By Lital Khaikin / Images courtesy the artists: Lisa Creskey, Cynthia O’Brien, Paula Murray, Reid Flock, and Hilde Lambrechts
The simplest beauty in the world begins with a balance of presence and void. Shaped out of the spontaneous and visceral wet earth, ceramic art celebrates such interplay like no other medium. Slick and malleable clay is among the most ancient of artistic materials; it bears a unique ability to communicate through both collective symbolism and highly individual narrative.
Early in November, Lisa Creskey, Reid Flock, Paula Murray, and Cynthia O’Brien were among a diverse group of ceramic artists who assembled in Ottawa for the celebrated 260 Fingers exhibition at the Glebe Community Centre. Just a week prior, gallery space at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans played host to an exhibition from ceramic artist Hilde Lambrechts.
To have so many ceramic artists exhibiting in Ottawa on such a scale is a rare and valuable occurrence, encouraging discourse around the artistic merits and utilitarian qualities of ceramics. This is particularly important within North America, where ceramics are often dismissed as a lower form of art, stifling experimentation and conceptual work.
Despite this narrow perception of clay and porcelain arts, the artists featured in the local exhibitions all effectively manipulate their materials to express highly individual narratives and emotions, and to challenge dominant ways of thinking. For each artist, ceramics allow for a communication of intimate symbolism, expressed equally through the rough-hewn stages of process and in the final glazed form.
Many artists begin sculpting their tales with the simplest ceramic form, that of the bowl. This unassuming vessel easily lends itself to interpretations as musical as they are diverse.
Suggesting infinite possibility, the bowl shape compels artists to interpret its qualities as container and as sculpture; as hollow basin and full womb. The humble bowl is also where more ambitious dialogue begins. North American audiences may favour emphasis on the function and material value of a ceramic piece, as opposed to its poetic significance.
Reid Flock, Basking Yellow
Here we encounter Burlington, Ontario-based artist Reid Flock, who playfully approaches the utilitarian concept of a bowl that exists to be filled and transforms it into a reflection on the sculptural presence of ceramics. Flock balances distinctly postmodern aesthetics that undermine utility with traditional shapes that become a point of departure for another concept. In his “Cultural Dilation” series, this interaction is expressed through naturalistic textures simulating the subtle grooves of palm-fronds combined with glimmering veneers that evoke plastic.
Before it is fired in a kiln, clay is such a malleable material that it enables artists to express intangible concepts and experiences in three-dimensional forms with a wide range of possible physical characteristics. “I think clay enjoys pretending to be leather or a hard candy surface,” says Flock. “I cannot help feeling that each piece I perform somehow not only looks like its suggestive medium, but acts and fully admits to carrying the characteristics completely unrelated to ceramics.”
Reid Flock, Pillow Fight Warrior Teapot
“My exploration of form has continually brought me back to the suggestive function—be it teapots, bowls or vases,” continues Flock. “My basket forms take it a step further by playing with the notion of forms becoming their contents.”
Flock elevates basic form beyond the implied necessity. He defines his work as “sketches” in which he isolates a flat element of his objects—an escaping coil of vermillion, for instance—so that it becomes the piece itself, as opposed to being an accessory to its container. He suggests that this play with colour balances the attention between the surfaces of his ceramic works, (i.e. textures and colours) and their emptiness. “The void,” he says, “[is] the defining characteristic of the functional object.”
Despite Flock’s containers being entirely functional, it is less this quality that gives the artist’s ceramic objects significance and more the experimental structure itself that becomes a central concern.This departs from the mainstream perception of utility as the primary quality of ceramics.
Conversely, responding to the ways in which function can dictate the outcome of ceramic shape, Kingston, Ontario’s Lisa Creskey primarily renounces utility in favour of sculptures as two-dimensional narratives. The result, as she explains, “is organic and fluid, and without a predetermined form.” Creskey’s illustrative work offers overt cultural and political commentary through a medium that bears an otherwise benign reputation.
The artist makes texture a critical aspect of a political message in her piece titled “Portsmouth Harbour.”
“I was motivated to make a work in response to the suicide of Ashley Smith, who died in custody at Grand Valley Institute for Women at age nineteen,” Creskey explains. “I wanted the piece to incorporate the element of touch and human interaction because I believed that it was the denial of these essential human needs in the institutional system that caused the death of this vulnerable child.”
Left: Lisa Cresky, Portsmouth Harbour (detail)
Aside from questions of form and function, clay artworks require a consistent language to facilitate the artist’s narrative.
For Ottawa-based Hilde Lambrechts, this narrative has been conveyed in both abstract and realistic ways. Her 2012 series Psychoceramics, for example, subtly conveys intimate emotional struggles through volume, the spontaneity of liquid, and the comforting logic of geometry. Each of these elements is hushed on its own but together they form a unified and symbolic whole.
“I am expected to play a role in a society that I do not always approve of,” Lambrechts explains. “A blue day becomes a ceramic abyss of dripping glazes that pull me down. On a good day, I cover the abyss with a safety network.”
Hilde Lambrecht, Silent Witnesses
In her latest collection Petrified Forest, exhibited at the Shenkman Arts Centre in early November, Lambrechts opted for a straightforward narrative. Given her intention for the series to serve as “a statement against the global disappearance of forests due to human interference,” the tactile qualities of ceramics were used to mimic branches, bark, and resin of endangered botanical specimens.
“It was essential to stay true to the form as it occurs in nature,” Lambrechts says, “because I want the viewer to relate to the actual forests in the real world and develop empathy with their fate.”
The convergence of identifiable organic shapes and abstracted geometric forms is further explored by Ottawa artist Cynthia O’Brien, who conceives of her ceramic sculpture as mythological narrative.
