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Alternative Surfaces: Barbara Ellard’s Striking Ceramics

Barbara Ellard has mastered the ability to combine simplicity of form with complexity of surface, a fact that easily can be seen in her ceramics show, Organic Geometry. For this exhibition, open at Finch Lane Gallery until June 9, Ellard has managed to create several pieces that are strikingly unique, using “alternative firing processes, such as pit firing, raku and saggar firing [as] new ways … to enhance the surfaces,” of her sculptural works.

These “alternative” surfaces can be seen on pieces like “New Moon II,” a one-of-a-kind surface consisting of a variety of white, gray, black, orange, beige, tan, and spots of other blended colors, given to the piece by pit firing. Pit firing is an ancient method of firing pottery – in fact it is the original method for “baking” clay. Using this method, pots are placed into a hole in the ground and items are placed around them and burned. Depending on the atmosphere around the pots and the temperatures reached, either the pores in the clay open and the vapors from the burning wood, reeds, paper, etc. enter the clay, changing the color; or they do not, and the clay remains black, gray, or white. The unpredictable nature of this method of firing is what gives the surfaces of Ellard’s ceramics the appearance of moons, asteroids, or other terrestrial bodies, after which she has aptly named her pieces.

In a brief exhibition statement, Ellard mentions that she combines wheel-thrown pieces with both coils and slabs. Her work is free form, and a combination of techniques. This can be seen throughout her show, ranging from her sculptural pit-fired works to her wheel-thrown high-fired pieces. Her high-fired ceramics are reduction fired, a process in which the oxygen is removed from a firing environment. The flame, seeking more oxygen, pulls the oxygen out of the clay bodies, and the electrons in the atmosphere adhere to the metals in the glazes, essentially donating the electrons to the glazes. This produces incredibly beautiful colors.

Because of this process, Ellard’s high-fired works have a brighter, shinier glaze treatment than the pit-fired ones. The latter works have been burnished to as high a shine as possible, and the high-fired ceramics have vitrified – turned to glass. This difference in finishing, however, does not create a polarity within the presentation. Not only do the pieces all look like they were created by the same artist, but they all have the same integrity of finish, and the same attention to detail. Ellard’s precision is apparent within each piece. Ellard’s craftsmanship is ably matched by the excellent staging of the Finch Lane curatorial staff: placed on pedestals, in couples, trios and quartests, so that each piece is in conversation with one or more works, they are attractively intermingled with the paintings of Laura Hope Mason (see our review here).

Three of the pieces that most resoundingly exemplify the symbiosis between pit-fired and high-fired pottery are “Orange Vase/Urn,” “Patentia,” and “Hunter’s Moon 1.” “Orange Vase/Urn” is the only high- fired piece on the pedestal, but it shares many of the same colors as its companions, still showing many signs of the atmospheric firing, different layers of the glaze coming through and highlighting the beauty of the piece, particularly when displayed next to the others on the same pedestal. This artful arranging of the show capitalizes on the artist’s ability to master more than one firing technique.

Rustic colors, however, are not all that Ellard is showing in Organic Geometry. Across the gallery, teal and bright green draw the eye to the corner, a sort of beam of light across the room. There, “Copper Blue Vase/Urn” and “Green and White Vase/Urn” bring a different ambience to the room. These two are both high-fired pieces as well, the glaze treatments once again capturing the beauty of the pottery and illuminating it in a different way from the oranges and browns.

In her statement, Ellard mentions that she is currently particularly mindful of the space around her pieces. She also is concerned with the volume of the pieces and the negative space they create. She wants to create a juxtaposition between fullness and constraint, and has managed to do this in Organic Geometry. Not only do the pieces play off each other, tugging between fullness and constraint, but fluidity pulls against the object’s solidity in space, and brightness contrasts against dark, both in the gallery space, and on the surface of each single piece. The coloring Ellard has managed to achieve, both through masterful glaze application and through using alternative firing methods, offers an incredible array of visual delights.

Through Organic Geometry¸ Ellard has managed to capture several juxtapositions; the dance between light and dark, volume and constraint, between pit firings and high firings. She has even turned earth into asteroids.

Organic Geometry, ceramics by Barbara Ellard, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through June 9, Gallery Stroll May 19, 6-9 p.m.

Andrea Wall is a graduate of Southern Utah University with a BA in Creative Writing, and minors in both Ceramics and Theatre Arts. She completed an honors thesis that focused on the synthesis of literature and ceramics. She plans to attend graduate school to pursue a Master’s degree in ceramics, and to work as a studio artist and writer.

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