be derived in a purer form from the earth (Cairns). The term “eco-friendly” is widely appearing on product labels, denoting the negation of over processed materials that have become rampant in manufacturing processes. Artist Tara Donovan marries the presentation of organic, natural-looking formations in her sculptures created from processed materials, such as Styrofoam cups, plastic buttons, coffee filters, paper plates, and more. Donovan’s work has been influential in my own thesis process because she too is bringing awareness to forms found in nature that are beautiful and complex.
Where Donovan blatantly draws attention to processed materials, my own presentation of processed materials is a little more abstract. By choosing to work with porcelain, the material of my work is a highly processed form of clay, as it has traveled a long way from its original form to achieve the white appearance and smooth texture that is often construed as “pure.” However, it is a case of semantics. On one hand, clay straight from the earth is perhaps the purest form, yet we have come to associate the processed porcelain as the “purest” due to its refined qualities.
Throughout this entire year of research and experimentation, I have come to the conclusion that art is never static. Just as the organic material, plants and formations I draw my information and inspiration from are always in a state of movement and flux, so are the ways I create and the emphasis of my creative path. Though currently unfinished, my final thesis piece will be the final collection of my research in the form of my porcelain petri dishes, hung en masse on the gallery wall. My aim is to offer visual stimulation for viewers that suggest a consideration of natural forms and processes that may or may not be evident in the natural world. Whether these dishes are read as virus strains and scientific replications, as interesting manifestations of the use of the ceramic material or merely objects of aesthetic beauty, I am open and interested to the viewer’s interpretation. I hope to offer a glimpse into the joy I find in the patterns and forms that inspire me as well as the fascinating processes of ceramics as a material.
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