Arts Material menagerie
Before it takes flight from the kiln, it catches the eye of its creator.
“Oh, I’m liking my bird in there,” says Alison Palmer, observing the perky flyer perched atop one of several containers.
Palmer, a ceramicist who works out of a studio adjacent to her Kent home, is spending a rainy summer morning unloading dozens of pieces from her soda kiln. Carefully and deliberately, she places dozens of cups, bowls and vases of other potters, as well as her decorative pieces, on wooden shelves behind her.
Many of those cups and pots were created by Will Talbot of Bell Hill Pottery, who is helping to clear the kiln, along with Palmer’s husband, Steve Katz. Moments earlier when asked whether any of the pieces were his, Katz just smiled and said no. His forte is music. A guitarist, Katz is a founding member of the band Blood, Sweat & Tears and still performs.
Given Palmer’s hand-built pieces take some time to make, the works of others (including those who have taken her workshops) often accompany her creations, so as to keep her production moving quickly and maintain a packed kiln for each firing.
“All this does take a long time,” she says, of making the work, prepping the kiln, stacking the shelves and the pieces, firing it, waiting for it to cool, unpacking the pieces, breaking down the shelves and getting it ready again. “But, it’s fun; it’s all really fun.”
Since she was a child, Palmer has found artistic expression in one of humans’ oldest mediums. As she evolved as an artist, her works became inspired by fauna of all shapes and sizes, as well as ancient cultures and ceremonial vessels. It has resulted in a menagerie throughout the years, including pigs, deer, dogs, birds, otters, lizards, bears, squirrels, boars and your occasional dragon.
“Ancient vessels that use the animal and the functional form integrated has always intrigued me,” she says. “That is the journey I chose to go on and that feels right for me. I have diverted at times, and gone into printmaking and photography, but I always get back to the clay and animals. I don’t even fight it or try and change it. It’s just my voice and I feel comfortable with that. I just try and make the pieces better and better, and ever more functional.”
In her studio, a two-headed goat basket sits ready for glaze and a second firing. The horns, intricately ridged, are intertwined into a handle. Lattice work links the sides, while the base gives the impression of tiny hooved feet, but without the hooves. It will end up a perfectly workable basket, albeit one where the form outshines the function.
“I try to make animals out of pots and pots out of the animal form,” she says.
Palmer was born and raised in New York before heading out to the Kansas City Art Institute and the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she earned her degree in ceramics. In the 1980s, she and her husband launched a business of dishware and home décor pieces, such as plates, salt-and-pepper shakers, serving bowls and canisters (some of which still sit on her kitchen counter). By the mid-1980s, Palmer’s pieces were being exhibited in fine craft galleries in New York City and elsewhere. About 10 years ago, a slumping market and a desire to try something new caused a shift and she began hand building her creations.
Her menagerie is not constrained to animals built out of material that has taken centuries to develop. For several years, she has employed a much quicker medium.
During the couple’s many trips to Mexico, she has created a series of colorful papier-mache masks that are often inspired by found objects, like the red glittery bicycle hand grip that makes a perfectly serviceable nose in one, or flat metal pieces that are the eyes of another.
“In Mexico, it is all about color and celebration and that is what the masks are,” says Palmer of her work during her trips to Merida, Yucatan’s capital.
“There is not really a lot of clay where I go … so I wanted to do some art work that was inspired by the Mexican people and get in to the culture. Everyone there does papier-mache, which is cheap and accessible. You see piñatas hanging all over the place.
Bright colors — orange, pink, purple, green and red — form the background base for building out the features to create eye-catching cows, birds, deer and other animals. The palette for her ceramics is a bit more subdued — a conscious choice, that for the moment, provides Palmer with the look she is going for.
Whether it’s clay or papier mache, Palmer has long understood that the medium can suggest where it needs to go. It’s what has led her to new works, opportunities, adventures, friendships and creative expression.
“The goat baskets that I am working on now started … with a simple bowl and then I thought I would switch and do horns over the top,” she says. “It developed into … the horned animals series.”
She thinks about where it will lead. “This will probably keep me going for a year, you know, adding animals,” she says. “You go with the flow and keep an open mind and it will take you to different places.”
Alison Palmer’s upcoming shows include one at the Sharon Historical Society and Museum in Sharon from Sept. 8 to Oct. 19, and the “Our Clay Way Tour,” Oct. 6 to 8, which features work from more than a dozen ceramicists in the northwest corner.
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