When ceramic artist Judith Romney Wolbachexperienced so much pain in the joints of her thumbs that she could no longer hand build her ceramic sculptures and pots, she did not stop creating, but switched to pen and ink drawings instead. She has recently been able to return to ceramics, but the temporary detour to a different medium has enriched her creative process and provided a body of work for a new exhibit opening at the Michael Berry Gallery on November 20.
Change is nothing new or scary for Wobach, who was a teacher, editor, and lawyer in her long career before taking up art at age 67. Art was not so much a new venture as a return to unfinished business. Her original intention upon entering college was to major in pre-med and fine arts and to become a medical illustrator. However, she chose a different path and ultimately achieved a graduate degree in anthropology. It seems that all these starts, turns, and detours led inevitably to where she is today and to the forms and patterns she chooses for her work.
After taking drawing and watercolor classes post-retirement, Wolbach discovered clay and, more specifically, the hand building process, which she finds the most satisfying. She begins with coils of clay to create shape and structure, then carves the details. Not unlike the laws and regulations she worked with as a lawyer, the clay has its own set of restrictions – the properties that, with the appropriate processes and timing, allows it to hold a shape, become durable in use, and react in certain ways to glazing and firing techniques.
Wolbach imposes other restrictions on herself – working mostly in black, rather than colored glazes, and working primarily with images of birds, humanoids or devils, and other Meso-American images recalled from her study of anthropology. For a long time her work included open forms, such as planters or vases, but more recently she has created more sculptural, closed forms. Wolbach bisque-fires her completed pieces in her own kiln, then she adds oxides and uses a friend’s gas-fired kiln to finish the pieces.
The switch to pen and ink, while giving her thumb and wrist joints time to mend, was liberating in a sense. Not needing to worry how a piece would react when fired, Wolbach explored more complex forms of the bird-animal-devil theme. She again restricted her color to back and red ink and set her images on white paper without a background or context. Perhaps it’s the medical illustrator from her long-ago dream that wants to concentrate on the details of each figure, allowing the viewer to examine and understand them rather than be distracted by an environmental background.
When, after about two years, Wolbach recently returned to clay, she had a whole new set of figures, presenting a new set of “engineering” challenges to translate them from pen and ink to clay. But it’s the challenge that keeps her interested. “When I’m working on something in clay, I go to bed with it. I think of it during the night, about the problems to be solved with the piece. It occupies my mind more than any other work I do,” says Wolbach. “It’s the most absorbing and demands the most of me.”
Wolbach’s upcoming exhibit at Michael Berry Gallery (163 E. 300 S., 801.521.0243) is titled, Devils of Deseret and other Deviations. Both framed pen and ink drawings and ceramic sculpture will be featured. You can see more of her work on her website.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.