And Then It Was Still
Vitreous China, Glaze, Wood
GISELLE HICKS makes sculptural objects and installations, which reference emotionally charged sites within the home, such as the bed and the table. Her intricate inlaid surfaces echo her belief that "their surfaces [are] absorbent, retaining traces of our presence and our histories." Hicks is a long-term resident artist at The Clay Studio and will soon begin at short-term residency at Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana. Her work is on display through the summer at the Ferrin Gallery in a show called COVET. Giselle Hicks lives in Philadelphia, PA.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Do you identify yourself a ceramicist or as a sculptor? Is this distinction even relevant?
Giselle Hicks: I identify as a ceramic artist. I used to think that was a limiting distinction to make, but clay is a complex material. It has taken a long time to understand enough about it to be able to say what I want to say with it. I think of it as learning a language: with practice, you start to think in that language. At this point I think with the clay. I don’t see that as limitation. Rather I am getting closer to being able to clearly articulate my ideas with this material.
I am conscientious about the material being conceptually appropriate. I often wonder if I could express my ideas through another, more immediate or less complex technical process. But there is something about the weight and density of the material, as well as the labor and time-intensive process that appeal to my artistic sensibility and concepts. Making, particularly with clay, is a way for me to feel located in my body and in a space. I value manual labor, working with my hands and body.
I was drawn to ceramics on a basic, sensorial level. I liked the way it felt, smelled and looked. It seemed to offer endless possibilities for transformation. I could make it look like fabric, wood, metal, paper, or mud. As a student, I wanted to learn everything about the material or—to follow the language metaphor—I wanted to be fluent in this material. Eventually, I became enamored with the expansive history and its place within our material culture.
Slip cast porcelain, terra sigillata, wood, graphite
OPP: You've been an ARTS/Industry resident artist at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin in 2005 and in 2012. Tell us about this program and how it has expanded or changed your work.
GH: The ARTS/Industry residency at the John Michael Kohler Art Center provides artists with time, space, materials and exposure to technical knowledge within the factory. The studio space is on the factory floor adjacent to the associates casting toilets and sinks. Artists use the same materials, glazes, kilns that are used in the factory to make their own work.
It is a fantastic and strange environment to work in. It is big, loud, and hot. I marveled at the scale and complexity of the systems engineered to produce and distribute toilets and sinks. I loved walking through the factory every day. The novelty never wore off.
The first time I applied, I wanted to learn more about slip casting in order to create multiples as a means of increasing the scale of my work. Since then, I almost exclusively use the slip casting process to make my work. The technicians and engineers at the factory were incredibly generous with their expansive knowledge of the material and helped me to troubleshoot throughout the process—whether it was building a mold, casting, glazing, firing. There is a big learning curve in that environment, and the material is engineered specifically to cast toilets and sinks. We were working with the same material, but in a totally different way and for different purposes.
The residency changed my understanding of what is possible with this material and what I am capable of doing with it. My imagination continues to expand when I daydream about work. I am so incredibly grateful for my time there.
The middle is where we begin
Slip cast porcelain, glaze, wood plinth
13 x 2’ (height variable)
OPP: Does access to facilities affect what you are making at any given time?
GH: Absolutely. The times I was able to work on a larger scale were at Kohler or in grad school where I also had access to large kilns, appropriate equipment, and a large studio to produce the work. The scale of the work is important to me. I want the work to be the size of a real bed, quilt, table, or curtain, because though I refer to them as ‘beds’ or ‘quilts’, for instance, they really are abstractions of those things. I want the viewer to recognize them through their scale and proportions, then understand or experience the work from there.
OPP: You have a body of work called Textiles. Many pieces refer directly to quilts in their titles, such as White Quilt (2005) and Floral Quilt (2011). Others, like Floral Panel with Horizontal Tiles (2011) remind me of folded linens stacked up after doing the laundry. What's most interesting about this work for me is the tension between the hard and the soft. You are referring to functional things that carry a lot of emotional weight in all our lives. Quilts and pillows and linens embody care, comfort, and warmth. They are very connected to our bodies. But porcelain is hard and often cold. Can you talk about the opposition of hard and soft in this series?
GH: When I first started making these pieces in 2005, I was thinking about seduction. I wanted the viewer to be drawn to the familiar objects because of the beautiful pattern and material sensuality—they invited touch, appearing soft and pliable. But when the viewer came within an intimate proximity of the work, s/he found the work to be hard, unyielding, and cold. I was skeptical of the power of beauty and the false expectations that it could create.
