Todd Sherman, chair of UAF's art department, says Morton's pieces provoke thought and emotion -- as all good artists hope to. (Eric Sowl/KTUU-DT)

Todd Sherman, chair of UAF's art department, says Morton's pieces provoke thought and emotion -- as all good artists hope to. (Eric Sowl/KTUU-DT)

Repulsive yet attractive: that contradiction in reaction has stirred up quite the buzz at University of Alaska Fairbanks student John Morton's art exhibit, "Unbecoming."

"I'm interested in objects that can have the ability to make a human respond in such a way that they have to look at it, even if they don't want to," Morton said.

Stripping away the surface and contemplating what lies beneath: that's what "Unbecoming" is all about.

Morton's collection of ceramic creatures on display at UAF has become more than just a part of his thesis project -- it has become controversial.

"This fits the bill because it has a quality to it that you get a real strong visceral reaction," said Todd Sherman, chair of UAF's art department. "And then after you get over that, you start thinking about these pieces, and, 'What does he mean by this?' and, 'What kind of a creature is it?' So he's provoking some thought and emotion, which is what all good artists hope to do."

Morton was once content to sculpt pottery, but the process of turning skinned animals' carcasses into clay art is the product of his evolution as an artist.

"There was something lacking," Morton said. "I didn't find the forms really to be that interesting to me, and so I would be more at home thinking more about my next experience in the outdoors or my next hunting trip. Instead of really focusing on spending time in my sketchbook looking at ideas for the next sculpture I was making, I was planning the next sheep hunt. And so I thought I have to marry these two interests, between my interests in ceramics and in art and my love for the outdoors and wildlife and things like that."

Gathering carcasses discarded by local taxidermists, Morton began experimenting, eventually settling on a process that uses molds of the carcasses to create his sculptures.

"What I started thinking about was, 'OK, I've taken an animal and I've made a mold of it, turned it from an organic object into a ceramic object.' And then I started going, 'Should I be pushing this further? Is this art?'

"I was thinking about that idea of attraction and repulsion and surface and form, and that tension between that surface of an object and the form. and so I started thinking about the early history of like the 'freak show' and how people would actually view humans as something to derive entertainment from, people with physical maladies, and so that's where some of these pieces came from."

Morton's work contains pieces like "Twins," a combination of a Dall sheep and a wolf, and "Muscle Man," the blending of a wolverine and a lynx.

"This one's titled 'Sheep in Wolves' Clothing,'" Morton said. "And of course, I was just kind of playing a word game with the wolf in sheep's clothing from folklore. And just kind of playing around with who the bad person is, who the good person is -- who's in costume, who's not.

"I think it's interesting how the birds, especially, tend to kind of capture the -- that quality of meat, like actually an animal turning into a product, and that cute side of it," Morton said. "And also that point where an animal turns from cute to the product. It's not really a pretty thing to think about, but it's interesting. It's something that is reality."

Also reality is the public's response to Morton's art. Some have compared his work to Hitler, others are just grossed out -- reactions Morton takes in stride.

"I know that these things will evoke an emotional response, and I think that's what makes them interesting," Morton said. "I was expecting there to be strong reactions, I think when people are confronted with mortality and with animals especially, that people are going to be kind of, right away have a gut reaction to it."

Morton says he'd like to take his exhibit other places to help build his artistic resume. He's also happy with the direction "Unbecoming" has taken him, and sees more of this unique style of art in his future.

"Absolutely -- I mean, I look at the work that went into this, and it was a huge amount of work, and a lot of time, but it wasn't wasted, definitely not," Morton said. "It opens up new ideas and new doors, new possibilities."

Morton says each of his pieces takes close to two weeks to create, and the exhibit was the product of a year and a half of work.

"Unbecoming" closed at UAF Friday night.

Contact Eric Sowl at esowl@ktuu.com