Galleries : Jennifer McCurdy: cutting edge of porcelain
Jennifer McCurdy's work stands as an act of defiance. Her unglazed porcelain vessels rise up in graceful swirls, like sculpted whipped cream fingers reaching toward the sky. A magician at the potter's wheel, she transforms porcelain into intricately shaped and carved pieces that challenge the medium. Porcelain, notoriously difficult to form, is putty in Ms. McCurdy's hands.
A full-time Vineyard Haven resident, Ms. McCurdy shows her work at Shaw Cramer Gallery on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Even in an environment replete with striking contemporary art in many forms, hers stands out: Pure white pieces catch and reflect the light, intriguing the viewer with dramatic contrasts: light and shadow, movement and stillness, strength and fragility.
Now 53, Ms. McCurdy has supported herself as a full-time ceramic artist since earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Michigan State University in 1978. While she started out creating glazed stoneware, she decided that she preferred the beauty and simplicity of unglazed porcelain about 20 years ago. Transitioning from functional stoneware - mugs, mixing bowls, goblets - to decorative porcelain vessels, candle vases, eggs, and sconces has been a long and challenging road.
"I had an epiphany in 1976," Ms. McCurdy explains. "I was on the boat leaving the Vineyard and I met a college professor from Boston. I had been having doubts about making a living as an artist. He said something like, 'It doesn't matter what you do - you just have to be the best at it.' I committed to my work that day and I've never let go of his advice."
Although she has lived in Newport, R.I., Michigan, Florida, and California, she has always considered the Vineyard to be her home. Her grandmother, Zeona Cassel, always encouraged her to pursue her interest in art. Ms. Cassel, a Vineyard resident, was a watercolorist and flower arranger who passed along her passions for Ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging, and painting to her granddaughter. "I think I was first drawn to the shape of pottery by my grandmother's collection of unusual vases," Ms. McCurdy says. "I have wonderful memories of her teaching me the things she loved."
Working in a home studio, Ms. McCurdy spends the majority of her waking moments coaxing porcelain into gravity-resisting forms. Because of the delicate and time-sensitive nature of her work, she says she can't imagine having a studio separate from her house. "I have to be able to run out to the studio in the middle of the night if the work calls for it," she says. Still fascinated by the nature of her business, Ms. McCurdy says that she pushes herself to the limits of her ability during each session.
Porcelain is a man-made material, a cross between clay and glass. Prized by artists for its translucent, buttery-smooth surface, Ms. McCurdy says she is lured by its ability to reflect abstract concepts. "I can create soft and hard shadows, bend it, distort it, and push it to its limits. And yet, once it's fired in the kiln, it becomes so durable it should last 10,000 years."
Ms. McCurdy begins with a manufactured ceramic product called the "body," which comes in a bag. She stiffens the material by molding it into a ball on her potter's wheel. Using the motion of the wheel, she quickly pulls the clay up into a cylindrical shape. The cylinder, she explains, gives the piece its structure. She then transforms the cylinder into a sphere using a process called "dry throwing" due to the absence of water. Because the sphere defines the piece, Ms. McCurdy meticulously applies her honed technical skills during this step.
Once she is happy with the shape she removes it from the wheel and begins to alter the piece with her fingers, pushing and folding the clay. After the piece dries, she uses tools to cut, trim, and scrape, carving patterns to establish what she calls "energy and counterpoint." After two firings in her kiln, the second at 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit, the piece vitrifies, or becomes glassy and rock-hard.
"I like to create beautiful forms," Ms. McCurdy says simply. "How the viewer interacts with the piece is more important than the creator."
When she's not pushing porcelain to its limits, Ms. McCurdy enjoys her daily 20-mile bike ride and spending time with family and friends. She's inspired by Vineyard landscapes; the shapes of coral and other natural objects are reflected in her porcelain creations.
"I made a bargain with myself 35 years ago," she concludes. "I would be the 85-year-old potter still pushing my work to the limits."
Jennifer McCurdy's porcelain is on permanent display at Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven, and is part of the gallery's current "Small Works" exhibit through today, August 27.
Karla Araujo is a regular contributor to The Times.