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Posted on Sat, Oct 20, 2012 : 1:04 a.m.

Clay Gallery exhibit finds professionals offering an 'Echo' of elementary student works

By John Carlos Cantu

We usually think of an echo as something that’s heard.

But as “Echo” at downtown Ann Arbor’s Clay Gallery shows us, an “Echo” is also something we can see. And, more important in this instance, it’s also something notable local ceramicists have recently felt.

The show is subtitled “Clay Gallery Artists Interpret Ann Arbor Schools Student Artwork.” As the exhibit statement tells us, “13 participating Clay Gallery members each chose a two-dimensional piece from district wide all-media (public school) art exhibits that were held in Ann Arbor this spring.

“One (exhibit) was at the Ann Arbor District Library and the other was at the Jean Paul Slusser Gallery at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design on North Campus. Student work selected includes drawings, paintings, prints and collages.


"Kimono" by Jaylin Johnson, a student at King Elementary School

“The idea of the exhibit is for the Clay Gallery artists to interpret, react, and generate a response piece, (hence the name ‘Echo’) of their own to the student’s piece they chose.”

Clay Gallery members who participated are Shirley White Black, Gail Dapogny, Craig Hinshaw, Shirley Knudsvig, Yiu Keung Lee, Marcia Polenberg, Ellie Shappirio, Susan Steel, Susanne Stephenson, Kris Stewart, Joe Szutz, Debbie Thompson, and Donna Williams.

Ann Arbor elementary art students are Ashley Abraham of Allen; Aliya Morioka of Bach; Freya Benson and Helena Heinonen Smith of Burns Park; Jaylin Johnson and Zosuke Nakamura of ML King; Ismael Ronquillo of Lakewood; Anna Boerest, Ashley Figueroa, Jaden Leverett, Rochelle Walker, and Amira Zeidan of Pittsfield; and Aiva Zolden of Wines.

The result these echoes are fascinating, indeed—and were it not for the fact that these interpolated artworks are set next to each other, it might as well be two separate exhibits.

There’s a Brut naivete to the elementary school works that gives them a vital freshness that can’t be duplicated by a trained artist.

What the Clay Gallery artists bring to the table is also quite impressive. These masters’ manipulation of their ceramics has a uniform expertise that is anything but Brut. What these kids do by enthusiasm, the Clay Gallery cohort does by commitment.

As for the comparisons, they tend to fall into three categories: The Clay Gallery ceramicists follow along their chosen artwork; interpret the original junior artwork; or use it as a point of departure.


"Kimono" by ceramicist Shirley Knudsvig

The duo of King Elementary School printmaker Jaylin Johnson and Clay Gallery member Shirley Knudsvig finds these two artists working along the same lines in their “Kimono.” Of her echo, Knudsvig says, “I was attracted to Jaylin’s print by the simplicity of the design contrasted by the lavish colors. I had fun using the method of layered color to bring these pieces into being.”

Johnson’s diminutive “Kimono” print most certainly has simplicity of design—namely a decisively folded print paper—who’s mottled black and red, yellow, and blue ink handsomely supplements the print’s sleeves, sash, and front panel. Add a recession of a red and purple paper rectilinear background, and Johnson’s “Kimono” stands out warmly on its working surface.

By contrast, Knudsvig’s trio of slightly larger wall-mounted ceramic “Kimonos,” placed above Johnson’s print, are sleek with their layered multi-colored finish accenting a curvilinear design. Knudsvig’s ceramic “Kimonos” certainly echo the earlier work by capturing its spirit. So even though there are clear differences between the artworks, there’s also an unmistakable commonality.

The pairing of Pittsfield Elementary paper collagist Ashley Figueroa and ceramicist Debbie Thompson illustrates another approach to the exhibit’s theme. In this instance, the artists work together through Thompson’s “Faces and Vases” interpretation of Figurola’s paper collage.

“Initially I was drawn to Ashley’s piece by the juxtaposition of the faces and vase,” says Thompson of Figueroa’s collage. “As I studied the piece closer, I saw the drawn images and was intrigued by their origin. After some inquiry, I learned the idea behind the project. The assignment was to identify what we value in our lives to create a ‘personal bouquet.’”

The result is two artworks that appear similar, but reveal their differences under scrutiny. Figueroa’s vase—flattened and abstracted—supports a black and green robot; yellow duck; crayon; and book; as well as television cartoon characters. Thompson’s “Faces and Vases” ceramic relief on the other hand features a leaping cat; desk computer; butterfly; garter snake; and (in common with Figuerola), a book.

Thompson’s graceful ceramic renderings are a rich counterpoint to Figueroa’s pasted paper drawings.

Finally, reflecting “Echo” as a point of departure is Pittsfield Elementary painter Jaden Leverett and Marsha Polenberg’s free-standing oversized ceramic “Lady Liberty” statue.

Leverett’s joyful heartfelt painting finds New York City’s Statue of Liberty surrounded by the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” as the lyrics of the song swirl around each corner of this delightfully expressive working surface. Polenberg, too, makes clear her affinity to the statue by saying, “As a born and bred New Yorker seeing the Statue of Liberty has always made my heart skip a beat.” Well, apparently enough so for her to build a fair-sized free-standing “Lady Liberty” facsimile in the heart of the Clay Gallery’s exhibition space.

Yet this isn’t homage enough because Polenberg asks us to join her in celebrating our country’s past as a grand civic melting pot. “Please commemorate,” she writes, “your immigrant maternal and/or paternal great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, or possibly (you) yourself who arrived in the United States from another country by writing names and country of origin on the pedestal of ‘Lady Liberty.’”

You might as well join in when you visit the exhibit because a significant number of other Ann Arborites already have. In a display of art devoted to varied echoes, this particular “Echo” might reverberate best of all.

“Echo: Clay Gallery Artists Interpret Ann Arbor Schools Student Artwork” will continue through Oct. 27 at Clay Gallery, 335 S. Main St. Gallery hours are noon to 8 p.m., Monday-Thursday; noon-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 734-662-7927.