‘Dialogues’ at Shy Rabbit in Pagosa elevates the conversation

Note: This was the original text I submitted for the ‘Dialogues’ article.

Ceramic artists featured in Ceramics Monthly and American Craft are on display in Pagosa Springs. Jeff Pender, from Charlotte, NC is one of the artists sparking conversation in “Dialogues” an exhibit at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts.

Pender’s elegant stoneware pieces are like mystical talismans from some ancient culture. A very involved finishing process gives the sculptural work an aged feel. They are spiritual portals. Vessels of ancestry. Life-force forms.

“I seek the bridge between what was and what will be, between stories told and one yet to be written, between past and future,” Pender writes in his artist statement.

“Ancestors Portal” is a bone white spirit figure suspended in a horseshoe shaped orb. “Floating Spirit” is a terra cotta spirit figure with burnished gold elements suspended in a bone white orb. According to Ceramics Monthly, Pender “maintains a rigorous working method that begins with drawing.”

The drawings become, or are combined, into three-dimensional sculptures. Finishes include terra sigillata (or earth seal), an ancient technique. Terra sigillata is a slip (liquid clay) containing very fine particles that can be rubbed to a luster after firing. The terra sigillata is applied to dry, unfired stoneware. Other unfired surface treatments give Pender’s work a rustlike or bonelike surface. The forms are honed and scrubbed and then burnished before firing. They are finished with wood stain and paste wax.

There is a magical quality to Pender’s work. A sense of discovery is infused into each sculpture. The idea of some fabricated, ritualistic ancient god or goddess figure is hinted at in a very contemporary and elegant aesthetic.

Pender’s sculptures converse with Carrianne Hendrickson’s hand built figurative ceramic sculptures. On the surface, Hendrickson’s forms appear to be innocent, but with an altogether human dark side. The Buffalo, NY based artist created the three “Pillowhead” works exclusively for this exhibit.

Hendrickson’s “The Offering” and “Bird Woman” are ritualistic and ancient in their own way. “The Offering” features an antlered female figure holding a basket of colorful fruit and vegetables. At her feet the spilled fruit and vegetables are all white. On her left chest is a hollowed out square. “Bird Woman” is female figure with four breasts, wearing a crown of red feathers and a long beak almost like a Venetian mask.

Hendrickson and Pender are exhibited in the same gallery with paintings by Christopher St. John of Taos, NM and Marcie Paper from Western Massachusetts. “Petting Zoo” and “Sick Neighbor,” both by St. John, not only dialogue with the dark human underbelly of Hendrickson’s sculptures, they also converse with earlier exhibits and artists shown at Shy Rabbit. “Petting Zoo” echoes the charcoal drawings and lithographs of Michael Barnes. There is mystery and dilemma in the work, humor, the mundane and mindless. “Sick Neighbor” could have been part of “Mind’s Material” in 2006 and strongly recalls the large heads with gaping mouths by Doug Pedersen.

Another artist that literally harkens back to an earlier Shy Rabbit exhibit is Marcie Paper who was part of “Forms, Figures, Symbols” also in 2006 under her former name Marcie Lenke. There is a graphic quality to her painting and collage pieces, one that is simple and organic, almost like fabric. The color pallets of Paper and St. John are complementary and the shapes and forms are conversant with the ovals, circles and figures on the ceramic sculptures of Pender and Hendrickson.

The conversation and dialogue never ends at Shy Rabbit. Michael and Denise Coffee are constantly revising and remaking their contemporary art center, defining and redefining a way to show art and pay the bills. Workshops in ceramics and printmaking offered by Michael Coffee are the bread and butter of this social enterprise. Two print making students Debra Blair of Farmington, NM and Marti Bledsoe of Pagosa and Marble Falls, TX are showing their own dialogue and collaboration in the back gallery. The result is two artists stretching and creating some strong results.

The icing on the cake is the opportunity to bring artists from outside the area to show work that may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to local audiences. An exhibit at Shy Rabbit is like visiting the home of Michael and Denise Coffee and hanging out with their art collection. They exhibit work that Michael Coffee says, “speaks to us as artists and longtime collectors.”

The tête-à-tête will continue.


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