The Figurative Condition: Humanity Reflected in the Mud

Artists next to their clay sculptures.
Clayton Keyes, Benjamin Lambert, Daniela Salgado | Photo by Sarah Williams

Three artists with three unique life experiences bring three sets of questions and challenges for the viewer. Each utilizing clay to provoke reaction and invite conversation about the human psyche; its own fragility, capacity toward empathy, and power to oppress both man and beast. Benjamin Lambert, Clayton Keyes and Luke Huling have combined their talents to shape and mold the latest Henry Ford College Sisson Gallery exhibit, “The Figurative Condition.”

Keyes, ceramics teacher and Chair of the Art Department at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, is fascinated with the human form. His years of in-depth study have endowed him with the ability to capture raw emotion in order to evoke a reflective response. “Ultimately, my pursuit of exploring and portraying the emotions elicited by strife and oppression come from an urge to impress upon the viewer the experiences of the oppressed and to draw from them empathy for such.” Keyes’s contribution to the HFC exhibit are a collection of busts, all uniquely individual yet subtly non-gender specific. The collection is called, “Identify.” In regard to his gallery pieces Keyes says, “These busts are my record of my progress in understanding of the gender spectrum and my ability to think outside my own versions of the societal gender constructs.” Keyes work has been an artist’s journey. By casting light on those outside social norms he hopes to walk the viewer through the processes of awareness, understanding, and compassion he himself has found.

Lambert, a visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Design at Alma College is influenced by current day and historical environmental issues. The artist grew up in a rural town in Maine, on a polluted stretch of the Androscoggin River, where even today an oxygen bubblier is needed to keep fish from suffocating in the still, damned waters. He reflects, “It seems strange and unnecessary to me that we created this problem for ourselves, that we have to ship in liquid oxygen and pump it into this river. It seems a lot of effort to fix something that we ultimately created. And to what end?” he asks. Lambert admits to dealing with his own “contradictions and quandaries.” Lambert says that his history near the Androscoggin River, “inspires me to research global environmental problems and models for solutions. This research guides me to the persons involved in environmental conflicts, and ultimately informs the iconography and characters that inhabit my work.”

Together Lambert and Keyes visited HFC on Sept. 16. The duo, both fresh from presenting at the Michigan Mud Conference at Albion College, collaborated in the MacKenzie Fine Arts Center Ceramics Lab where they demonstrated processes for art students, faculty and guests.

Keyes and Lambert sculpted a two-headed form; then they began working side by side on individual pieces. Keyes fashioned a large, full-faced figure and Lambert created a sharp-eyed eagle. As he sculpts his eagle, Lambert explains, “This series comes out of a concern for salmon populations and an effort to bring back populations by taking damns down.” Salmon repopulation is also important for the eagle. Lambert says he is “trying to give capacity to animals who are reliant on migratory fish species.”

Keyes adds of his work, “My statement is talking about addressing oppression and trying to elicit an emotional response to that oppression. So whether that is gender, or sexual orientation, or ethnicity and the work in there (referring to the HFC Sisson Gallery) is more about gender fluidity but then, that’s also an oppressed segment of the population, so it kind of fits into that as well.”

An HFC art student observes, “That’s very Tolstoy of you.”

The Ceramics Lab is active with conversation and creativity. Students come and go throughout the day, one moment sitting in the chaired audience and next, hovering close to see the detail of the work. “Clayton, for your piece, where would you put the holes for the air to come out?” asks HFC art student Daniela Salgado-Madrid.” Keyes explains where he would discreetly penetrate his hollow figure to allow steam to escape during the firing process. Without this step, hard work is sure to become an explosive mess inside the kiln. HFC first-year art students Alex Robinson and Jessica Ramos reluctantly leave the lab and head back to class, but not before slipping behind the work counter to study over Keyes’s shoulder as he works his two pieces of torso and head. “This is the biggest thing I’ve ever demoed!” Keyes laughs, as he starts to assemble the pieces together. “This was awesome,” says Robinson on the way out. “It was dope.”

The demo attracts more than HFC students. Sid Paradine and Mary Dey were among a group that followed Lambert and Keyes from the Michigan Mud Conference held at Albion College. They traveled to Dearborn for the opportunity to watch the artists work again. “I was curious about interiors, I work hollow also.” explains artist Mary Dey.” Sid Paradine, artist and ceramics instructor adds, “I just love to watch people work with clay.”

