An earthy revolution

A while back, local sculptor Clara Rountree Couch decided to redecorate her home. Her furniture, she felt, was wearing out … wearing out its function in her life, that is.

“I got rid of my furniture because [although] my house is glass on three sides, I wanted to really be aware of the outside [world], and when I sit on the floor, I feel I can be aware of it so much more,” she explained cheerfully during a recent interview, after rejecting a chair in favor of a cross-legged position on Zone one contemporary gallery’s hardwood floor — the same floor that currently supports her aptly titled clay exhibit, Earth.

In fact, the self-described minimalist artist seems to chafe at the notion of all things extra — at any idea, any object that disrupts the pulse of the natural world. In that vein, Couch has for years forsaken the addition of glazes to her clay sculptures.

“I taught glazes [as part of] my classes, and I’ve studied glaze chemistry, but I never liked it on my pieces, because I felt like I wasn’t able to get to the earth that way,” she notes. “It was like a skin over [the pieces]. Of course, glaze is sand that’s melted to make that shiny surface, and you say, ‘Well, that’s the earth’ … but it doesn’t look like the earth to me.”

Earth’s sculptures are utterly, heavily, unevenly round in a way that predates explanation: Their forms ape not the mathematical perfection of a globe, but rather the outwardly languid, inwardly urgent cycles that run a planet from the inside out. Likewise, their nuanced colors — achieved by overlaying water-and-clay-based terra cotta tones with deeper oranges and reds, plus whispers of green — mirror hues found in nature.

“My whole life,” declares Couch, “is about the outdoors.” That naturally includes the lives of her fellow creatures: “My door [stays] open, and I have some wrens that come in and spend the night sometimes,” she reveals matter-of-factly.

Whether formed in the memory of Native American artifacts or crafted with sharper immediacy (one mottled, stone-shaped piece — lording erect over a litter of smaller, flatter “stones” — is similar to a sculpture she made for her husband’s grave marker), the sculptures orbit unanimously around an inner vision.

“I feel the spiral in my body,” Couch notes quietly of the sculptural form she favors. “But it’s not only a visual thing — I am part of the spiral. We are moving all the time. But somehow, I don’t think of [the earth’s revolution] as a visual thing … just more of a feeling.

One voluptuous vessel appears to pant contentedly on its side, exuding the life-force of a heart or liver. Others are shaped like shallow fruit bowls (or perhaps the gutted, stretched-out peel of the eaten fruit) and hold surprises: skipping stones immersed in water, a stilled butterfly. The long-established artist points out that most of the exhibited works are replications of much larger pieces. An exception is “Gaggle of Gourds” — three exquisite, long-necked entities that nod to both the animal and vegetable world.

“I have made about 15 of the [goose-shaped sculptures] over a period of years, [starting] right after my husband died,” Couch explains. “The first one I made was the one with the gourd stem sticking straight up — that was a scream of pain for me,” she says. After a pause, she points to the remainder of the trio. “The one where he’s looking out in front of him, where he’s hissing — that was about the anger I was feeling.” About the third gourd-bird, marked by a shyly twisted head, she remarks, “Of course, that very feminine one was [made when] I felt very vulnerable. … I had been a kept woman, so to speak. … My children had all gone, too. For the first time, I was striking out on my own. And fortunately, I had my work. My work saved my life.”

The disparity between Couch’s intentions for her work and others’ observations of it ruffles her curiosity more than her ire. About “Regeneration,” a bowl filled with rippled, pod-shaped objects, she notes: “Beans are the most fecund of all our natural forms. If you look at flowers or weeds or anything, it’s when the flower finishes that the new life is [begun] in that little seed that’s left, which is the bean. So I decided to do a bowl of beans. But to most people, the ‘beans’ look like clams. … What people see in [a work], versus what it means to you, is one of the wonderful things you get from art.”

Presently, Couch concentrates more on the joy of creating than on the end-result. The journey, she says, “has to be real. It comes back to sitting on the floor and looking out the window.”

The end of an era

Sharing gallery space with Earth is Jason Watson’s emotionally charged mixed-media series, Book Burning. Illuminating scenes from five of the century’s most hallowed novels (among them Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), Watson presents a kind of dramatic time capsule of literary treasures.

“The crux of this work came out of conversations I’ve been having over the past year, mostly dealing with the end of the century or the end of an age or the end of an era. … I’ve been exploring what, if anything, from the past century or era, is worth saving,” he says in his artist’s statement.

But if great books are the answer to that quandary, the question still burns within private confines: In supplanting each main character’s face with his own self-portrait, Watson visually announces the end of a personal era, as well. The emerging artist — who gained acclaim with last year’s deeply personal Tether/Leash (also exhibited at Zone one) — will soon leave Asheville for White Plains, N.Y., to pursue a graduate degree. “Although the move itself is not a bad thing, it’s the end of a chapter in my life, as any move is,” he notes. “And the books I’ve chosen are all typified by a sense of loss, of regret. … I’ll look back on this time in my life with mixed feelings.”

Watson’s complex, richly symbolic pieces contrast remarkably with Couch’s pure forms. The latter, because they tell an ever-unfolding tale, are able to acquit themselves of era-specific detail. Watson reminds us, however, that “all art is narrative,” allowing artists of every station ample room to unshoulder their stories.

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