Richard Cleaver thinks of himself as a gatherer - of thoughts, feelings, memories, histories, dreams, stories and myths, perspectives and materials.
Eventually, these things become part of extraordinary, minutely detailed sculptures of people, animals and buildings, painstakingly fashioned from clay and adorned with seed pearls, foil, egg shells, oil paint, wire, cloth, gold leaf, wood and metal. "It's a way of picking my brain, of rummaging through what's in my head," says Cleaver.
More than 100 of Cleaver's magical clay figures can be seen in Gathering at the Latrobe Spring House, an amazing exhibition that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of Tour de Clay, the city's six-week festival of the ceramic arts.
The Baltimore artist's elaborately painted and decorated sculptures are a crazy-quilt of personal, historical and artistic references.
There's a black slave woman holding her master's child in her arms. She's from Oakland Farm Plantation, the 19th-century estate where the BMA's Spring House once stood and where today the artist's studio is located.
There's the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Queen Victoria of England, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and other historical dignitaries and sovereigns.
There's the artist's mother, brothers, grandmother and beloved high school English teacher; soldiers in World War I uniforms, mounted horsemen, dogs, cats and a miniature replica of the building that houses the entire installation like a sacred relic.
The figures are lined up in ranks with what at first glance seems like military precision. On closer inspection, however, the group resolves into surprisingly varied arrangements of inspired whimsy. All the statues face the viewer directly with their arms at their sides, as if preparing to march forward in unison.
Cleaver, a youthful 53-year-old with a ruddy complexion and a military-style haircut, grew up in New Jersey and studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the '60s. Later he lived in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New York. But since returning to Baltimore a decade ago, he's been avidly researching the Oakland Farm Plantation and the people who lived there.
"Whenever I'm in a place, I have a habit of trying to imagine the way things were at different times," he explains.
He discovered that a planter's mansion once stood on the foundation of his apartment building, and that nearby were slave quarters and a spring house designed by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol and the Baltimore Basilica.
Spring houses built over fast-moving streams were used before the invention of refrigerators to keep milk and eggs cool in summer. The BMA acquired the Oakland Farm spring house, larger than most, in 1932 and moved it to its present location on the museum grounds.
Cleaver's sculptures are the first artworks to be exhibited there in more than 60 years. Mounted on riser-like pedestals that lift its topmost elements nearly 9 feet off the floor, the arrangement gives the enclosed space a hushed, reverential air that makes one feel as if one had walked into a chapel.
"[Cleaver] uses the term 'gathering' in its broadest sense, as in a gathering of figures that are related both to the Oakland Plantation as well as to historical and artistic references and his own autobiography," says Deborah Bedwell, executive director of Baltimore Clayworks, where Cleaver fires his clay pieces. "I don't know of anyone doing comparable work today."
The earliest figures Cleaver created were those of the black woman and the white child she holds in her arms. "I was just moved by the fact that here was this woman who had to take care of her master's offspring before she took care of her own children," Cleaver explains. "I tried to show the pain of that by putting a hinge on the white child's face, so when you open it you see a picture of the slave mother's own child inside."
Figures that connect
As time passed, Cleaver created additional figures, not all of which were related to the plantation. Some were inspired by his memories of growing up, some by relatives, friends and acquaintances, and some from accounts of historical figures he had read about or seen in old photographs.
"It was a way of connecting things that had happened in the past with my interests and experience," he explains. "I'm interested in a certain eclecticism that combines past and present.
A couple of years ago, at the suggestion of Bedwell, who was organizing the Tour de Clay festival, Cleaver submitted a proposal to the BMA for an exhibition of his sculptures in the Spring House.
"My original proposal was the same general idea, a kind of altarpiece in the Spring House, but all the figures were going to be the same size," Cleaver recalls. "But as I was worked, I changed the idea to allow the pieces to be different sizes and on different scales, which is the way it is now."
Figures have histories
The figures in Gathering are arranged in rows that bring together both personal and group histories. On the highest row is the anonymous slave woman standing on top of a miniature Spring House holding the white infant in her arms. Above her head floats a bird's nest of wire and gold leaf that symbolizes fertility and the fact that she is also a mother.
Just below the central figure on either side are the master's older daughters, adolescent girls who hold wooden switches in their hands as symbols of their authority over the slaves. As the sculptures descend the pedestal's step-like risers, Cleaver introduces a bewildering array of characters drawn from his own life as well as from the history of religion and art. The slave woman at the center of the work, for example, is also a kind of Madonna.
"It's an altar-like gathering of his memories, which extend inward to him but also outward to the history of that place and what sort of life was lived around that building," says Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the BMA.
"He's reaching back to a distant past to make a monument to the living," Fisher adds. "He's done that by summoning in these characters from history who are also characters in his own life. When you go into that quiet space with all those people and figures and memories, it presents an almost religious feeling."
What: Richard Cleaver: Gathering at the Latrobe Spring House
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive
When: 11 a.m-5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday through Sunday. Through April 3
Admission: $7 ($5 for college students and seniors); free for ages 18 and under