By Mamie Spiegel

“The first step in my process,” says Ellen Schechner Johnson, whose new ceramic pieces appear at the Zoho Gallery in the Aurora this coming Friday, March 1, “is to create a clay object.”

Ceramic work by Ellen Schechner Johnson and Edna Dickinson
Fri, Mar 1, 5-7pm
Zoho Gallery
Fábrica La Aurora

“I rip and tear thick and thin slabs of clay, piece them together, and wrestle them into a form.” Ripping, tearing and wrestling are violent, impulsive acts, and the clay forms Johnson makes are rough, primitive, and reckless –structures an abstract expressionist might construct.

After the pieces are fired, she paints each one with the intensity and loving attention a painter gives to a canvas. She doesn’t just paint the pieces: she actually collages them. She glues all kinds of rejected material – scraps of paper, shards of clay, bits of fabric –to them. She scribbles on them, making forceful, dynamic marks –uncivilized scrawls, preconscious squiggles. Finally, she dashes paint all around.

So here’s the irony… with these unlikely ingredients of degraded discards, primal gestures and boorish shapes, she creates objects that are highly elegant and warmly sophisticated. Each piece has the aesthetic complexity and invention of an Arshile Gorky abstraction and the immediacy and freshness of a Franz Hals. They are also fiercely strong.

Johnson loves to paint and loves the objectness of ceramics. These pieces unite her two passions.

“I would say the process creates the product. I could never plan a piece. I just keep reacting to what is happening as I proceed.”

Edna Dickinson’s process is completely different from Ellen’s.

She begins with an idea of a form she’d like to explore, and then figures out how to realize such a form in clay. The idea which has lately intrigued her is “creating a series of ribs and dips.”

“It was six months between getting the idea and working it out. I developed the process to realize the idea.”

She designs substructures, and covers them with clay slip, a slurry, forming a thin skin over the entire substructure.

“The piece had to be suspended in the air so I could walk around it. I applied tension by stretching the material over the wooden ribs and anchoring the material in order to hold the piece steady until there was enough clay on the piece to firm it up. I pulled the ribs taut with paper clips attached to strings which were anchored onto chairs, flower pots, bricks, shed walls, anything I could find.”

Then the piece is fired: the clay slip becomes rigid and strong, and the substructure burns away. The ceramic piece, then, is what is left. “A husk,” says Edna. “What remains.”

“I love how the curves are created by putting tension on the ribs and stacking the ribs from larger to smaller and how lively they are.” These pieces are not only lively, they are beautiful and astounding. “Once I had the idea I had to design a process. The product dictated the process.”


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