“In Pursuit of Beauty”
Daily living can be a draining chore with endless to do lists, long lines, and traffic jams. Mundane and monotonous, the week drags by only to fast forward over the weekend. It is a miserable routine that weighs on the human spirit as we delude ourselves in our workaday lives and forget the beautiful and mysterious world we live in.
Webster’s Dictionary defines beauty as “... qualities in a person or thing that give pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalt the mind or spirit...a particularly graceful, ornamental, or excellent quality.” Some may see beauty as a frivolous and naive goal unworthy of being an artist’s ultimate objective. As I question what is wrong with beauty, I find myself asking the more important question which is why am I searching for beauty. The truth is, we are all searching for beauty. We often choose our partners by how they appear; we purchase sleek cars and select the most appealing appliances available. Beauty is an inherent component of human nature. For me beauty is an escape from my mundane life. It is beauty that reminds me that life is a gift which is far greater than our daily struggles. Beauty truly exalts the mind and spirit. Making art is a way for me to focus on this idea. It enables me to make sense out of why I am here and what it means to be self aware. As I strive to create an ideal world through my designs of perfecting the sublime I understand what I am looking for is a spiritual revelation.
Throughout the years my definition of beauty has grown exponentially. Beauty is everywhere, present in everything but often unacknowledged. I see beauty in the simplest things. It is present in the way a eucalypts tree extends its heavy branch from it’s trunk as the bark below the branch wrinkles under the pressure. The grotesque is also beautiful, often jarring, disturbing, or repulsive. There is beauty in the dissected human. Nerves and veins branch out to the tips of our skin. Muscle meets bone wrapping itself around the rigid structure similar to the way a vine grows up a building curling it’s soft tendrils around the strong support of brick walls.
In my search for beauty I am most attracted to plants and animals. They are the ultimate embodiment of perfection incapable of the evils that plague us. They are reactionary beings that kill out of hunger or self-defense. What secret lives they must have: the earth to explore, a gentle breeze on their flesh, and the pull of gravity. By ignoring the evil side of human nature I can create a utopian world of animals free of human downfalls, an escape from everyday reality. It is a fanciful place where beauty and design is pulsating with life. I strive to create a natural world displaying its fragile vulnerability without hesitancy. In the world I create the lines between beauty and grotesque are blurred with piercing tranquility.
As my artwork is an escape for me I begin my process by pouring over nature books, the more exotic the better. I am drawn to the exotic because it is unlike anything I have ever experienced; it is the ultimate escape. I am often overwhelmed with the beautiful images that lie before me and find myself sketching and composing. These sketches are merely inspired by the life forms I see. Looking through nature books is an immediate way for me to generate ideas. It is important for me to design my own animals, animals that have never been created. That way they truly seem to belong to me and no one else. I may spend days developing new animals, whittling the hours away drawing the many possibilities while thumbing through book after book until I have several pages of sketches. When I look at these images at a later date I am more clearly able to determine which is the most engaging. Generally there will be anywhere from one to five sketches that have potential. Once I determine which one I am most interested in I am compelled to sketch that one design over and over until it is just right. I will incorporate different ideas into the sketch until they have a visual connection. The ideas may be purely narrative or they may be based on formal art issues. Even if the piece is narrative it is important that it is organized through design elements in order to keep the eye moving throughout the piece.
Design is perhaps the most important element of my work as I often associate beauty with good design. Design helps me to organize and make sense of the world. It is found everywhere in nature alluding to a higher meaning of life. Through my investigations of insects I find myself astonished to discover the incredible amount of design elements that are ever-present within their bodies. I find much satisfaction in the graceful elements found in their exoskeleton. I see beauty in their segmentation with the ever-changing lines that divide one segment from another and their graceful antennae that extend and elevate the length of their bodies.
Movement and fluidity is also important to my work. I am drawn to the lines found in a trail of incense smoke. It rises and curls around itself to ride the invisible currents of air only to slowly disappear. This movement may also be seen in the plant world as a sprout rises and unfolds its tender leaves to caress the warm beams of sunlight. These natural and a-symmetrical-free-flowing lines are what I incorporate within my work to produce a sense of movement.
Volume, an essential part of form, is also an indispensable aspect of my work. An inflated and generous amount of air fills my creatures with pulsating life. This sense of expanded form lends itself to a full-bodied animal that appears healthy and thriving.
Animals are incredibly sophisticated organisms that we depend on. They are capable of much more that they are credited for. It is within this context, the reverence of their lives, which leads me to scale. I have slowly increased the scale of my work because I want my creatures to embody a sense of grandeur that they are worthy of. Large and unavoidable, they confront the viewer with their presence. Scale elevates the animal beyond the figurine as it takes its place within the art world of sculpture.
When it comes time to decide the appropriate scale for a piece I may draw the desired piece in a variety of sizes to determine exactly how large it needs to be. This enables me to see how effective the piece would be at different scales. This life-size drawing is like a map that informs me how to get from point A to point B. As I build the piece I will continuously refer to this map in order to avoid distortion of my original design.
