Clay, Glaze and Firing: Michigan

Photo by Lindsey Ann Heiden

Whether we’re talking sculptors, painters, authors, musicians, or any other creative, decade after decade, the Midwest produces some of the most profound artists in the world. In recognition, this year we’re zooming out from Wisconsin to celebrate ceramicists in our neighboring states. Next stop: Michigan.

Photograph provided by Lindsey Ann Heiden

LINDSEY ANN HEIDEN

Before her decision to attend graduate school at the University of Arkansas in 2015, Lindsey Ann Heiden engaged in a peripatetic lifestyle, traveling from state to state, studio to studio, doing internships, workshops, and apprenticeships as she grew her skills and defined her art. When she made the decision to get more formal education, she was engaged in a trifecta of life changes: the pursuit of a terminal degree; marriage; and the ensuing birth of her son, Wilder. She teaches at two UP schools, Michigan Tech University and Finlandia University.

While she loves being engaged with the student artists, “sparking people along,” as Lindsey says, she realizes she might rather be in the studio making work. The dilemma of every serious artist/academic is the pull to work on developing one’s own craft while recognizing and fulfilling the needs of the students they serve—especially in this time of pandemic, when communities and learners are so atomized.

Lindsey’s art is driven and informed by the multiplicity of experiences, passions, curiosities, and encounters that mark her daily life. Making the decision to have a child while in school was daunting. The community of artists and faculty embraced her motherhood to the point of her major professor rocking her son when she made a presentation to her class. As a nursing mother, she became fascinated by the notion of what it meant to engage in “milking” and the biology that was necessary to do so.

One of her most compelling pieces, The Milking Mouse was a direct consequence of this experience. A small, kneeling, quasi-angelic creature, the mouse features multiple rows of breasts, a blonde bouffant of hair, wide staring bright-blue eyes, and a set of wings spread in a gesture of protection. Yet the image is not totally comforting or inviting. The polychrome application of glazes and paint is carefully descriptive in areas and gesturally haphazard in others. There exists a kind of dichotomous relationship between what Lindsey refers to as a “kitschy-cuteness” coupled with an almost creepy otherness that invites the viewer in but is willing to repel.

The nature of the mouse is part of a larger written narrative that often accompanies Lindsey’s work. She constructs stories and fairy tales about other participants in her imaginative menagerie. Mr. Spider Goat sports an inscrutable expression of half-closed eyes and something that might resemble a hint of a smile topped with a roached mane of human hair and a devilish goatee. His story is broadened with a series of small wall pieces, which seem to emerge from a Victorian nightmare of framed animal parts and trophies.

Lindsey emphasizes that she wishes these pieces to have the edge or spirit of whimsey, but with a bite. And she is not bothered that the narrative might be somewhat obscure when first approached by the viewer. She holds something back. “You don’t get the whole cake to eat. If you did, it would make you sick. … It must have tooth to it.”

As a respite to the confrontational nature of these narrative works, Lindsey has also made a series of functional ceramic pieces that comfortably occupy the niche of usability. These are delightful vases and platters who arrive as chickens or turkey vultures or snails or even semidemented bunny rabbits, their identity closely tied to the seasonal arrival of wildlife at her back garden. They provide a moment of exhalation for the viewer, taking refuge in an unexpected sweetness that informs them.

As someone commented to her husband, Kenyon, when they were exhibiting together, “Your wife has quite an imagination.” If they only knew.

Photograph provided by Kenyon Hansen

KENYON HANSEN

“I always wanted to be the worst potter in the studio.”

Kenyon Hansen is a remarkable and grateful artist. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he embarked on a sojourn of 12 states, working at internships, apprenticeships, attending workshops, and serving as a general dogsbody in the studios of celebrated artists and artisans to learn and perfect his craft. In the above sentiment, he is acknowledging his debt while celebrating his optimism and ambition to become the consummate artist he now is. Frustration fed his hunger; failures sweetened the rewards of success.

Kenyon, wife Lindsey, and son Wilder live in Dollar Bay, Michigan, a “community of makers,” he says of his Keweenaw neighbors. Not being the easiest location to make a living as a potter, it compels him to cultivate relationships with collectors, galleries, and the ceramic community, enabling him to sustain a life devoted to his passion and creativity. As sales strongly affect his production decisions, he relies on evolutionary changes in his work to continue to fuel growth and change for his pieces.

His passion for handmade objects and all of the human, cultural, and nostalgic baggage that accompanied those pursuits led him, almost by accident, to a three-week ceramics class that fired his commitment to make a life as an artist. As he points out, “Academia does not give you a strong sense of what it means to be an artist.” He learned to trust his intuition, by which he means the confluence of thoughts, ideas, feelings, and experience. He has trained his eye to see what’s important, the moment that “sometimes things just sing.”

