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Colossal clay

Palo Alto Art Center celebrates ceramics in a big way

When you think of ceramics, do you picture a potting wheel, perhaps a glazed bowl or dainty porcelain teacup? The Palo Alto Art Center will show clay's bigger picture this summer with "Fired Up: Monumental Clay," an eclectic exhibition of large-scale ceramic work.

Though they have size and the fragile-yet-earthy medium of clay in common, the pieces included in "Fired Up: Monumental Clay" vary greatly in style, with a broad range of materials and techniques represented.

"For people who've worked in ceramics, there's a lot to 'geek' out on," said Art Center Director Karen Kienzle. "We want to get people excited about what's possible."

"Our Changing Seas III," by self-described "ocean advocate" Courtney Mattison, is a 10-foot-by-14-foot-by-2-foot porcelain installation depicting a coral reef, rich with intricate details and colors. The piece, her third in a series, is meant to bring attention not only to the beauty of corals but also their plight, as their populations have been heavily impacted by climate change and other environmentally destructive human activity. The strong-but-delicate nature of ceramics corresponds to the coral reef's own combination of strength and fragility.

Other works from among the 21 artists involved include a whimsical animal sculpture by the late David Gilhooly (best known for his "Frog World" series); and found-object artist Shenny Cruces' "Accumulations," a collection of piled-up, tiny white porcelain figurines spilling out of a golden dresser.

The exhibition (curated by Andrea Antonaccio Wagner with input from the rest of the art-center team) was purposely designed to include both well-known masters of form, such as Gilhooly, Viola Frey and Jun Kaneko, whom Kienzle called some of the "forefathers and foremothers of California ceramic art," and emerging artists.

"We wanted to include younger artists who are continuing the traditions but are new and fresh," Kienzle said.

One of those is Kalamazoo, Michigan, artist Shay Church, who came to Palo Alto to construct his floor-to-ceiling sculpture of trees directly on site. It's a homecoming of sorts for Church, who apprenticed with Kaneko before getting his MFA at San Jose State University.

The exhibition "is really interesting because you have these iconic ceramic figures, the people that everyone's really familiar with in the ceramic world, but then they've mixed it up with a lot of younger, up-and-coming artists and academics who are making a lot of interesting work," he said. "(It represents) a lot of interests and approaches to working with clay."

Church uses unfired clay to build his creations, giving the pieces a distinctive texture. He's done about 20 of these wet-clay installations all over the country, representing large mammals such as gray whales, elk, elephants and wolves, as well as a felled tree entered into Grand Rapids, Michigan's massive, interactive, public-art competition, "Art Prize." Though his Palo Alto work is inside the gallery, he often installs sculptures outdoors, in parks and fields. He said much of his past work has incorporated community involvement, with participants helping him apply the clay.

"I try to integrate the space, and when I saw this vertical space, a tree kind of made a lot of sense, especially considering the history of Palo Alto" he said. And when he thinks back to his time living in California, giant trees are what come to mind.

To create his sculptures, he first builds a wooden frame, then piles wet clay over it. The clay will dry and crack, giving it a tree-bark texture, which he said also plays off environmental concerns such as drought.

"It takes on, like, a dry-riverbed feel," he said.

Church, who's earned two degrees in sculpture, has always been drawn to large installations, especially after doing some work building houses.

"You build a few houses and you start to relate to scale in a whole other way," he said. "It's a temporal piece so I'm not concerned with moving it or taking it places, and it's nice to be able to just take that out of the equation. Then it gives me the freedom to build whatever I want in whatever space I occupy."

He strives to make his work eco-friendly, using reclaimed lumber and "turnover" clay (the material clay companies can't use). After the exhibition ends, the piece will be demolished, its remnants recycled or thrown away. "I guess I'm just extending its life a little further than it normally would (be)," he said.

"Fired Up" is associated with the art center's "45 Days of Clay" celebration, part of its 45th anniversary programming, which will feature ceramic workshops, the Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival, a discussion on "Big Clay by the Bay" from art historian Nancy M. Servis, several artist residencies, and "Family Clay Day" on Aug. 7, which will give hands-on clay opportunities to people of all ages.

"For 45 years, ceramics have been part of our identity," Kienzle said. "We really wanted to kick off our anniversary ... with a blast. It's an opportunity to introduce making ceramics to a whole new range of audiences."

What: "Fired Up: Monumental Clay"

When: Through Aug. 28, Tuesday-Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursdays open until 9 p.m.); Sunday 1-5 p.m.

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Palo Alto Art Center

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