Now I think about wanting to translate that emotional weight that you mention into a physical form or presence—to make it take up space, permanently. I imagine that the surfaces of the bed and table absorb and retain the traces of our presence. Stories, secrets, voices and gestures become part of their structure. As I use these objects or inhabit these sites, routinely and ritually, they take on a symbolic charge. The weight and density of the symbol increases as experiences layer over and weave into one another. I want to give form to that symbolic weight. And I want it to be beautiful as well as strong and dense and permanent.
My recent and most general artist statement, which describes my compulsion to make things, speaks to this . I know we all hit the snooze button as soon as artists mention memory in their artist statements, but here goes… Memories have a weight that can be felt within the body. Though they change over time, fading or shifting, there is often a sense or a tone associated with them when they surface. This is something difficult to name, but I am compelled to give that weight a form, to move it out from within my body. My work is an attempt to manifest that sense visually and physically.
Slip cast porcelain, glaze
OPP: There is some intensely intricate drawing on the surfaces of most of your pieces, as seen in the Textiles and in Embedded (2010). Please explain the process by which you add the designs to your porcelain sculptures.
GH: The patterns I use are inlayed into the surface of the clay using a technique called mishima. First I make a prototype of the form out of plaster or clay and make a mold of that. I then cast the forms using a porcelain slip. When the hollow form comes out of the mold, I draw the pattern into the surface with a sharp stylus. Once the carving is complete, I paint a colored slip over the whole design, then sand the entire form with steel wool once the form is bone dry. The colored slip remains in the carved line. I use a glaze over the design formulated to run in the firing, but cool to a matte, sugar-like surface. The form looks soft and the pattern is softened and blurred and often looks aged or weathered. I also want the pattern to be embedded in the surface of the clay so that it is part of the object, just as embroidered thread is woven into the fabric of a quilt.
With a piece as large as Embedded, I carved the line into the original prototype so I wouldn’t have to carve the intricate pattern into each of the ninety-one pieces. It saved quite a bit of time. But usually I enjoy the time it takes to draw on each piece. I gravitate towards processes in my studio that are labor-intensive, repetitive, and rhythmic. Repetition provides an element of predictability, which allows space for the unpredictable and the uncontrolled to enter my realm without being overwhelming or destructive. It opens up space where my imagination can roam around.
And Then It Was Still
Vitreous China, Glaze, Wood
50 x 80 x 24"
OPP: Your most recent sculpture And Then It Was Still (2012) is a 3D still life. In your statement about the piece, you talk about the "struggle to hold on to and make still the complex beauty […] in the small, fleeting, everyday moments." This piece made me think instantly of Memento Mori, although it doesn't have any of the traditional elements like skulls, hour glasses or dying flowers. There is something about the flowers frozen in their living state, but it this hard, monochrome material that seems almost funerary, like a gravestone or monument. Does this resonate with you?
GH: Yes. The idea for this piece came from wanting to hold on to something beautiful that had passed. That desire had elements of both mourning and celebration.
In Elaine Scarry’s book, On Beauty and Being Just
, she says that when one encounters true beauty, it incites the desire to replicate as a way of possessing the original beautiful thing through a new language or form. The act of replication provides a new sensory experience by which to experience or re-experience the original beautiful thing. When we see a beautiful flower, we want to draw it, make it, or take a picture of it. When we meet a beautiful person we want to write a song or a poem about them. Beauty, by definition, is self-generating. Beauty begets more beauty.
But I think there is something kind of sad about this pursuit to replicate or hold onto the beautiful thing. It is a vain and futile pursuit, in that you can never truly have the original beautiful thing, moment, or feeling back. The futility is balanced out by the hope that propels us forward towards replication of the beauty. In the 17th century European Still Life paintings, the fragile beauty of flowers is made permanently still in the exquisitely painted object and, thus, shared across time as a concept of beauty.
The beauty I find myself chasing is in the small, fleeting moments of human interaction —the characteristic or sense of a person, an exchange with a loved one, or an exuberant meal shared with family and friends. I want to make those things still, to give them form and make them take up space. Even though they are invisible and ephemeral, they are so powerful upon impact. They are dense and layered, and I want to study them, marvel at them, and re-live them. My work gives me a way to do that.
To see more work by Giselle Hicks, please visit gisellehicks.com.