Enchanted ceramics

Abbey Kuhe creates pieces rooted in antiquity.

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"Emperor Moths and Lady Slippers" — Abbey Kuhe

When one thinks of ceramics, very often the first thing that comes to mind is utilitarian mugs and bowls in earth-tone glazes — attractive tableware, but primarily of a functional nature.

That’s not, however, what you’ll find in the work by Abbey Kuhe, the latest addition to the roster of artists represented by Louisa Gould.

Kuhe’s vases, platters, and sculptural pieces feature elaborate designs incorporating sea and maritime images, mythological creatures, snakes and insects — all interwoven into a decorative whole that reveals more and more as one examines the piece. Some are monochromatic — black or navy blue designs against a natural earthenware background, while others feature reds and vibrant blues punctuating the fine-line dark images.

One of the local artist’s most popular designs is a whale resting atop a wave-embellished platform. For these small sculptures, Kuhe has chosen, appropriately, sea-themed designs. One of her whales features a central image of a schooner, fish leaping from the waves, and floral and astronomical imagery, creating a design that recalls scrimshaw but with a far more elaborate and fantastical bent. For another whale, the artist has incorporated a swimming female form and a seal mirroring her movements, set among fish and sea vegetation rendered in vivid blue. Platters are variously decorated with a regal red lion, a serpent slithering through dandelions, and a harpie (a mythological beast with the body of a bird and the head of a woman).

While highly stylized in their use of color and pattern, the pieces also hark back to things like ancient Greek pottery, art Nouveau designs, totems, and a variety of other traditional native art. There’s something both contemporary and faintly archival to the work.

In creating the elaborate designs that decorate her pieces, Kuhe uses a subtractive technique called sgraffito (literally, “scratched” in Italian), which involves applying two successive layers of glaze to an unfired ceramic body and then carving a pattern into the outer layer to reveal the color of the underglaze. The method dates back to classical times, and became a popular choice for decorating building façades during the Italian Renaissance.

Kuhe favors the technique for the opportunity it provides for working in a sort of stream-of-consciousness mode. In order to complete a piece before the glaze hardens to the point where it is no longer viable for carving, Kuhe has to dedicate a full day to each object before she sets out on the decorative phase. Prior to that, the pot, vase, platter or sculpture, has to undergo multiple involved processes, with time in between for drying. It’s a time-consuming and intensive way of working, but Kuhe loves throwing herself into the work — creating as she goes, while studying the various natural forms that she incorporates into her designs.

“I love the act of creating in clay,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “It is of the earth, and yet it is absolutely civilized. It is literally extracted from ancient alluvial deposits, and is utilized in some of the most esoteric rituals of our species. 

“My hope is that the technique of sgraffito lends itself to an inclusive visual vocabulary in exploring these themes. The act of scratching into a surface in service of communication is one we even share with other species. “

Of her choice of design elements, Kuhe writes, “Visually and conceptually, my work is inspired and informed by myriad resources — from the intersections of social and climate justice to the golden age of children’s book illustration; from biophilic philosophies of biology to 19th century textile design; from divine feminine mythologies to 16th century scientific expedition illustration. Throughout, I explore these tensions in human identity, using narrative and history of the human struggle to differentiate from or connect to nature.”

Kuhe’s reverence for the natural world dates back to a childhood spent exploring the Vineyard during summers spent here. Her family moved full-time to the Island when she was 16, and attending boarding school off-Island. Upon graduation, Kuhe lived variously in New York City, points down south, and eventually New Orleans, where she studied ceramics under renowned ceramic artists at Newcomb College — an extension of Tulane University that has become renowned for its pottery instruction — and she exhibited her pottery work at the prestigious LeMieux Gallery, and was scheduled to show at the Jazz Festival in 2020. Along the way, Kuhe took classes in New York at the Parsons School of Design and studied philosophy and women’s intellectual history at NYC’s New School, with no definite plans for what she wanted to do with her life.

“I tried very hard not to be an artist,” says Kuhe. However, after returning to the Vineyard in 2020, the recent mother of two was enticed into taking life drawing classes, and found herself drawn back into the art world. A friend convinced her to attend the open pottery studio at Featherstone, and she was hooked. “One of the reasons that ceramics was such a great invitation into making was that I could create things that were functional,” she says. “The function was a good excuse for me. Then I started spending more time on the surface of the pieces, and eventually I started making objects for the sake of making objects. Not hiding behind the function anymore.”

Since those early days, Kuhe has found success as a ceramicist, showing her work at galleries in Colorado and Montana, as well as in New Orleans at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. On the Vineyard she has exhibited at A Gallery pop-up at Featherstone, and at the former Amy Cash Gallery in Vineyard Haven. Louisa Gould discovered Kuhe’s work through one of the artist’s collectors, and was impressed enough to invite her to join her gallery’s ever-expanding array of artists. (Gould has also recently added another ceramicist, Tony Laverick from England, to her gallery.)

Kuhe now works at a studio in a friend’s basement. She says that she never really knows how each piece will evolve until she sits down and takes a look at the form, and then goes wherever her inspiration takes her.

“[The carving] has to be done all at once,” she says. “You’re constantly racing against time. A lot of the time I don’t know what I’m going to put into a piece. I sort of channel the ideas. I look at a piece and think, ‘What are you going to be?’ I get into a state like a trance, where I’m pretty hyper-focused for a long period of time. I’m in a flow. I lose time. Sometimes I’ll realize that I haven’t eaten for eight hours. It’s very meditative.”

While working, Kuhe often refers to photos and images of some of the animals and creatures she wants to incorporate. “Part of what I delight in is the fact that I get to study the morphology of these sort of creatures — things like beetles that are endemic to the Rockies.”

Many of Kuhe’s areas of interest and study are reflected in her work. “I spend a lot of time thinking about epistemology — the history of knowledge,” she says. “The history of the way we think we know the natural world.

“I’m very inspired by myth,” she adds. “I use a lot of Harpies and gorgons and sea serpents. I like these sort of nature-based chimeras that relate to the history of our human relationship with the natural world. How these ancient stories anthropomorphize these wild things. That relationship is magically told in those stories. That is something that we have lost. Myth gives evidence that we once understood that the world was magic and we were part of a magical world. Those stories evidence a time when humans were in an intimate relationship with nature. For me, it is my connection to nature that I use to enchant my world.”

Kuhe’s work can be found at the Louisa Gould Gallery, 54 Main St., Vineyard Haven. She will also be showing some small pieces at the M.V. Artisans Festivals this summer.