Karen Abel's hand-built and slab-built ceramic structures often reflect homes, agricultural buildings and simplified bird forms. The flat planes of her construction provide a canvas for imagery that is incised and glazed on to the surface. Communicating a narrative is central to her work. Stories often emerge organically from the marks created by the clay texturing process. Groupings of multiple buildings provide a multi-frame structure through which the story can develop, and the interaction of bird groupings serve as a device to reflect human idiosyncrasies.
We wanted to get to know this artist a little better and she was kind enough to answer a few questions, with the resulting interview.
Why Houses? I’m Pacific NW born, bred and based. I’ve been blessed with a life rich in stories of family, friends, neighborhoods and community thus home and hearth themes have always resonated strongly. Houses, windows, doors, walls and stairs are overflowing with symbolism and meaning for most people – whether a protected place or a broken place. My challenge is thus to leave enough ambiguity in my structure’s shape and imagery so that others can complete the story with their own memories and emotions. I may think I have built a simple garden shed until the buyer starts to tell me about their grandfather’s sod house in Nebraska. Rural structures extend the symbolism with feelings of nostalgia and history and are interesting forms to replicate. I tend to be upbeat and enjoy tongue and cheek humor – houses, farms, communities, cul-de-sacs, animals and birds overflow with possibilities.
Your approach to glazing is very painterly…. do you do preparatory drawings or just work directly on the clay? I keep a sketchbook in which I gather ideas for structure shapes, approaches to color, and drawings of individual elements that become part of the overall image. However, I rarely plan out an entire scene because ideas and stories often emerge out of the texturing process; My work seems best if I can keep the etching and glazing process as loose and spontaneous as possible and not overthink things.
What other artists do you admire? I love the work of Dennis Campay. This contemporary Atlanta-based artist uses disorderly drawings and marks in his paintings of cities and street scenes. Often a quirky black bull pops up – sometimes next to a phonebooth. How fun it that?
The extraordinary surfaces on the ceramic vessels of Sam Hall and Craig Underhill, both contemporary artists in the UK, humble me and remind me I have a lot of development left in my own creative practice. Are there any artists or art movements that you feel have influenced your work? Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky pushed the used of color and line but I am most struck with Klee’s comment that a “drawing is simply a line going for a walk”. I love taking lines for a walk around and around my structures either with incised line or with wire. Is there recurring imagery in your work? And, is there any special meaning attached to that imagery? Birds, crows, cows, chairs, ladders and telephone lines crop up often. Birds, especially crows, mimic human idiosyncrasies and thus are great fodder for our own home and hearth stories. Cows have so much expression in their lack of expression that it’s easy to fill in the blank with our own thoughts. Plump little songbirds are sweet until they lined up and become nasty little gossips. I’m attracted to imagery that is often slightly humorous and gives the viewer a jumping off place to develop their own stories – and maybe their own title to the piece. Can you give a brief description of your technique? I work out three dimensional ideas for structures using stiff paper templates and a lot of masking tape to hold those shapes together. [Basically, I get to play around with paper houses!] That paper becomes the templates use to cut shapes from very stiff flat slabs of clay. Construction of the clay house is followed immediately with the application of texture by troweling on an uneven layer of moist clay and making marks, scratches and drawn imagery. Colored slip (liquid clay) is also added at this time. After the structure is bisque fired, I rub black stain into the textures and incised designs and apply very sheer glazes. Both these techniques really make the incised imagery pop. I’ll fire the piece two or three times to get the desired color wash.