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Impressions of, and in, clay


When visitors enter Baltimore Clayworks' new gallery, located in a Mount Washington mansion that once housed the Sisters of Mercy, they are "amazed at the transformation," says sculptor Leigh Taylor Mickelson, the ceramic center's director of programs and communications.

Track lighting, white paint and gleaming wood floors have turned the Victorian structure into a bright warren of spaces, each revealing a treasure of ceramic art. But the "transformation" concept doesn't stop there.

In its gala 20th year, Baltimore Clayworks is also celebrating the transformation of clay into objects, of ceramics from a purely functional realm into an artistic one, and perhaps most important of all, the emotional transformation of those who have learned to fashion a lump of clay into something personal and powerful.

"There's a quality about clay; anybody can make an impression in clay," Mickelson says. "That whole idea of making something out of nothing is an inherent quality. Anybody can walk into the door of a ceramics studio and be affected. That's why it can change people's lives."

As an art form, ceramics' reputation has also changed.

"I think anyone that didn't take clay seriously in the past, if they were to walk into our gallery now, they will take us seriously," Mickelson says. "There's no way to walk into our gallery now and not view ceramics as [an art form as] viable as painting or sculpture. In the whole ceramic world out there, qualities and standards are going up, and we're finding more and more areas in which to show our work on that level."

Four concurrent exhibits at Clayworks through Oct. 7 embrace clay's transformative powers - emotional, aesthetic and tactile - among the center's community of members, collectors, students, emerging and professional artists.

"Behind the Surface," the only exhibition in Clayworks' studio across from the new gallery on Smith Avenue, presents the work of students whose lives have been changed by their encounter with clay. In her application to participate in the class/exhibit, Lorna Taylor (Mickelson's mother), explains: "I read an article in 'Clay Times' about how a potter began working with clay later in life and after a while, he realized that he had really been a potter all his life."

Taylor, who creates enchanting teapots, goblets and other pieces with a look clean and natural, modern and retro, continues: "When I read that, I realized that I am feeling the same way, and I wish that I had had the opportunity to start working with clay earlier in my life."

Across the street in the Provincial House, three other exhibits offer variations on the theme of change.

"Clay on the Cusp" is an exhibit of four new and promising clay artists whose works range from highly representational to wildly imaginative and organically abstract.

With this show, Clayworks is "really looking into the future of clay," Mickelson says. "We're trying to represent what's being created out there in the academic arena."

As it evolves as an art form, clay is attracting more artists who are "finding their voices at an earlier and earlier age," Mickelson says.

The best of their work defies the old saw that "everything has been done," she says. They are "battling against that phrase and actually a lot of them are breaking the rules," Mickelson says.

Benjamin Schulman uses spare emblems of shelter to make abstract art perfectly at home in the clean, well-lighted gallery.

Pete Scherzer's playful cruet and cups and saucers connect geometry with elemental functions such as pouring and drinking. Rebekah Bogard's wildly organic sculptures suggest a deep, enchanted ocean none of us has ever visited.

"Baltimore Collects," a third show, includes 100 20th-century clay objects in private Baltimore collections. Here, visitors get a sense of clay's astonishing scope, from Rose Cabat's luminously funky "feelies," crafted in her Greenwich Village studio, to the exquisite porcelain pottery of father and son Bernard and David Leach.

With a century's worth of ceramics as the framework, "Baltimore Collects" expresses the "growth and range" of ceramic arts as it evolved from a focus on functional vessels to more sculptural pieces.

This exhibit also reflects each collector's unique preference, whether for highly individual creations, work that represents one's roots, or pieces collected purely for the joy of collecting.

A number of husband-and-wife pottery teams are represented in "Baltimore Collects." Like other couples tended to do, Mary and Edwin Scheir, represented by a 1952 earthenware bowl, divided the labor: She formed the vessel, and he glazed it. Later, Edwin applied his tattooing talents to decorating and incising their collaborative pieces.

Also included in "Baltimore Collects" is a stoneware torso by the late Baltimore artist Olin Russum, whose ceramic murals grace numerous facades around town. Several other local artists are represented, including Richard Cleaver, who made an astonishing figurative piece called "Dream Sequence."

The fourth and largest show, "First 20 Years: Then & Now," includes work by nearly 100 past and present Baltimore Clayworks member artists and others who have exhibited or taught there.

With the opening of the new gallery and plans to add a wing to its studio space, Clayworks has entered a new dimension as a community resource.

"I think that this new gallery puts us in a higher echelon as far as galleries go," Mickelson says. It also offers "a great opportunity for our member artists. They can take their work more seriously, seeing it in a professional atmosphere. It almost has a museum feel to it."

But even as Clayworks grows and transforms, it will remain the same in one respect, Mickelson says. "We still call ourselves a nonprofit ceramic arts center."

The 20th anniversary exhibits at Baltimore Clayworks, 5706 Smith Ave. in Mount Washington, continue through Oct. 7. A fund-raising dinner and auction are scheduled for Oct. 6. Call 410-578-1919 for information.

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