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Activities / Creative Corner

DAM exhibit will break the mold on clay artistry

Forget the romantic image of a lone artist huddled over a partially modeled clay figure in a garret-like studio.

Instead, Kim Dickey and a flurry of assistants have spent long days in recent months working in an open, caged storage area in the middle of a vast warehouse building operated by the University of Colorado Distribution Center.

The CU-Boulder associate professor of art needed the cavernous space to accommodate the largest work she has ever attempted — a 20-foot-long garden wall with a mosaic composed of 6,000 hand-painted clay leaves depicting an idealized meadow.

“It’s very pixelated, as you come up,” Dickey said. “Then as you get back, the image kind of sharpens. It’s a little bit about this idea of a mirage. You see this meadow from afar, and then as you get closer, it breaks up, dissipates and becomes this glittering field of color.”

She is one of 25 clay artists from North America and Europe who will be showcased in “Overthrown: Clay Without Limits.” It is one of seven exhibitions that make up the Denver Art Museum’s “Marvelous Mud: Clay Through the Ages,” which opens June 11.

The intent of the show is simple: Explode traditional notions of ceramics and give viewers a taste of the extraordinary diversity that characterizes the medium today. In short, think installations and sculptures — not pots.

As in the museum’s 2009-10 exhibition “Embrace!” the artists were asked to create works that respond to the building’s tilted ceilings and angled walls as well as the sheer scale of the Anschutz Gallery, which has walls that reach 26 feet in height.

For some of the participants, that meant pushing beyond the scope of anything they had attempted before.

“To even make a mark in that space, you have to scale up, right?” Dickey said. “So, 20 feet was kind of a minimum for me to make som

ething that would stand out and hold its own. And this is something I always wanted to do, so I’m excited about it.”

After considering nearly 100 artists, many suggested by Dickey and other top local artists, and attending clay symposia in SantaFe and London, curator Gwen Chanzit whittled her list down to the final 25. She gave them the go-ahead about a year ago.

“Especially in ceramic art, that’s no time at all,” she said. “Almost everyone made something specifically for our exhibition, so giving them a year was very, very quick.”

Chanzit made a point of including a strong array of Colorado residents, because of the state’s history of major artists working in the medium, including Richard DeVore, Paul Soldner and Betty Woodman.

“I think a lot of people who live here have no idea that this is such a great place for ceramics and has such a wonderful history and so many great people have come out of this school in particular,” said Jeanne Quinn, a CU-Boulder associate professor of art.

Working as much like an architect as an artist, Dickey collaborated with a fabricator to design and build the five two- sided aluminum panels — 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall — on which the clay leaves are mounted.

Then, she and eight part- time assistants, working both in the warehouse and Dickey’s usual studio, have molded and glazed the 15,000 clay leaves total (green ones line the back and sides) and drilled the holes needed to mount them.

On a recent Monday, Dickey and an assistant were using tiny brushes to apply 30 colored glazes onto the leaves on one panel, following the outlines of a projection.

The projected design is a re-creation of a composition from a famous tapestry. It was manipulated using a computer-aided design program so it would fit the wall’s shape as an uninterrupted, proportional, non-repeating image.

Once each leaf has been painted, it is numbered and lettered. It is then removed, fired and reattached — an extraordinarily painstaking process.

The finished work, titled “Mille-fleur,” will unite architecture, sculpture and painting and draw on both the history of art and gardens.

“There is this reference,” Dickey said, “to what ceramics can do well, which is create incredibly lustrous, beautiful surfaces that are rich in color and texture and tactility and history — and it will never fade.”

Chandelier in clay

Quinn, one of Dickey’s colleagues at CU-Boulder, is also evoking nature in her installation for “Overthrown,” but in a very different way.

Her art has long been about drawing on the history of chandeliers, but reinterpreting and abstracting them in large-scale contemporary installations.

This suspended piece consists of some 500 molded clay components. They vaguely suggest traditional parts of a chandelier and simultaneously draw on pine branches and other tree forms, hence the title, “You Are the Forest, You Are the Palace.”

“I want you to have both the experience of feeling kind of like you’re walking through a forest and also that you are walking through a hall of chandeliers,” Quinn said.

The triangular installation, which will be at least 23 feet across, will occupy a corner of the Anschutz Gallery and play on the notion of vanishing- point perspective. The components will get progressively smaller as they approach the corner, and the color will gradually darken from white to gray-green.

Because of other projects, Quinn was not able to start work on the piece until December, when she had a residency at the European Ceramic Work Center in the Netherlands.

There, for the first time, she used a 3-D computer modeling program and printer to shape the different components of the work. She then made plaster molds from those prototypes and set about fabricating the necessary multiples back in Boulder.

Accustomed to doing everything by hand, she struggled to get used to this more analytical approach, which she compared to doing mathematics all day.

“I have to figure out to put myself and my hand and my work back into it,” she said, “so that, hopefully, I’m using this tool in a way that is useful, but I’m still making something that feels really sincere.”

When Martha Russo and Katie Caron, both members of the faculty at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in Lakewood, were asked to take part in the show, they agreed to collaborate.

“Tangle” installation

That decision came in part because of the sheer scale of what they hoped to build, an installation that lines one section of a sloping wall in the gallery, with cables connecting it to additional elements on a nearby partition.

“We’ve worked really well together,” Caron said to Russo during an interview. “We haven’t had any fights. And the thing is, I know you so much more now, as we get to the end of it.”

“Same here,” Russo said.

In their early brainstorming for the work, they toyed with words, and the one that struck both of them was “tangle.” That led to an investigation of utility poles and lines — ubiquitous but ignored parts of both the urban and rural landscape.

“I started becoming really obsessed with telephone poles even before we began our collaboration,” Caron said, “just staring at them and looking at the connections and how awkward they are. And how the awkwardness is an aesthetic of functionality.”

They began envisioning a piece that would incorporate utility poles, insulators and cable but go much further, intermixing those elements with cellular and other biomorphic forms alluding to electricity’s essential role in all life.

The work, titled, “Apoptosis,” which refers to a process of programmed cell death, consists of several thousand components. Clay is obviously the main material, but it also incorporates 150 exposed electrical cords, an array of found objects and illuminated globes fashioned of handmade paper, wax and resin.

With a little more than a week to go until the opening of the exhibition, the challenge now for these artists is installing these pieces at the museum and adapting to the last-minute, unexpected hurdles that are sure to come along in that process.

Kyle MacMillan: 303-954-1675 or[email protected]

“Overthrown: Clay Without Limits”

Art. Denver Art Museum, West 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock Street. This show consists of mostly site-specific installations by 25 top clay artists from North America and Europe. It is one of seven exhibitions that make up a museum-wide offering titled, “Marvelous Mud: Clay Through the Ages.” June 11-Sept. 18. Free with regular museum admission. 720-865-5000 or

By Kyle MacMillan

Photo credit Joe Amon

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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