The clay body I use is a low-fire earthenware that fires to a creamy white color at cone 04. I make my clay from scratch only because I have not found a pre-made clay body that is as flexible, plastic, and smooth as the clay body I make. I am also drawn to this clay body because it’s white color allows me to be flexible and enables me to achieve whatever color I desire. I choose to work with low-fire for two reasons: there is less chance of damage in the firing process and it allows me a wide color range. Because my work is so time consuming (I average about 1 piece per month), I do not want to take the risk of a high-fire clay body.
All of my pieces are hand built. Most are slab constructed since I find it the quickest and most enjoyable way to work but I do not remain faithful to this technique alone. I will use the most suitable technique for the form. Working with slabs is much like sewing with large flat pieces of clay that join together to create a three-dimensional object. However it is not imperative that the pieces fit together perfectly as they can be easily modified during the construction process. Once the underlying form is constructed and is air tight I am able to paddle the form into shape because the air pressure on the inside keeps the form from collapsing.
Since the animals I create do not have flat bottoms on which to sit bases have to be designed to hold the piece. This creates an engineering problem for me because if the creatures and bases were built as a whole they would be a nightmare to get into the kiln without breakage let alone shipping the pieces. I have to engineer the pieces to be assembled and diss-assembled. I usually use brass rods that will slide into a matching brass tube to hold the animal into place. The tubes are glued into place with PC-7 after the piece has gone through its final glaze firing. The rods then slides in and out of the tubes allowing the animal to slide on and off the base at any given point.
Not only do my bases act as housings for my creatures they serve as elements that contain the creatures in their own environments separating them from this world. They also present the animals in precious ways to reinforce their importance and grander. Some of the bases are used in the same way that jewelry is used to present precious gems. These fittings display the unknown animal to an audience in an artificial way which creates a dynamic tension portraying this natural-looking animal in an artificial way. Some bases are more like platforms as they set the stage for the creature to illuminate. This presentation device elevates the status of the animals and bestows them with their own personal environment. These foundations are not of this world nor are they of the animal’s world. Rather they are artificial devices that fill the viewer with curiosity and mystery. The interaction between the infrastructure and the animal lends a narrative quality to the piece. The dialogue is further developed through the use of the animals’ body language. The creature may be rising from a decorative base that may have provided shelter or the animal may be in an artificial environment produced by some other unknown creature. The gestures of the creatures are often dance-like as if posed for an unseen audience. Many of the animals are not alone suggesting coupling or family unity. Most of my creations have sexual appendages which raise the question of the complexity of their relationships.
Determining the appropriate texture is never an easy endeavor but always a labor of love. After the form has been constructed I will take some extra time observing the piece to discern a desirable texture. This is based on how I see the creature. Often I use books containing various plants and animals as my resource. I like to think about how different textures will change the creature I just created. Not only is the texture important in conveying the type of animal, it is important to give it an over-all effect and design. The form may be graceful and elegant but if a slimy and disgusting texture is applied it gives the work an interesting and unexpected twist. This further blends the lines between beauty and repulsion. I enjoy placing the viewer in an uneasy place that is both comforting and distressful. It is also important for there to be a balance within texture. I like to contrast smooth texture with rough texture and enjoy how the two opposites play off one another. If there is too much texture the eye becomes tired with no place to rest. Just the right amount of both keeps the eye moving and holds the viewer’s attention longer.
Once the building process is complete, I bisque fire it to cone 04. At this temperature the clay body becomes very strong which is important since my work is usually delicate and fragile. At this point I must decide on a color combination. Choosing the appropriate color combination is usually done after I bisque fire the piece. Rarely do I know the color before its initial firing. I have found that unexpected color combinations in conjunction with jarring textures can create a tension between the sublime and grotesque while evoking sensations of balance and harmony within any given piece. The unexpected color combinations allow me to escape from the expected. The use of pastel color combinations often help to unify the complexity of form and texture because of the tightly knit value range. Monochromatic colors act in a similar fashion as they simplify the active surface allowing the form and its textures to become more noticeable and significant.
In order to achieve the color combination I have selected I use underglaze because of its consistency and the almost limitless color possibilities. I am able to blend one color into another and may layer several colors to create a deep, luscious surface. Currently I have been airbrushing the underglazes to create a flawless surface. The underglaze I use also allows me the option of a matt or glossy surface. After I finish underglazing I fire the piece to cone 06. Once the piece comes out of the kiln I may go over it with more underglazes in order to get the desired affect. If I’m lucky I get it right the first time. Otherwise I may fire it multiple times until it is just right. Once I like what I see I will determine which areas should be glossy or matt so that I may apply clear glaze on the appropriate areas. Once it has gone through the final firing I will seal the matt surfaces with a clear matt spray paint to prevent it from becoming dirty.
Working with ceramics has been a continuous challenge for me. It is by far the most challenging medium I have ever encountered. Not only do I have to design each piece I have to build it, engineer it to diss-assemble, and I have to paint it. Each step poses its own unique challenges which never fail to keep me engaged in my pursuit of beauty. In my quest for the sublime I feel I am pursuing the most ideal form of art that which endeavors to exalt the mind and spirit. Through our recognition of beauty we are able, if only for a moment, to escape our fast-paced world. Although my vision of a utopian world will probably never be realized, I am able to create one through my art.
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