Fabled fixtures

North Carolina sculptor Carol Gentithes was never quite happy with the ending of Aesop’s venerable fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” “I [always thought] of the rabbit winning,” she reveals.

So she reshaped the fable to her liking, in the form of “Won by a Hare,” now on display at the Odyssey Gallery, as part of its Spinning Tales exhibit. Flashing a double-victory sign from his perch atop a skeptical-looking tortoise, the rabbit in question (yes, that would be him beneath the Richard Nixon mask) looks decidedly pleased about the outcome.

“He’s a crafty character, slick and sly,” the artist points out. Not that the tortoise is a total loser. He looks good, anyway, with his swirly, sunny-hued shell and polka-dotted saddle — not to mention that he moonlights as a soup tureen.

“You can actually use [the sculpture],” affirms Gentithes. Her collection of campy dinnerware also includes the “Dali Llama Teapot” (not part of the Odyssey Gallery show) — a llama-shaped piece featuring surrealist painter Salvador Dali, not the Tibetan spiritual leader, as the lid — as well as many other conceptual works.

“Not all of them are functional,” she says, “but all of them do contain a certain humor. I like looking at things that make me laugh, so I like making things that make other people laugh.”

Many tales are being retold in the River District’s Odyssey Gallery right now. Spinning Tales explores narrative using contemporary ceramics, featuring artists from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations. Some of the pieces are functional, and some are not, but all of them actively harbor stories — stories eager to be exhumed.

For John Foster, the story is not in the work but in the beholder:

“Artwork is supposed to inspire different interpretations,” he asserts. “It doesn’t need the interpretation of the maker. What I like for my pieces to do is conjure up a story. Though notably weary from the demands of a brand-new baby (our phone interview has an unpromising beginning, until I convince him I’m not soliciting for American Express or yet another no-name discount long-distance service), the Florida artist gamely explains his unusual ceramic figure, “Blade Back.”

“I worked on a series that had to do with athletic forms … [and this] one has more of a swimmer aspect,” he says. The sculpture — a small, mottled, marble-like figure with a vaguely amphibious torso and fin-like limbs — hovers face-down, with its legs swept up high in the air behind it.

“It’s dreamlike, surreal,” he offers. “Some people see [the figure] as floating on a cloud, or sitting with its feet up. Everyone has their own interpretation, as far as narrative goes.”

I found the figure, with its dramatic shoulder blades and helpless-looking pose, rather chilling at first glance. But on further examination, it seemed to be reproaching me, the way its chin was planted, Thinker-style, on its fist — as if it knew something I didn’t.

A fresh viewing some minutes later, though, disclosed something quite different. This time, I saw a freakish man-frog cheerfully determined not to evolve.

“There are points of departure in personal narrative,” Foster agrees. “My figures are eerie because, though they refer to the human figure, they are not what the human figure looks like. A lot of my work has to do with the metaphysical self. I start with a generic theme — the human condition — but [the pieces] are not in any context. What I like people to do when [looking] at these pieces is place them in some context.”

The context of Paula Smith’s sculpture is unabashedly personal. Both “Emily’s Exvoto” and “Common Keys” are striking sculptural structures that manage to look like altars and doll houses at the same time. Though similar in form — both have the silhouetted torso of a woman protruding from one side, while the flip side is segmented into niches that hold culturally significant objects — the pieces are as varied as they are potent.

“Emily’s Exvoto” is aggressively pink — putting even Pepto-Bismol to shame. A kewpie doll beams from the top story of the houselike structure, while magenta curtains turn an adjacent room into a kind of theater. The word “Progress” is stamped on one side of the dwelling, and the bust on the other side is rose-encrusted and topped with a bird cage.

In countries like Mexico, Smith explains, an ex-voto is a prayer piece created to aid a family member in need. “Emily’s Exvoto” honors Smith’s 8-year-old daughter. But since Emily is healthy and happy, Smith’s sculpture is something more than a plea for help. “It’s a prayer for her safe journey through life,” Smith explains. “It involves all the issues of being a girl, [and] it’s about being a woman, too, and all these kinds of [roles] that are [forced] on you. You’re born, and from that day, there are all these labels.”

Smith contends that most of her pieces have a political edge. Her “Common Keys” makes reference to Victorian times. “I was around then. I have some connections to the early 1900s,” she claims, with no compunctions. The work’s washed-out plum tones, trimmed in black, are aptly era-specific, as are its numerous tiny drawers that recall the fussy compartments inside a rolltop desk. The drawers hold such items as a zodiac-emblazoned coffee mug and a bizarre-looking pump (it’s really an antique atomizer, says Smith) that are purposefully connected to the artist’s present and past lives.

“My works are basically [narratives] from within my life, or historical references that relate to my life,” she notes. Smith has been involved in ceramics for the past 20 years; fifteen of these have seen her work devoted to themes involving feminine strength. Infusing sculptures with narrative meaning is not a choice, but a compulsion, she says.

“I have respect for formal work, but if you have something to say, you have to give voice to it,” she asserts.

Two of California-based Les Lawrence’s “New Vision Teapots” are also on display at Odyssey, and though they stand fine on their own, they’re only parts of a puzzle, the artist explains.

“If you take 10 of my pieces and put them all together, it’s a story,” he says. “The individual images [in the teapots] are [just] large symbols. If you look at all the work, you can see the whole story, as I look at it.”

When creating the surfaces of his black-and-white teapots, comprised of a maniacal jumble of personal and cultural icons, Lawrence employs a technique that makes the images look like pasted-together scraps of newsprint. It’s a fitting way to deliver his message — which is simultaneously political and irreverent — and Lawrence sheds further light on the collages by decoding some of the symbols.

“The dollar bill [symbolizes] government,” he notes. “The Mona Lisa [figure] is about art and my interest in history.”

And what exactly emerges when all the pieces are present?

“It’s a story that goes on — my personal look at this society in 1998,” he explains. “It’s about what’s happening in Europe, what’s happening with Clinton, [issues like] support for the arts, Republicans vs. Democrats, what’s reported in the newspaper and on [television]. My work is my look at that story, from very specific things to very generic things. Sometimes it’s hidden and subtle.”

Lawrence maintains that his outlook is more humorous than grim (and the whimsical, arm-shaped spouts and ear-shaped handles on the teapots bear this out). The other constant in his work seems to be the pieces’ uniform overall appearance — despite what’s waiting to be discovered, upon closer inspection:

“I make mostly vessel forms, a lot of teapots and covered containers, all of clay and all with black-and-white imagery,” he explains. “Only the shapes change. I used to do a lot of dinnerware for Neiman-Marcus, and those [works] were all very colorful, figurative pieces. There was a narrative in them, too … a different sort of story,” he concludes with a chuckle.

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