Before October, I don't think I'd touched a lump of clay for at least thirty years. When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to take ceramics from the great local wood-fired pottery guru Mark Zamantakis, and that romp in the clay was delicious; though I couldn't throw a pot worth a damn, I found my niche in modeling figures and busts and even sold some for a while -- four-inch mini-busts of afro-crowned Jimi Hendrix lookalikes and handsome hippie men -- at a long-gone crafts co-op on 17th Avenue called the Prana Works. But the clay got away from me -- I moved on to other things and, outside of the garden, didn't get mud under my nails again until I took a class from Marie Gibbons at her very public EvB Studio at 44th Avenue and Tennyson Street.
First, I have to say that I love Marie's studio. It's in a storefront where people walk by all day and therefore very cozily communal, and Marie looks right at home whenever I walk in, sitting at her work table or at the computer. Where another artist might hole up in the studio and only socialize elsewhere on a different plane, she encourages an ambiance of society in her space by offering classes and First Friday make-and-take workshops, and hosting a weekly Mud Club for artists seeking self-directed studio time. And somehow, Marie also finds time to produce incredible works in clay: bevies of beautiful twisted flora, strange babies, shiny blood-red human organs, book-art assemblages, birds and shoes.
I really admire Marie's luscious tile works, and that's how I ended up taking her "Rich Relief" tile class: She talked me into it. That's the kind of person she is, incredibly encouraging, and as the class progressed, I came to appreciate what a treasure Marie Gibbons really is. She is a consummate teacher, giving her students enough to go on, yet letting them have their heads creatively. Even I, having not dirtied my hands with clay for such a long time, felt inspired and, well, able -- able to be artful with clay again -- in a healthy, nurtured way. It's hard to explain, but Marie is a bit of a mom when she teaches -- a great mom -- and she knows how to free the kid inside you, all while speaking to you like you're an adult.
I think Marie's teaching style is attached to her whole genesis as an artist. She started as a housewife who made things for herself and her home, but a time came when she felt ready to branch out. And even until four years ago, she worked mostly at her living room coffee table at home.
"When I saw art in public, I thought about how it got there in the first place. I began to notice call for entry notices and eventually applied for a show -- I think it was called Reincarnation -- at Edge Gallery, when it was down on 22nd and Larimer. In those days, I was making embellished, repurposed clothing, and later, I moved into found-object sculptures." From there, it was a matter of networking and meeting other artists. But Marie really hit her stride when she met clay artists Bebe Alexander, Gayla Lemke and Kendra Fleischman and became a member of the Off Center Gallery in Arvada. Working with them, she was drawn to the medium of clay, but unsure about taking the leap. But they encouraged her, and on her 40th birthday, they treated her to a clay experience and raku firing. Within a year, Marie was accepted into her first Foothills Art Center Colorado Clay show.
"I found my medium," she says. "But it's also like a muse -- it lets you do stuff. There's just something about clay."
"Rich Relief" entails molding a sculptural design into a square, flat tile of clay. After pushing out the clay from the back to capture the forms in relief, one then uses a variety of tools and objects to apply textures.
A preview of "Rich Relief":
The first night, I came into the studio dead tired from a long day at work, but Marie had me therapeutically pounding my block of mud in no time, measuring off a slab and finding my way into the shapes I'd drawn on the surface -- a rabbit design I'd borrowed from a Dover book of Japanese crests. By the time I left, I was energized and, well, rather pleased with myself. My first tile wasn't perfect, but it was pretty cool, nonetheless.
Marie's work in progress.
Gwen, Marie and Trish at work on their tiles.
During next two sessions, I finished the first tile while it was in the uniquely malleable "leather clay" stage and continued to shape and design more tiles (I worked rather slowly, and managed to produce three in all); in the meantime, Marie fired the tiles as they were finished and ready for the kiln.
On the fourth and last night, I first black-washed each tile with thinned black acrylic paint; after applying the wash, it was then time to wash it off using a soap-and-water pot-scrubbing technique that left illuminating shadows in the hollows and textured areas. As Marie says, the images really "began to pop." Finally, I began painting each tile with acrylic colors. Later -- I haven't officially finished the painting part -- I'll polish them off with a varnish or wax finish, and they'll be ready to hang. It's still echoing in my head that I did it. I really did it!
Now I'm hooked, and you will be, too. Marie's next class, "Handbirds," which involves making a mold of your hand, which then serves as the body of a bird figure, begins on November 18 and runs for four Thursdays. The fee is $95 and includes all supplies.
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She is also debuting a new series of "oneDAYwonders" Saturday afternoon workshops with "Scrafitto," which involves scratching a design into an underglaze, on November 20 from noon to 4 p.m. for a fee of $45. The works will then be fired and ready to pick up the following week. EvB Studio is at 4343 West 44th Avenue; registration is required.