Narrative Object: Lynn Peters’ Figurative Sculpture

August 24, 2018 by

Ceramicist Lynn Peters creates sculptures that convey elements of the human condition with humor and sympathy, cleverly toying with language and found objects to compose or dismantle cultural narratives. “My work is about the history of ceramics and what it is to be human right now from my point of view…I am in love with what we know about history and how we can learn from history.”

While living in New York City, surrounded by a new generation of sculpture and art being shaped by artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Azara, Peters began to use the vessel for exploring narrative. The vessel, for Peters, is inherently tied to the figure, “I think relating the figure to the vessel is fundamentally how women relate to everything, through their bodies. There is a different kind of sensibility, a more physical relationship [to their world].” We see the body literally emerging from the vessel in her “Caryatides” series, with figures simultaneously part of and distinct from the vessel.

Peters is aware of her influences and wants the viewer to be. “Nothing came from Mars to visit,” she says, suggesting everything comes from somewhere. No idea or process is acting alone if history has anything to show us.

Recently, Peters has begun to incorporate found objects into her sculptures. These include mid-century porcelain figurines and mass-produced chinaware, “[these objects] come from thrift stores, it’s part of finding a worthless item that was once really valuable and precious and embedded with history.” By including these found pieces, Peters brings elements of ceramic’s history into the narrative she’s constructing.

The juxtaposition of these found figures against her skillfully hand carved elements creates “a conversation about the present and the past.” These sculptural collages display stories once told and stories we are telling now. Sometimes these figures clash with each other, each seeming to belong to a different era, but Peters is not looking to simplify or smooth out a storyline. She’s giving the viewer pieces to put together their own narrative, “I have my story in my head and what I’m doing but the viewer will always have their own. I try to give them clues but you can’t control it. I’m hoping they have an experience but I know they won’t have my experience.”

To further add to the story, Peters incorporates bits of platitudinal language.

For years Peters has kept a journal of conversations, recording the quotidian, the cliché, the slogan, “I play with cliché because that’s what we speak in. If you think about a cliché for more than a few seconds it’s always profound or embarrassing or funny. There’s always something you don’t want to look at which is why we don’t like them but love them at the same time.” Clichés tell us about common/dominant cultural ideas and beliefs. They die out or change with lifestyle shifts and new generations. Peters is fascinated with this, “I like exploring 19th century clichés. I use them as teaching elements, to keep the past alive.” For Peters, a way of understanding the human condition comes through her physical engagement with the medium, the rich history of ceramics and techniques used—she’s opening a door to the past through which to view the present.   

The process of creating one of these sculptures begins intuitively and becomes a test of skill. Peters keeps images of people, animals, objects, and show posters from the 30’s and 40’s, to draw on for inspiration. She spreads out these photos and begins looking, arranging, and rearranging what captures her attention, “I’m constantly shuffling, selecting, and discarding things.” Through this she narrows down her ideas to create a map of what will become a sculpture, “it’s a long process, starting with paper and then composing that into clay, waiting for it to dry and then assembling things together, it takes me a few tries before I get the piece right.” But when the piece comes together the result is a playful assemblage of the artist’s navigation through history, language, and her lived experience. 

Lynn Peters is Professor of Art and Department Coordinator at Moraine Valley Community College in Chicago, IL. She is also on the Advisory Board of Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts. Lynn Peters studied at Sheridan School of Design, NY State University at Alfred and Rutgers University; and has completed traditional apprenticeships, both in production pottery, and mold and model making. Having worked in the art industry doing architectural restoration and in her own businesses making pottery for retail and wholesale markets, she now makes narrative sculptures that reflect on the complexities of the human condition.

Marisa Malone is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been published in Selfish Magazine and BlazeVox Journal   and she has self-published two chapbooks of poetry.