When science and art collide: the Scripps Ceramics Annual

By Rachael Hamilton ‘16Staff Writer

Every year, Scripps has the privilege of hosting the works of artists from all over the country at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery. This year, from Jan. 26-Apr. 7, the 69th Ceramic Annual features the exhibit “De-Natured Nature,” brought to Scripps and designed by guest curator Virginia Scotchie, a professor of art and the head of ceramics at the University of South Carolina.

The Scripps Ceramics Annual, which was started in 1945 by ceramics professors at Scripps, is the longest-running exhibition of contemporary ceramics in the United States. Each year a different emerging artist is asked to compose a theme and select other up-and-coming artists to feature their artwork at Scripps to expose new ideas and perspective into the art world and local community.

This year’s exhibition highlights the connections between art and science, typically thought of as two opposite fields of study, through the process of altering ordinary objects so that they no longer resemble their original forms. As Scotchie writes in her Curator’s Statement in this year’s Ceramic Annual booklet, “De-Natured Nature” is an exhibition that presents ceramic artists who enlist the use of change to explore the natural given qualities of familiar objects of choice. The shared fundamental root of these artists is their push to compromise, to revoke the inherent quality of the familiar, and render it inscrutable.

“One definition of denature is: to modify (as a native protein) by heat, acid, alkali, or ultraviolet radiation so that all of the original properties are removed or diminished,” writes Scotchie. “In science, this is viewed as a biological activity that changes the tertiary structure usually found in a protein, which begins to unfold. Through this process of denaturing, some of the original properties are diminished or eliminated, breaking down the structure, altering its meaning and being.”

This year’s featured artists are Frieda Dean, Alex Hibbitt, Richard Hirsch, Priscilla Hollingsworth, Bri Kinard, Rebecca Manson, Jon McMillan, Jeffrey Mongrain, Kate Roberts, and Adam Shiverdecker. Although the main medium for the exhibit is clay, these artists also use felt, steel, chicken wire, and lace to bring the concept of denaturation to life.Hollingsworth’s piece, “Game Pieces / Cellulose and Lignin” (2012), and Dean’s collection, “Moss #6, #7, #8” (2012), are at the forefront of crossing the boundaries of art and science with lifelike moss sculptures, down to the color and texture, and glazed terra cotta sculptures that, when aligned properly, fit perfectly into drawn cross-sections of cellulose and lignin.

Manson’s collection, “Vascellum #2, #3, #1, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #11, and #12” (2010), Roberts’ pieces, “Melanie” (2010) and “Scarlet” (2010), and Mongrain’s piece, “Weight of Sound and Smoke” (2005), stray more from a direct connection between art and science and show the influence that science can have on art. Manson’s “Vascellum” are transformations from dainty teacups into deformed, broken, patch-worked, and color-saturated resemblances of their original forms. Roberts’ old dress stands are given new life with intricate clay tiles over lace trimmings, and Mongrain’s simple white pillow supports an amber bubble filled with nicotine.

As a science major and ceramicist myself, I found this exhibit beautiful, intriguing, and thought-provoking. The technique and materials aside, these artists’ vision of taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary defies the non-believers who think that art and science are not intertwined. This exhibit exemplifies that there is art in science, a science to art, and that there is beauty in deviations from the norm. As Scotchie writes, “[the artists] redeem the altered object from the oblivion of the ordinary. As the work undergoes the process of alteration, its attitude or quality of meaning changes and expands simultaneously…”De-Natured Nature” is meant to awaken and sustain our human instinct to engage and question the unknown while keeping aspects of the subject matter familiar. These artists may begin with marginal, nondescript, or ubiquitous objects that become touchstones of our relationship with life, but through their vision and work they address many questions of how we view nature in the wider world.”