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Body Perspectives ... Figure Sculptors from University of Florida Ceramics.

IS IT TOO GREAT A STRETCH TO SAY THAT ARTISTIC DNA can be transferred through the teaching process? Body Perspectives ... Figure Sculptors from University of Florida Ceramics at the Thomas J Funke Gallery at Funke Fired Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio, US presented a strong argument in favor of the thought and, in fact, art history is the continued story of just such transfers.

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The show, with two works by ceramist-sculptor Nan Smith and others by both current and former students, was 20 years in the making, says Lisa Merida-Paytes, gallery director, curator of the exhibition and an artist herself. By that she means the 20-plus years Smith has been teaching at the University of Florida in Gainesville but she also alludes to her own appreciation of Smith's work. "I became aware of her works and writings when I was in graduate school," she says. Soon after plans for the Funke gallery began to take shape in 2007, Merida-Paytes contacted Smith, "to talk about developing this wonderful space for ceramics exhibitions and our ideas started percolating a little. She had a piece in our first show, although we hadn't yet met face to face."

The ideas percolating included a long-held dream of the teacher/sculptor: a show of work by various of her students from down the years, plus one or two of her own. "I was so happy to work with Nan, to help her realize her vision," Merida-Paytes says. "We worked on it for a year and a half. Her students are dispersed around the country. Logistically, getting this show together was difficult but everyone knew the importance of showing together and, with everyone's help, it happened. One of the difficulties was that most of the work is in many pieces and requires careful installation." Thirty works were shown in the gallery's high-ceilinged, light-filled space, two by Smith and the others by 13 of her current or former students.

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Perhaps the most interesting thing about seeing these works together was not their likenesses but their differences. As every parent knows, we never have the same child twice. Transferred DNA mixes with other influences and an individual emerges. Although Smith's methods and subject matter, processed through other minds and hands, produce family resemblances, they are of a family in which no one stayed at home.

Smith herself is endlessly interested in the figure and objects that speak to both memory and desire. She takes on such out-of-fashion concerns without a blink and executes them so deftly that underlying human meaning rises over passing modes of thought. She is a restless innovator in process and in an e-mail exchange with me concerning her methods said "I have worked with rubber moulds used as ceramic press-moulds and life casting for many years. Four years ago I began slip-casting elements that were to be multiples within a sculpture vignette or installation. My recent research has included new rubber mould-making products, including silicone and polyurethane rubbers that allow me to save time. I continually glaze test and work on traditional as well as alternative surfacing techniques. I have worked with steel and wooden structures within installations as well as the back-lit photograph. So, yes, I feel I am continually testing to develop my studio practice, techniques and aesthetics." She also spoke of research reading on "themes I choose as the conceptual base of my art work, including psychology, religion, metaphysics, spirituality and recently health and the environment".

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The 'back-lit photograph' she mentions refers to a frequent element of her pieces: two-dimensional 'pictorial narratives' that at first were airbrushed paintings made from personal photographs but now are executed with Photoshop. "The imagery is printed as both sepia-toned laser decals and, more recently, as full colour china paint decals. These are then fired onto the glazed surfaces within the sculptures."

Smith's contributions to the exhibition, Romance and Kelli II, each consist of a life-size woman's head, set off by a few evocative bits and pieces. An envelope, only partially addressed but the stamp cancelled (what are we to make of that?); a slim vase in Romance, a rose of surpassing delicacy in Kelli II. Fabric is implied: there is a handkerchief in one piece and the suggestion of a lace-trimmed bodice is evident in each. The expressions of the women's faces, however, along with the technique required for these flawlessly rendered pieces, rescue them from banality. A lifted eyebrow makes us wonder what, exactly, is going on and the bibelots carry associative weight of their own. A playing card jack, for instance, adorns one of a pair of small vases or drinking vessels; the other is plain. Smith allows us to take her ideas in any direction we choose.

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Beau Raymond has absorbed Smith's rigorous lessons in technique to put them to use for ends as wholly masculine in sensibility as Smith's are feminine. He says he "struggles with the masculine ideal", and shows us that struggle in a boxer coming back for more despite black eyes, a man attacked by his own dog in Man's Best Friend and, most tellingly, The Patriarch, in which an old man sits uneasily in an elaborate chair, regretting that he is not where the action is. The figures are all dressed in shorts and boots, their bodies expressing their age, demeanour and level of strength.

