Converging Practices: Sarah Blackwell in the StudioApril 28, 2015
Amidst a landscape slowly emerging from the weight of winter, Chili Bowl Workspace resident Sarah Blackwell finds every excuse to work outside. Hands glowing with porcelain dust, she sands several hundred mysterious, hand-sized ceramic coils.
“Clay has such a life of its own. It’s constantly shifting and warping. You want to force it to be something, but then it tells you what it actually is,” Sarah says.Sarah’s journey through diverse media has brought her Brooklyn-based ceramics practice to Women’s Studio Workshop. Her drive to ask philosophical questions about the purpose of art-making continually situates her art-making within tangible, everyday experience.
While studying at Hampshire College, Sarah developed an engaged, embodied drawing practice that sought to explore drawing as a way of recording time and understanding our place in it. Post-grad exploration took her to the Royal Frog Ballet, an artist collective and yearly gathering of surrealist theatre, puppetry, and performance on a farm in Amherst, MA. For several years, Sarah found an anchor in colorful, collaborative, community exchanges—they contextualized her work within tangible political and social purpose—until she felt it was time to change her focus.
“I felt like I had to leave that behind—the performative part of that work—to find a much quieter and private center in making really simple, functional objects that require focus, alone time, and not being on display,” she says.
Armed with an underglaze pencil, Sarah left collaborative performance for functional ceramics. After taking a wheel throwing class, she became enamored with clay and found within the demands of its labor and materials the meditative space she was looking for. For the past four years, she’s balanced form and function in quiet cups, vases, and bowls. With muted underglaze washes, they become three-dimensional bodies for Sarah’s minimalist line drawings.
“They’re pretty humble,” Sarah says, picking up one of fifty bowls she must produce for Chili Bowl 2016 as part of her residency. It’s an off-white vessel with repeating petals drawn around its outside and a deep licorice inside. “In making them, I’m trying to bridge some kind of gap. To make something that people are able to hold onto, touch, and use in their daily life is really satisfying. For me, it’s an important way of feeling grounded and connected to something greater than myself.”
During her residency, Sarah’s contemplative clay practice has ventured into the landscape. Following an intuitive urge to experiment, she has created several hundred knotted porcelain coils to build a site-responsive outdoor installation. Like the snaking line drawings that Sarah activates through space, the unique shapes can be stacked, linked, and reconfigured.
“So much in functional clay is about finding that breaking point. When you’re throwing or handbuilding, you’re constantly thinking about how the material is supporting itself. Where is it too weak? When is it going to fall?” she says. “Playing with that on an architectural scale, to build a nest or a small house, seems really fun to me.”
Sarah imagines these stark white forms will contrast with the natural landscape and create a mysterious, child-sized structure viewers will happen upon. Since nothing but their weight and loosely locking shapes will hold them together, each installation will be a spontaneous occurrence that connects back to Sarah’s fleeting, unscripted performances with the Royal Frog Ballet and the bodily, time-based drawing exercises of her early work.
Sarah spends her last day at WSW playing with various shapes and piles of her “building blocks” around the studio. Her three-dimensional drawing is taking on a body of its own and interacting with the landscape, though more forms are needed to achieve the impact Sarah’s interested in creating.
A long time coming, she says, her residency has helped divergent threads of her practice begin to coalesce. “There are all these layers of unfolding that happen when you come to a place like this,” she says. “Now it’s all folding back onto itself. The question is: what’s it going to look like?”
Sarah Blackwell is a Brooklyn-based ceramicist and member of The Royal Frog Ballet. Among her favorite artists are Sol Lewitt, Andy Goldsworthy, Agnes Martin, and Paul Klee. Find Sarah’s work at www.sarahblackwellceramics.com, and see more images of her residency on Flickr.