“The box,” she says, referring to her brutally geometric containers that express both nature and human construct in their experimental forms, “is also something that society places the individual in—all hard, straight surfaces with corners and no room to move. Out of this box are the roots of the individual, the family, digging deep into the soil, finding nourishment from the past and growing into the future. The box and the pieces that are more plant-like have an opening in them to release the spirit.”
Hilde Lambrechts, Bark Samples
Taking our experience beyond the visible shape of ceramic objects, the tactile qualities of clay enable ceramic artists to manipulate raw material into a sensual language. Narrative is built not only from the solid geometry, but from the symbolic content and appeal of touch.
O’Brien considers the ways in which ceramics can express a collective body memory, becoming an artifact of touch that preserves sensual memory.
“Your children and their children can place their fingers where yours were to make the pot,” the artist says. “In this, there is a tangible human connection to the past and the future through a small, insignificant pot. This is the most romantic thought I can think of.”
The ritual of process
Even while symbol is communicated through the traditional signifiers of colour and shape, the very process of shaping clay material is imbued with representation. A shared sentiment among ceramic artists is that of continuous dialogue with the material, where process is organic in every sense. We have only to consider the pure geological origins of clay to discover its ability to transform even a single touch of the hand into a process measured by symbol.
Cynthia O'Brien, Love's Keepsake
“When I work with the clay, I know that it is alive,” explains O’Brien. “There are microorganisms living in the clay body. The clay moves and changes with every step I take in the creation of the work … When the clay is fired for the first time I am essentially killing the raw material. This bisque work is dull and dead. I need to bring it back to life. Enriching the surface with raw oxides, and playing with the dry and wet surfaces all bring life back into the work.”
The unpredictability of natural elements is what artist Paula Murray of Chelsea, Quebec, explores in her fragile forms. Drawn to porcelain for its exceptional geological purity, Murray creates with a reverence to powers greater than those contained within human touch and consciousness. The artist spins wisps of fibreglass into wet porcelain, allowing cracks and folds to occur naturally in the kiln. The colours made manifest by the fires of a kiln, the irrepressible curling of translucent white porcelain, and the gentle calligraphy of cracks formed in her scrolls are all the ritual of ceramic process.
Paula Murray, Red Remnant
The ceramic artist ultimately engages in an art of preparation: a surrender to elemental forces that achieve properties beyond final control.
“I have found it to be an ideal material,” Murray says, “to reflect on both the human condition and environmental concerns—through its strength and fragility—along with metaphors of meaning embedded in the processes of making.”
The vulnerability of sailing on the Atlantic further informs Paula Murray’s approach to shaping her ceramic form—and allows her to appreciate the peace she finds in relinquishing the destructive desire for control.
“I believe having a sense of awe in the world is a healthy one,” explains the artist. “In my research I have pursued a direction that recognizes stress as a catalyst for change, for growth, and transformation,” she adds. “From a young age, I have witnessed the resilience of the human spirit, the ability to endure the struggle, the will to live. My fragmented vessels are a testament to that struggle and ability to create beauty out of a deep wound by embracing it.”
A fusing of history and modernity
We have seen how artistic manipulation of ceramic form can subvert the objective and utilitarian meanings of clay objects. As shown especially in the work of Lambrechts, Murray and Flock, even the most subtle transformations of otherwise functional objects enable experiential and challenging artworks. O’Brien’s abstract shapes further this often anti-functional experimentation, demanding a conscious interaction between concept and perception, while Creskey unites all of these artistic tactics through ceramic assemblage. Given this shared emphasis on creating subjective objects, we might ask what statements are spoken most clearly, most vitally, through these examples of ceramic arts?
Ceramic art can be seen fundamentally as a confrontation with industrialized production. As Creskey explains, “I also believe that because of its nature, craft is a rejection of modernity and mass production, making a powerful environmental statement.” This art form does not need explicit political vocabulary to emphasize meanings found in the simple communion of human touch and earthen material.
Flock explicitly pays tribute to the ceramic forms he learned from Kayo O’Young, a ceramic artist from Kleinberg, Ontario, whose often traditional shapes influenced Flock’s appreciation for stylistic lineage. Such a concept, though highly celebrated in the Far East, is radical in the face of sterile industrial production. Unrepeatable human touch negates the threat of mute anonymity in ceramic art.
Perhaps the most emphatic quality of ceramics, however, is a defiant positioning outside of social class. There are few mediums as capable of communicating to such vast audiences in the equal terms of clay.
“A humble common material,” says Murray, “that has served kings and paupers alike.”
Creskey finds particular significance in the origins of ceramics as craft and the unique potential of its manipulation by women.
“I think there is an attraction for feminist artists to embrace mediums and materials that are outside the artistic hierarchy,” Creskey contends. “The craft mediums have always been a place where feminist art has flourished. Because of the segregation of craft mediums from the high-art world, the use of these mediums in an art practice gives them a double code of meaning.”
Lisa Creskey, By the Locks (detail)
Deeply ingrained symbolism
Ceramic art objects were born as extensions of utility, yet their artistic value is only strengthening as we become more aware of their metaphoric language. With material objects we construct the world that surrounds us, but what consideration do we give to their essential qualities? In our homes and in our galleries, ceramic art offers a rare opportunity to explore the ways in which this ancient art form continues to derive meaning.
The diverse visual and tactile languages seen across the artists considered here reflect the extent to which the internal narrative of an object is never separate from its effect in our worlds. Often the most subtle of details—those that we interpret as accessory to function—colour our sensory experiences, and in so doing change the ways in which we experience and interact with our environments. In this way, the delicate behaviours of an ancient earthen material can shape and preserve our contemporary mythologies.