Lambert and Keyes work easily together. You notice the mutual appreciation and respect for the other’s talents. The friends met during a two-month concentration at an artist workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. While Lambert was receiving his MFA at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania he encountered then undergraduate, Luke Huling, the third contributor to “The Figurative Condition” exhibit. Huling, a current MFA student at the University of Indiana, uses both ceramics and metalsmithing to create mixed-media sculptures that represent a deep connection he has always had with the elderly.

In his artist statement, Huling describes the process of watching his grandmother journey through Alzheimer’s: “I watched her change from a modest Wheel of Fortune loving grandmother to a story telling, spontaneous, swearing little old lady. She would tell me stories about her life; sneaking out of her parent’s house to go swing dancing, and her first job as a roller at a cigar factory.” Though the disease was devastating, Huling says he came to realize the new ability to open up it had on her. In regard to his subjects, Huling says, “Their stories inspire my work and I create these pieces as a reminder of the people I’ve met and how they have influenced me. I want the viewer to focus on the elements that tell the story. Through traditional and experimental ceramic finishes and hand fabricated metal details I exaggerate features and expressions to capture fleeting moments of memory and convey personality.”

This process of clay and hands, it’s raw and messy. It’s intimate. Art student Daniela Salgado-Madrid, who has been watching and interacting with the artists all afternoon, explains she is working on a piece that conveys a deeply personal story for her, but for others also. “It’s a piece about DACA,” she says. “Trump wants to talk about the wall. So it’s kind of this little girl. She came in trying to defeat the wall, you see right here, toward the back, it’s breaking. She broke through the wall. There’s actually a Mexican doll like this, it shows the culture,” she points to the figure with long braids, part of an unfinished sculpture. “Once it’s painted, it’s going to have the colors, the red, the white and green, like the flag. There’s little breaks and holes to show how quickly he (Trump) wants to build the wall. You can’t build something that big that quickly, because it will end up breaking eventually.”

“These two little pieces are gonna show the social security card and the work permit. You know, the main goal for all DACA recipients is to graduate and go to school, to make a better living, so that’s why it’s represented,” she points to the sculpted head below the cap on which this immigration story stands. “the cap, to show them graduating.” This is Daniela’s story. She is a Dreamer. “That’s why the tassel is on this side, to show the graduating. You know, that they did make it. They went through all of this.”

Daniela is set to graduate HFC in May of 2018. She is wondering what will happen to her and 800,000 other DACA recipients since the Trump administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals would discontinue in March 2018. Daniela came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was five. She has two younger siblings who were born to her mother and her American stepfather here.“They’re ok,” she says, her voice cracking, “and then, I have to be the one they look up to. So it’s like….” her voice trails away. She breathes deeply and smiles. “I didn’t do this just for me, I kind of did it for everybody. Because everybody has an opinion. I just never said anything because I wanted to show it in my work more than anything.”

Inside the Sisson Gallery reception, Mojo Eldana, an HFC graphic design student and budding painter takes in the figurative pieces. “I never tried sculpting before,” he admits, “but anything you can put expressions and emotions into is kinda my thing. It’s a feeling, a sensation, you put it into an art piece and let other people see it and feel it. It’s hard, but it’s amazing once it starts. That’s what’s here,” he says, looking around the room.

The compelling spectrum of themes represented in the gallery were connected by Glazer and Lambert who met in their service as board members on the Michigan Ceramic Art Association. Glazer liked Lambert’s work immediately, and reached out for the possibility of an exhibit at HFC. Lambert suggested both Keyes and Huling as fellow participants.

Above all, Glazer is most eager for students to see the work, as finished pieces and to see the artistic process. “I don’t work figuratively, not in that way. I make my masks that are molds, but this is totally by hand. Mine are not about emotional concepts, they’re more about the idea of a design from a magical or Shamanistic attitude. Where these are more involved with...Luke’s with Alzheimer’s, Clayton’s with gender identity, and Ben’s with human and animal interaction with both nature and each other. It’s a different type of ballgame. I hope, from the workshop, if one person comes in and just gets hooked then it’s worth it.”

From all places, ages and experiences, something extraordinary happens when these artist hands dive deep in the mud. A bond, inherent, yet fascinating seems to form. A way to give voice to themes universal, fundamental, by using the most basic language of earth and slip. Beauty is found in the build, the mold, the coil, the wheel, birthed by touch and refined by fire. A craft as ancient as any, from function to artistry, used even now, to reflect the human spirit and all it breaks and is broken by.

“The Figurative Condition” will be on display in the Sisson Gallery through Nov. 22. The MacKenzie Fine Arts Center, building F. Hours are Mon. Tues. Thurs.: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Wed.: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sat., Nov. 4, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.