Arizona in Clay

Contemporary Ceramics, Tohono Chul Park

Ceramics—the art of contorting clay into both art and functional wares—has been popular in the Southwest for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

You can see how artists are interpreting 21st-century experiences through ceramics at Tohono Chul Park's Contemporary Ceramics exhibit, located in the park's main gallery through Oct. 21.

Curator Ben Johnson said that he handpicked the art for the exhibit and tried to select pieces that "tie into the nature, art and culture" of the Southwest. Uniqueness and versatility were also criteria used to choose works. Ten artists made the cut, and the styles range from geometric shapes in bright hues to intricately painted bowls and stoneware.

The Tohono Chul art galleries are nestled in the middle of the park and would probably go unnoticed if it weren't for multiple signs leading you to the building where they are housed. Not surprisingly, Johnson said that one of his ambitions as curator is "to bring the park into the gallery."

He said that the ceramic pieces help accomplish that goal, in that "all the works reference place, the landscape of the Southwest ... and show what it is to live in the area.

"People use the word 'barren' to describe the desert, but I feel the opposite," Johnson said. "It's so alive."

Randy O'Brien, one of the featured artists, said he tries to convey that liveliness in his work. He said that when people look at his art, he wants them to question "whether or not it was manmade ... or if it could be found in nature."

Indeed, O'Brien's art looks almost like something you could encounter while out on a hike. His pieces in the exhibit resemble segments of land riddled with fissures from an earthquake. The vibrant colors are the only things that remind you that it's art and not actually chunks of earth.

O'Brien became interested in ceramics when he was a foreign-exchange student in Malaysia. The pottery he saw on his travels inspired him, and when he returned to the United States, he began taking pottery classes. Thirty years later, he's still passionate about the art.

Dee Cox, another artist featured in the exhibit, has been honing her ceramics skills for many years. She was initially interested in the art form because of "the functionality of it," and started small by making simple objects. She eventually began embellishing her works by painting people and objects on them "that tell a story."

Cox's pieces in the exhibit showcase the Southwest in the midst of monsoon season: Torrential downpours, lightning, people and desert animals are integrated into her works in a colorfully cohesive way.

Cox said that Johnson wanted pieces that were unique, and he succeeded in getting an eclectic mix of ceramics that remind us what it is like to live in Arizona.

"Every piece in there has something different about it," Cox said. "Tohono Chul has become a terrific venue for artists."

And local artists are the focus at the park, Johnson said. "We really pride ourselves in the wonderful, local work that's being done," he said.

Other artists featured in the exhibit are Nicholas Bernard, Debbie Jensen-Molnar, Amy Kyle, Sandra Luehrsen, Farraday Newsome, Jeff Reich, Wendy S. Timm and Marcy Wrenn.

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