blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2

Clay Bodies

I work as an illustrator at the Cobb Institute of Archaeology, Mississippi State University, drawing objects excavated from active digs.

Although I was not, at first, affected by the work, some objects hold in their surfaces the marks and even the fingerprints of those who made them; I soon realized the intimacy of drawing another person’s 2,700-year-old fingerprint.

Later I was asked to draw, over and over, ceramic figurines. Some came across the drawing table in more complete form, but most were broken down to almost unidentifiable parts.

This work was the genesis for my work in clay figures.

Early figures were fired with bubbles deliberately left in the clay; this caused them to blow up in the kiln. The fragments were then painstakingly glued back together for exhibition.
Early figures were fired with bubbles deliberately left in the clay; this caused them to blow up in the kiln. The fragments were then painstakingly glued back together for exhibition.

With the artist Jason Greene, who also worked at the Cobb Institute, as an illustrator, I began to make figurines that vaguely resembled some of the artifacts we had illustrated. The figures we made together were frivolous at first—caricatures—and then they evolved.

The installation has been a work in progress for over ten years now, and I guess I’ve made over 1,500 figurines. I see it as both a low-relief sculpture and a color-field “painting.”

Though none of the individual figures vary from each other in their major features, they all have unique characteristics. Each is sculpted, from scratch, to a basic design: head, body, side-attached arms, a trunk for legs, and a base.

Despite similarities, each has a personality, an independence from the group. With the added layer of differentiation created by firing and/or glaze, each figure becomes even more individualistic. As a group, especially when displayed by the hundreds, the figures begin to take on the emotional weight of crowds.

The unique expressions of each come from the molding of the face, the posture of the back, overall size/stature, the thickness of the base, and, because they are made with potter’s clay, from the way each is fired.

I employ a range of firing techniques from primitive firing (leaving the raw clay a very smoky color), to Raku (which has limitless color and surface potential), to high-fire reduction (which offers different color glazes and textures), to low-fired, raw clay. This results in a range of colors that mirrors the varied heights of the figure.

These combined variations make it possible for me to approach a given installation in different ways.

In smaller groupings (of less than a hundred), I have arranged the figures in order of height, so that the taller are behind the shorter ones, as if they were attending a theater. I sometimes use a stair-stepped arrangement, carefully scattering colors and heights so as not to create a scenario of “specific meaning” according to these features, while still attempting to avoid a sense of discord.

For the installation of hundreds of figures, I begin by placing them throughout the space, regardless of height or color. Only when I get a substantial number placed (and this number varies depending on the size of the space) do I begin to consciously set up a fluid transition from short to tall, or sometimes, if necessary, to break up pockets of similar colors. Ideally, the installation becomes the public crowd, representing our cultural differences, our races, and our beliefs.

The differing heights of the figures are also a way to animate the composition and lead the viewer’s eye through the crowd.

I create an ebb and flow within each group, using multiple peaks and valleys, and each installation contains an endless array of potential “social” circumstances. Because of the differences between the figurines, the viewer potentially sees relationships and builds narratives.

Why do those two lean closer to one another? Why are those eight leaning away from one central figure? What club does the group of green figures belong to? And what of the very short figure, two rows behind another that’s twice its height? Is it saddened by its lack of a view?

These simple configurations allow viewers to engage with almost each and every one of the individual figures on a personal and situational basis.

All of the figures are arranged facing the same direction, but they’re meant to be seen from every angle. That gives the viewer the opportunity to fully engage them from any perspective and, if desired, any vantage point their height allows.

Viewing the installation from behind, one becomes part of the crowd and can imagine sharing its goal, its focus. From the side, the grouping is easily seen as an assembly, an army, or perhaps as a metaphor—of progress marching forward.

From the front, one meets the gaze of the whole, becomes the object of that gaze—its goal, its god.  end of text

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