The frontiers of form

Ceramic work doesn’t have to be a bowl or a mug to serve a purpose.

Consider the landscape-inspired wall treatments of ceramic artist Don Penny, a retired art teacher from Hahira, Ga., who smudges the boundary between the aesthetic and the functional. “Some of my work serves as markers or signs, though I’m not quite sure what they’re saying,” Penny admits. “Many,” he says, “are ceremonial in aspect.”

One gallery, 10 artists and a roomful of forms ranging from kitchen sponges to sea anemones: Thus begins the journey into Formal Beauty, now showing at the Odyssey Gallery. It’s a fitting venue for these creations, because for the national and local artists whose works are perched on the little gallery’s white pedestals, creating abstract sculpture is nothing less than an epic adventure.

“There’s a rigor and discipline with functional things. There are certain limits,” Penny explains, adding, “Going from functional to abstract is a little difficult.” Penny prevailed over the challenge: The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery recently bought one of his creations.

His background as a painter translates into what Odyssey’s Cassia Kesler calls “amazing” glaze work. For Penny, though, the effect achieved is the result of trial, error and plenty of practice.

“Each piece has a recognition of the landscape as a stimulus,” he explains. Penny tries to envision what the glazes will look like when they’re layered on top of one another. After the firing process is complete, he records the result, so he can repeat it. “When a potter opens a kiln, it’s always a surprise,” he says. “Like having a child, there’s that gestation period.”

Mark Burleson, director of the nearby Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts, reveals that Penny builds his wall treatments in sections, firing one half upside down to create a contradicting glaze flow.

“This is formal sculpture,” says Burleson about the exhibit, “because it’s purely about form.” Most if not all of the pieces on display were formed by coiling and slab construction, as opposed to being made on a potter’s wheel. “A lot of artists in this style work intuitively,” Burleson observes. “They’re guided by the clay.”

Formal Beauty showcases form, color and line from the furthest reaches of creativity. “Part of my approach to the Center is to encourage working in clay in as many ways as possible,” Burleson reveals.

Local artist Megan Wolfe, a professor at UNCA, creates work that seems to spring from a Dr. Seuss-inspired underwater fantasy. “LT00” boasts multicolored swirling shapes that morph into tentacled anemones, their spiky tops glazed in slick shades of yellow, green and pink. “Vessel II,” another in the fantastical series, combines rough and smooth textures, taunting the viewer to touch it. Three branches finished in a barklike glaze reach out of the sandpapery, gourd-shaped base. Geometric fronds top the piece, waving shiny, blue-fingered tips.

For San Francisco-based sculptor Gregory Roberts, free-form construction is a tightrope walk between fantasy and reality. His “Myopic Quagmire” series — a whimsical tangle of tendrils encrusted in thick, crackling chartreuse glaze — begs the viewer to peer closer.

“They’re radioactive tumbleweeds,” says Roberts. Part of a post-9/11 installation he’ll display at the Sonoma State University Art Gallery in September, the tumbleweeds represent how the perils of war infiltrate the biology of plant life. “It’s about that myopic vision we get as we move into crisis,” he explains.

A ceramics professor at Sonoma State, Roberts agrees that shifting from conventional to abstract work can feel schizophrenic. “I don’t do any functional work,” he admits. But neither is his artistic process kept separate from the discipline of the classroom. “It’s important to keep talking and teaching to develop my ideas,” he says.

A jumble of dead vines in Roberts’ back yard inspired the tumbleweeds. He re-created the effect by pouring layer upon layer of slip over a pile of twigs, allowing the liquid clay to crack and grow brittle as it built up. Then came the preliminary firing. “You never know what you get until you fire it,” he says, echoing Penny. After carving and manipulating the form to get the shape he wants, Roberts adds a high-fire glaze, following that with several layers of spray-on glaze to achieve just the right hue.

“It usually takes five to seven attempts,” he says. A natural tumbleweed’s “function” is to be here one second, gone the next — but for this artist, a single “radioactive tumbleweed” can require months of work.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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