In Natural Time: Interview with American Ceramicists, Jennifer McCurdy and Eva Funderburgh
t first glance, the organic creations of American sculptors Jennifer McCurdy and Eva Funderburgh couldn’t be more divergent.
Jennifer McCurdy, who makes her home on the idyllic Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, shapes intricately-carved, fine porcelain vessels that pay homage to the complex structures found in both her natural and man-made surroundings, from nests, waves and blossoming flora to curving and overlapping highway overpasses. Creations, that, despite being fashioned out of one of the hardest and most resilient ceramic materials, give the illusion of being as delicate and ephemeral as a snowflake.
Seattle’s Eva Funderburgh, meanwhile, forms pieces that revel in animal as stalker and predator, boasting thick bodies, sharp teeth and rapacious dispositions.
What the two share in common is a quiet reverence for the patterns, processes, strengths and rhythms of that which is bigger than ourselves.
For Jennifer McCurdy, it’s the structural complexities that capture her attention. Whether she’s enjoying her daily bike ride around the island, observing the ripples and play of light in the water, the architecture of the corals or fish bones she finds along the sand, or driving on a highway in another state for an art show, the sculptor says she notices every design and framework, including how issues such as tensile and compressive strength are addressed.
McCurdy, who has been honing her craft for thirty years, says that in her own designs, she is forever incorporating what she sees around her and testing the limits of how far she can go: everything from how much of the clay sides she can carve out and still maintain structural integrity, to how thin she can construct the high-fire porcelain walls without the pieces collapsing in the firing. “If you look at my pieces carefully, you can see not only patters found in nature, but also the struts of the bridges I have encountered in my travels.”
As to which came first, noticing the structures around her, or her own investigations as a craftswoman, McCurdy says it is hard to say, as each just organically has informed the other.
“I took a course in wild plants, I learned all the names of all the plants where I lived. And as soon as I learned those plants, the next time I went out on a bike ride, immediately, I had a larger depth perception. I mean it felt like a real, physical change.
Does being an artist then allow McCurdy a vehicle to share with others what she has learned to see?
Jennifer McCurdy: “Yes, I think that’s true.
Something else McCurdy is keenly attuned to is the dance of movement, a particularly challenging quality to duplicate in a static work of art; and yet this is something that also absorbs the attention and imagination of her fellow ceramic artist, Eve Funderburgh.
Eva Funderburgh: “At Carnegie Mellon, I divided my time between chemistry and art, thinking I would apply the chemistry of glazing to my ceramics. But organic chemistry, which is the stuff I was best at, actually burns out the clay, and I don’t really like glazing. I did learn a lot about electron valencies though, which is just different energy levels that relates to how close the electrons are to the protons, and it’s cool because different states will be purple or brown or blue. But this turned out to have nothing to do with what happens to a glaze, which is much more about alchemy.
What her science education did give her, says Funderburgh, was that “it really shaped who I am as a person: how I look at the world, observing creatures as a biologist does, paying attention to my environment, investigating nature, that love of discovery.”
The artist says she has a zoo membership and will often go and just sit for hours, watching and sketching the animals and observing how they move.
Funderburgh says that creating these hollow creatures which begin as pinch-pots which she then breaks apart, stretches, then reattaches, all-the-while maintaining a hollow middle, gives her a means to initiate a conversation about the internal emptiness “that exists within us all.”
“Ultimately,” says the twenty-nine-year-old artist, “my work is very much about myself.”
“When I brought this one ‘City Beasts’ piece to the gallery, this piece with the creature on stilts walking over a bunch of little creatures, the response was like, ‘Oh, how sweet! Look at the mama with her babies!’ I didn’t correct her, but often times my pieces are a bit more darker than most people think. I leave it up to each viewer to see what they want to in it, but I do find it funny sometimes.”
Although throughout our conversation, the artist often refers to her creatures as ‘monsters,’ Funderburgh says that like all animals and nature itself, her mythical beings are neither benign nor malevolent.
My pieces also allow me to think about the morality of biology in terms of parasites and viruses, and even cancer. These are all things that are just following their biological imperative. And I think in these situations, words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are entirely incorrect.”
Before she begins a new piece, does Funderburgh know what sort of issues she wants to address?
