Big changes inspire ceramic artist’s new work

Sarah Gross with new work in her show "Fruits of My Labor."

LAWRENCE – Globe-trotting, giving birth and then COVID-19 lockdown — in that order — all helped to inspire the latest cycle of ceramic works from Sarah Gross. The resulting show of those works, which Gross calls “Fruits of My Labor,” opened Feb. 27 and runs through March 29 at Spiva Art Gallery at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.

An associate professor in the University of Kansas Department of Visual Art, Gross makes ceramics that challenge the viewer’s perception of reality, be it in the directional application of glaze that makes an object appear to change colors as the viewer moves from side to side, or building a “red carpet” that, upon closer inspection, is composed of repeated masses of individual molds of the artist’s fingers pointing upward.

In “Fruits of My Labor,” the works play upon the various meanings of the word, from the traditionally feminine labor of giving birth to the traditionally masculine labor of laying bricks. A pair of heavily textured vessels, for instance, reflect the dilation of the cervix during labor.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a brick path on the gallery floor. Each brick bears the marks of a hand squeezing it, or fingers gouging it.

“This is to draw attention to the work involved in constructing our environments, but what is interesting is that each individual brick records a moment with an emotional gesture,” Gross said.

Other pieces in the show were inspired by a 2018 artist residency, supported by the KU General Research Fund, in Italy, Gross said. Her visit to c.r.e.t.a. Rome (“creta” is Italian for pottery or clay) occurred while Gross was pregnant.

“I had a five-week research leave to look at architectural ornamentation, specifically, and also to consider the Jewish community in Rome,” Gross said, “and I wound up observing all of these plants created out of stone.

“Wreaths are also symbols of cyclical time, and of victory, like laurel crowns. And that just started to find its way into the work.”

Gross said she was struck by the contrast between “classical architectural ornaments like swags and wreaths and these symbols of plenty and celebration and fertility being rendered in stone that is unchanging and lifeless. At the same time, my body was changing, and I was observing that in real time. So that also informs the glazing of the new pieces as well.”

In the new show, Gross said, the wreath form is mashed up with another of her recent obsessions: lockdown gardening. Having grown up in New York City, Gross said, she had no experience with gardening before lockdown made it seem somehow life-affirming. In contrast to her parents and her sister living in New York, Sarah Gross could at least grow some of her own food in her Kansas backyard.

“Gardening is a way to think about the future with clear optimism, so that helped a little in the difficult days of the pandemic,” she said.

The wreaths in the new show are composed of forms created by molding fruits and other plants.

“There are molds of pumpkins and acorns, artichokes, clementines and tomatoes,” Gross said. “Each wreath symbolizes a different harvest with a different season. The idea with the wreaths is that they're glazed directionally. So, from one side, you have a stony texture. And then on the other side, as you walk around it, it changes and becomes more saturated and juicy and alive.”

Image: Sarah Gross works on a piece for her new show, which runs through March 29 in Joplin, Missouri. Credit: Rick Hellman, KU News Service

Tue, 02/28/2023


Rick Hellman

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Rick Hellman

KU News Service