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In writing about this show I am struck by something not noticed when I first looked at it: the artists' frequent strong identity with his or her own sex. This suggests to me that these artists think seriously about what they want their work to say and, also, that we seldom escape the particular perch from which we see the world. Not a bad thing. As a woman, I can recognize the vulnerability in Raymond's figures and know more about men from them.

Ovidio Giberga, who earned an MFA under Smith in the mid-1990s, teaches now at the University of Texas at San Antonio and, like Raymond, has a male take on the world, although his men can be read as standing in for humankind. Male Figure Balancing Biomorphic Vessel and Seated Male Vessel with Transparent Binding are strongly executed pieces. The startling, sombre heads by TJ Erdahl, whose artist's statement refers to the difficulty of communication, also read as male but allow me to identify as well.

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Liz Bryant, another graduate from Smith's master's program who now teaches, was represented by three life-sized nudes, women, wall-mounted in a compelling installation that took full advantage of the gallery's generous space. The figures in her work, she says, "dispense with pretence and so are vulnerable". She credits Smith with introducing her to removable, fireable clay supports, enabling her "to create more challenging and dynamic poses".

Smith's own pristine porcelain finish is seen in the work of Angela DiCosola, who gives a satiric spin to Lemon Heads and Three Muses. The muses are human-headed ducks. Smith's legendary continuing interest in her pupils is well illustrated by the tie to DiCosola, who earned her MFA in ceramics under Smith in 1986 and has taught at Florida Atlantic University since 1991. DiCosola says of Smith, "Nan's influence in my creative works is through the work ethic, standard of quality and perseverance ... Her work has such a gentle serenity and resonating power. It quietly affects you. It requires respect and stays with you, much like Nan herself."

Current student Brian Weaver, whose And When It Finally Happened There Were No Surprises sets a disturbing tone, has much the same thing to say about Smith. "Nan has a great understanding of craft, techniques, process and the transition of idea to physical entity. She has helped push my concepts and craftsmanship to a much higher level. Her work clearly reflects her work ethic and her teaching style. Nan has and will continue to develop the language between the mind and the hand of her students."

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Jessica Orlowski had two moody, thought-provoking works in the exhibition, Warning--Not Intended to Replace Mother's Love and Mistrust and Doubt. She began her master's studies at the University of Florida but is finishing at Georgia State University, meanwhile keeping in touch with Smith. Asked how Smith has influenced her work, she says "Though I did not know it at the time, I now believe Nan's understanding of vignettes and the ways in which her small detail elements influence the viewers' perceptions of a figure have left a lasting impression on my work. I now use toys, text and groupings to strengthen the impact of my figures."

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Keith Smith, whose contribution to the exhibition, Deeper Than Bones, contrasts strength and delicacy to good effect, now teaches at Kennesaw State University and says of Smith's influence, "She taught me a great deal about firing difficult sculptural pieces, casting, working large-scale, structure, surface and so forth. It has been 10 years since I graduated and she is still willing to take time to help me if I have a problem with a sculpture or need some career advice."

The figure, human or animal or sections of same, is found throughout the works of these artists. Jami McKinnon's beak-nosed, donkey-eared creatures are meant to express "the beautiful decay of a circus sideshow" she says but also "emphasize humanity". Renee Audette shows cute gone awry with Kittencake and combines a little girl and rabbits in a questioning piece titled Love, Hate.

The location of the exhibition in Cincinnati, an historically important city for ceramic arts, was a particular pleasure to Smith. "The thought of the women's movement [as exemplified by] Maria Longworth Nichols and Rookwood and her peer Mary Louise Mclaughlin ... seemed poetic and an act of serendipity," she says. For Nan Smith who, with her colleague Linda Arbuckle, brought the ceramics department of the University of Florida to national attention, the parallel with other women artists is telling. The exhibition presented a coherent statement of an important thread in today's ceramics world and illustrated how many directions a particular approach can take.

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Article by Jane Durrell

Jane Durrell writes on the visual arts for a number of publications including Sculpture Magazine, Art Papers, Pastel Journal, Watercolor Artist, Public Art Review and also contributes regularly on visual arts and other subjects to Cincinnati's alternative weekly newspaper, CityBeat. She is one of the interviewers for National Public Radio station WVXU's Around Cincinnati, a weekly show on area arts. For a number of years she was press officer for the Cincinnati Art Museum and prior to that she was the art critic for the Cincinnati Post.
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Author:Durrell, Jane
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Sep 1, 2010
Words:1781
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