Toddlers in their Sunday best run to it; recently bathed pooches roll in it. It feels so good oozing between bare toes. Mud provides a primal connection with the Earth, offering the sensory pleasure of handling something that yields and shapes at will. And it fires one belief that three Columbia-area ceramic artists all share — working with clay is healing and therapeutic.
“Clay is such a wonderful, wonderful material,” says professional landscape architect and clay artist Betsy Kaemmerlen. “It’s fascinating that clay has been part of the human experience for so long. I think clay is having a resurgence as a sort of therapeutic tool. You don’t have to be really proficient to make something that is actually useful. It’s a shared human experience.”
Transplanted Quebec native Diane Gilbert, who works from her home studio and teaches three classes a week at Southern Pottery, agrees. “When you start with ceramics, it’s a really addictive process. It’s very malleable. You can do anything with it that you want,” she says. “It’s a feel-good material. Instead of going to the therapist, I would tell you to work with clay.”
A retired University of South Carolina cartography professor, Pat Gilmartin got hooked on ceramic sculpture after taking classes with local artists Britta Cruz and Robert Allison. “I took those classes and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, this is it,’” she says. “I just fell in love with it right away.”
Several years ago, Pat produced a series of facial portraits in clay called “Lifelines” that helped her navigate a personal rough patch. “The series must have had 20 or so of those faces. I am really fascinated by faces. I mostly do human figurative sculpture, looking at people, their body language, and their faces,” Pat explains. “With that series a number of years ago, I was working through losing family members, which was part of it. One of the wonderful things about being an artist is being able to express what you are feeling in meaningful ways.”
Indeed, researchers have found evidence that playing with malleable substances like mud and clay is more than simply pleasurable. It helps the brain release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and plays a key role in feelings of happiness and well-being. Working with clay can boost creativity, stave off depression, and dramatically reduce stress.
And, well, it’s just plain fun.
As a graduate student in cartography, Pat began collecting postcards with maps on them. Later in her career as an artist, she assimilated her interest in maps into her art. “I did a series of sculptures that were based on a particular form of Renaissance map. They are direct interpretations, very simplified, of a type of map called a ‘T and O’ map,” she says.
T and O maps are characterized by a mass of land divided into three continents with the ocean flowing around it, divided into three parts. “It’s the way people during the Renaissance visualized the Earth,” Pat says. “I’m not inclined to do more of those maps because I have moved on to figurative work. If I have an idea that I want to explore, then I explore it as far and as deeply as I want to go, but once done, I am not really inclined to take it back up again.”
Diane works from a tiny backyard studio she built herself, using mostly recycled or reclaimed materials. Her entire yard is “alive” with animals. Visitors can catch a glimpse of a bear, a peacock, or even a Holstein cow. A perched leopard waits to spring near an alligator that waddles across the pathway. It is an absolute wonderland. Her interest in ceramics has been a constant throughout her life.
“At 18, I had my first ceramics job. I was a designer, but I did work with clay a lot. I always enjoyed the process,” Diane explains. “When I moved to South Carolina around 2001, I signed up for classes and was hooked right away.”
Pat, who focuses on creating figurative sculptures at Stormwater Studios in downtown Columbia, found herself mindlessly playing with a glob of clay one day. “I was sitting idly and thinking about something. I had a lump of clay in my hand that I was absently squeezing and releasing,” she says. “Eventually, I looked down, and in my hand was a kiln goddess. I knew immediately what it was.”
Kiln gods and goddesses have been around for centuries and are believed to have origins in China. Most are created from clay and may take the form of humans, animals, or even make-believe creatures. Placed at or near the furnace opening, kiln gods serve as good luck talismans with the purpose of blessing the kiln’s fragile contents and exuding good juju over the clay firing in the kiln below. All three of these artists have them in their studios; Diane even has two.
Pat’s kiln goddess is a female form that now sits directly on top of her kiln. Like the proverbial muse, it came to her naturally without her necessarily seeking it out. “I had heard of kiln gods but never given any thought to getting one myself. My kiln goddess was kind of an accident.” While Pat is not superstitious about her kiln goddess and does not believe it really has magical abilities, she enjoys its friendly presence in the studio.