He celebrates the marriage of function and form that embraces momentary human experience. Perhaps lifting a cup to one’s lips can become a more centered moment when it’s accompanied by a vessel made with exquisite attention to every nuance of aesthetic and practicality. Kenyon’s ceramic work is deceptively charming in the immediacy of its presentation: inviting shapes of beautifully proportioned vessels, cups, teapots, pitchers, orb jars, boxes, plates, bowls, and platters insistent on being lifted, turned, tilted, and opened. The surfaces are varied between gridded lines, which more often than not terminate in eccentric joinery; bold stripes of highly chromatic hues; patchwork quilts of soft muted tones; and geometric shapes that float on the surface. His glazes can be intense and glowing or muted and mottled, searching for the perfect expression of wintery essence.

As Kenyon points out, most homes contain very few things that carry the mark of the human hand, presenting evidence of the maker. Therefore, they often lack the capacity to mark the moment, build and extend the relationship with use, interaction, and connection. He insists that this connection is virtually impossible with manufactured products. The connection begins and resides with its origins in the maker. By working with his hands, by building a lifestyle that accompanies this making of stuff, he serves as a paradigm of that most-aspired value: he is not living for the weekend.

As an echo to this working philosophy, Kenyon makes the majority of his sales directly, abetted by a few art shows each year and added to by those sales he makes at the workshops he conducts annually. Kenyon is not just selling pottery; he’s selling the idea that if we slow the pace of our lives to appreciate a moment as passing as sipping a cup of coffee in the morning, we begin a connection through the marriage of aesthetics and function to a lived experience that can only be richer for its recognition.

Photograph provided by Austen Brantley

AUSTEN BRANTLEY

Austen Brantley is changing the world, and himself, one work of art at a time. The creator of over 1,000 pieces of ceramic and bronze sculpture before the age of 26, he has combined an intense love of learning, world travel, and embedded experience to emerge as a powerful voice of the African American presence in art and the larger American society that he must negotiate.

Austen, raised in Europe and the United States, encountered a significant degree of art and cultural diversity in his youth. At an early age, he was profoundly moved by the work of Frederick Hart’s Creation Sculptures at the Washington National Cathedral. The human figures emerge, as if in struggle, from their background. They resonated of Michelangelo’s Slaves series, in which massive muscular men seem to force their way free from the marble blocks that encase them. These works fed his desire to become a sculptor.

In high school, Austen worked with an inspiring teacher who granted him the latitude to engage his own restless creativity and the encouragement to pursue the precarious career of a working artist. Recognizing his precocious genius, this teacher provided space and freedom for Austen’s explosive talent. Austen declined formal art school training, choosing instead to pursue his artistic growth at Oakland Community College outside of Detroit. This was followed by working with artists in workshops in Rome and Florence, where his understanding and skills in human anatomy were further refined.

On the question of anatomical accuracy in his life-size pieces, Austen insists that accuracy must be subsumed into the grace and expressive power of the sculpted figure; it can never serve as the driving purpose. “A sculptor is a sculptor because of his ideas and expressive intentions, not because of his skill with his hands.” It’s as if he’s insisting that his astonishing mastery of craft must be taken as a given lest the viewer miss the powerful intentions of his work.

Two pieces, both commissioned works, must be addressed. The first, a public work, cast in bronze, of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit homemaker who, in 1965, was inspired by the call of Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. to go to Alabama and help with the civil rights work being done there. She was subsequently murdered by Ku Klux Klan members and smeared by the FBI in an effort to conceal their complicity with her murder. The sculpture, now in a dedicated public park, shows her striding forward in bare feet, consonant with traditional depictions of prophets and saints who remove their footwear before trodding on sacred ground.

The second is the life-size sculpture of Ernest Burke, a former Negro Leagues Baseball player, that was unveiled this June at Tydings Park in Havre de Grace, Maryland. After his athletic career, he returned to the Baltimore area and served as a great inspiration with his work in the African American community. Austen’s depiction of Burke as a young athlete preparing to throw a pitch shows a man of determination, promise, and optimism.

Austen reveals the direct intention of his work by describing it as a melding of earth, air, fire, and water, the four elements advanced by 5th century Greeks to describe the fundamental components of all matter. His creative power is to transform the relationship between these elements into powerful emotional resonances that speak directly to the viewer without artifice or misdirection. Austen’s work connects to the viewer with visual authority and emotional force. His Cocoon Series is a profound example of his use of symbolism, the depiction of human beings trapped in, but emerging from, fabric windings, inviting the viewer to reflect on the power of art to describe the African American experience of finding identity and expression in an often unwelcoming world.

Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.

Photograph by Larassa Kabel

Lindsey Ann Heiden
lindseyaheiden.com

Kenyon Hansen
kenyonmhansen.com

Austen Brantley
austenbrantleysculpture.com