That would be instant death to the creature, says the ceramicist. “It doesn’t work if I think about the emotional content beforehand. If I try to analyze my work, then the idea immediately goes flat. I’ll just have an image that’s been in my mind for a while, and I’ll develop it without thinking about it. It’s not until after I complete a piece that I’ll look at it and say, ‘Wow, I see this is my mother-in-law when she broke her leg.’
Is she communicating with her ‘monsters’ while she is forming them? Or is the artist creating them as a vehicle to communicate with others?
Eva Funderburgh: “Hmmm. I’m talking to the creatures and also sort of talking to myself.”
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: “Having been a children’s librarian for many years, when I look at your pieces, I think of illustrations in books I love, like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. How did these rambunctious creatures of yours come about? Did you read a lot as a kid?”
“Absolutely. I was such a voracious reader, says Funderburgh.
“I was both a bookworm and also sort of bouncing off the walls,” admits the artist, who confides that as a girl, she possessed a mischievous spirit, though was too “intimidated” and “law-abiding” to act upon her leanings. “I had pretty significant ADHD, so the only time I was still was when I was reading a book. If something captures my attention, I’ll stay with it for an extended period of time.”
Lucky for both Funderburgh and her fans, the lengthy and labor-intensive, ancient Japanese wood firing process she uses, anagama, (meaning “cave kiln”) offers Funderburgh plenty of drama and opportunity for constant experimentation and discovery.
Because of what is involved, the artist says she only fires about three times a year, and this weekend is one of those times. Today, Funderburgh, along with nine other ceramic artist friends, begins the two-day-long process of loading their painstakingly-formed pieces into an eighteen-foot-long kiln and then fire it at 2300 degrees for over 100 straight hours, with the anticipated end result being to have ash settling onto their artwork, giving it the desired glaze.
“The longer it stays in, the more ash settles onto a piece and the richer the colors,” explains Funderburgh, who spent a semester studying sculpture at Nagoya Zokei University in Japan.
And what is it like when the artist finally is able to take her pieces out and see the results?
Eva Funderburgh: “You never know. There could be coal in your stocking. And this particular firing, I have several pieces where I’m trying some new things, including a giant, elk-like creature standing on top of a huge mound of 40 two-inch-long arrows that took me two days to sculpt, and these could just get blasted off or wilt, because of the heat of the flame.”
And yet despite the fragility of the firing process, there is also a strength and a permanence to the medium that attracts both the artists.
The Massachusetts artist, who receives requests daily by students wanting to learn about her process, says she feels a responsibility both to those who have gone before her and to those who will come after.
Ultimately, says McCurdy, it’s important for an artist to listen to their own aesthetic and natural curiosity, and not to get caught up in shaping their style in an attempt to please others. “Twenty-five yeas ago, I was doing a lot of street shows and people were telling me that they loved my work but that they were afraid to buy it, that my pieces looked too fragile, and they were terrified that if they took them home, they would break. At some point, I listened to what everybody said. I did a whole new body of work with wire vases and the colors that people thought would go well with their couches. But as soon as I did that, I suddenly stopped winning awards. I said, ‘ok, i’m glad to have learned this lesson now.’ Don’t listen to what other people say. You just have to go with your own feeling.”
Final words of advice to those just now coming up?
McCurdy stresses the value of taking time to naturally develop as an artist. No shortcuts, she says.
“One of the things that’s magical about life here on Martha’s Vineyard is that it’s simply harder to get here. We have to take a ferry boat anytime we come and go. You could be waiting for half a day just to get on or off. I’ve learned that anything worthwhile takes effort, and if you don’t put the effort in, you’re just not going to get to that place you envision.”
It’s the same with hiking up a mountain, McCurdy says. You can get to the summit much easier and faster if you just drive. But it won’t be nearly as rich an experience.
“I remember when I was in college hiking up to Mt. Washington. It took us two days. When we got to the summit, there were people who came up behind us in cars. And they would get bumper stickers which they put on their cars that said, ‘I climbed Mt. Washington.’ And it really brought home to me that my experience of seeing that summit after two days of climbing was really different from that of the person who took just two hours to drive up there in their car. It was the same view, but at the same time, very different.”
Effort matters. And in McCurdy’s and Funderburgh’s case, it definitely pays off.
Eva Funderbugh’s artworks and details of her process can be enjoyed at: http://evafunderburgh.com/
Natural science informs art