“I am amazed how many people notice her sitting there,” Pat says, adding that people often ask about her. “It’s very surprising to me because it is just a small figure. She is maybe 4 inches tall, and her color blends into the background.”
Perched on the wall above Betsy’s kiln is a charred piece of wood on which is mounted a benign stone figure with antennae-like roots attached to one end. “My friend Terrence made this piece. After his apartment burned down, he began making all these cool pieces with rock and burned wood,” she says. “I just thought it was a perfect kiln god.”
Like Pat, Betsy does not believe her kiln god has any real powers and keeps it just for fun. “I have had only one huge blow-up in my kiln,” she says. “I put something in there that was too wet. It blew up to smithereens. But otherwise, over the years, I have had pretty good luck with most of my firings.”
Aside from the culture of a kiln god, the method for loading the kiln has a big impact. “It’s like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. To make sure you use all the air space, the best way to fire a kiln is to make it as full as possible. Everything in it gets glowing red. The more you have in the kiln, the more efficiently and evenly it fires.”
Betsy has been creating with clay for many years, first at the old Calhoun Street location of the City Arts Center, later at the new Columbia Parks and Recreation Arts Center on Taylor Street, and most recently at the shed she has completely renovated into a new studio behind her house in a downtown neighborhood. She participated in Columbia Open Studios this year for the first time. And while she now spends most of her time working in her home studio, she still spends time in the arts center that was part of her life for so long. “I am there every Saturday loading kilns,” Betsy says. “It’s fun seeing what people are up to and chatting, but I love having my own space and not having to worry about wrapping things up and putting them away.”
While Diane’s creative focus is on animals and nature, she recently began to incorporate sculptures of people as well. “For two years, I was thinking very hard about the direction I wanted to take. I decided to just work without worrying about whether people would buy it or not,” Diane says. “I choose what I want to do.”
With no rule book to inhibit her creative exploits, Diane continues to fashion a variety of sculptures in a career that is constantly evolving. She thinks nothing of experimenting with new things and does not hesitate to pursue projects of fancy right away rather than putting them off.
“It’s my dream to have a miniature series,” she says, “so I am doing it now.” Indeed, Diane has produced the first of her miniatures with great success. Each tells a story. One, for example, reflects the biblical account of Jonah and the whale. At first one sees only the lovely blue whale, but a closer look inside its opened mouth reveals a tiny Jonah sitting at a table. Something surprising or unexpected is included in nearly every diminutive work.
The process is meticulous and detailed, requiring a steady hand and lots of patience. Sometimes the smallest works necessitate the most labor to bring to fruition, which begs the question: How does a clay artist price her work?
“With ceramics, a lot of unexpected issues can arise,” Diane says. “Sometimes we can repair it and sometimes not. For me, it’s not only the time invested. Sometimes I have an extremely good surprise and so I think the price should be considerably higher because it’s a very successful piece. There are many little, little details. But I know it would be hard to justify the price if it were calculated strictly based on hours I have invested.”
Pat feels much the same way. “I put so many hours and weeks into certain pieces that, if I charged by the hour, the price would be ridiculous. So I look online and see what others are asking for similar works. Then I just go by my gut feeling.”
Betsy’s strongly Asian work is characterized by line and texture, ranging from vessels and teapots to plates and even wearable art. “I like Asian-influenced pottery because I studied in Kyoto, and I really like the Japanese aesthetic. All their design is based on asymmetry. I love asymmetry.” She mainly crafts functional pieces, and with plenty of texture. “I love to glaze. Most people hate glazing, but that is the fun part for me,” she says. “Once you have it made, it’s like stretching the canvas, and you play.”
Betsy achieves myriad textures by carving roller stamps, which she presses onto slabs of wet clay. “I am a wicked plant nerd,” she explains. “I just think natural shapes and spirals are so beautiful. So many patterns are out there, and I love to explore them.”
Each of these supremely gifted women considers herself a “hand-builder.” Rather than using a pottery wheel, they form their sculptures using their fingers, hands, and simple tools. While working with clay is healing and therapeutic, these artists offer a burst of happiness for those who enjoy their stunning results.