Here are the final pieces in the Prehistoric Circus series that I have worked on for the past two years. This series focuses on placing prehistoric animals in a circus setting, allowing the viewer to encounter the unknown, the exotic, and the amazing mammals that lived millions of years ago.
The nostalgia of the circus provides a connection to the child like joy I find in discovering new animals for the first time. Elements of the circus in each piece create an alternate timeline in which the viewer can travel back and experience the power of these majestic animals. They find themselves on velvet cushions swaying on the back of an ancient giant in an unknown landscape. Colors and intricate patterns are fading; the paint peels and wood rots away under heavy feet and wrinkled hide. As time passes, the animals march on and adapt. Enduring the years like a weathered tapestry, they become the animals we know today.
Each piece has a unique pattern. I start each pattern with light sketching like a pencil drawing. Some patterns get filled in with small stamps, or other embellishments. I also leave blank spaces in the pattern to be filled in later with decals, or transfers.
Many of my ideas for patterns are copied, or originate from Hindu patterns, and tiles from Iran like these. A lot of the patterns in the Hindu religion center around a Mandala, literally meaning circle. This circle is meant to draw in the human consciousness. The concentric design is meant to help people meditate and directs the mind to focus inward. Mandalas are also very balanced patterns that symbolize unity and harmony. I get lost when I carve these complex patterns, and its very meditative. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I lose myself in nature. When I walk in the woods I don’t have to get anywhere, or do anything, and I can be alone with my thoughts.
Each of my pieces is made individually, and usually carved from a solid block. I use some small molds for patterns, and embellishment, but no molds are used for the animal forms. Each animal is carved or built from a solid block of clay, hollowed and reassembled.
I often use slab building to help me create some of the parts of my pieces. These tents were constructed and then added to the hollowed animal form. The patterns were carved and added last.
A lot of the pieces I made in this series were designed to march in a large parade. This parade was inspired by images of animals migrating in the wild, and the way they seemed to be on parade. I connected this to the free street parade that every circus gave to a new town it had arrived in. It was a way to display the animals, and various acts, and make people want to come and see the circus.
This inspired other pieces involving musical instruments, chariots, along with strange prehistoric animals to pull them.
These small pig-like animals are actually the earliest known elephant, Moertherium that lived 37 million years ago. They are also distantly related to the sea cow. They looked a lot like pigs, or the modern day tapir. They were much smaller than their later relatives. Moeritheirum was believed to have spent a lot time in the water eating aquatic vegetation.
Size: 2.5 ft. tall, weighing 500 lbs.
Location: North Africa
Much of the distressed surfaces in these pieces was inspired by my dad. He restores antique furniture, and I grew up watching chipped and cracking gold leaf enter his shop, and the beautiful, glittering, gilded surfaces that would leave it. I loved the way that these objects had stood the test of time, with so much original bright gold still shining through layers of dirt and grime. Their history was revealed in their destruction, but also their ability to survive. The aesthetic in my work is meant to show the beauty in objects that are weathered and worn.
The newest parade elephant is based on one of the strangest prehistoric elephant that I have researched. Platybelodon lived 15 million years ago. Platybelodon was in a special genus of elephants called gompotheres. This means that they had two sets of tusks, the top tusks being pointed, and the lower ones being flat like shovels. These shovel like tusks were believed to help them scoop up aquatic vegetation.
Size: 8 feet tall, weighing 5 tons
Location: Asia, Africa, and North America
A Colossal Collapse is another Dumbo-inspired pyramid of prehistoric elephants. I love making these stacks of elephants because they are so precarious. The balance in them echoes the balance in nature, and how each animal is connected to the success of another. I also enjoy placing prehistoric elephants that existed in different times together in one piece. This idea was inspired by the paintings of Dutch still life painter Rachel Ruysch. Her paintings show flowers that bloom at different times of the year in the same bouquet. So this is an impossible composition that could never actually exist, but the fantasy creates something beautiful. I also love how she includes insects, and dying flowers in a lot of her work, to show the passage of time and the way decay in nature leads to new life.
These stacks of elephants start out like all my sculptures, as a solid mass on an armature. The difference here is that each elephant is slowly revealed from the mass and the clay eventually cut away from between the legs. The clay must be allowed to get dry to hold itself up, but not completely dry. This stiffness in ceramics is called leatherhard; the clay is flexible, but also able to be wet down and added to. Once this is achieved and the elephant forms are revealed, I cut each one off the other and pull it off the pipe armature you see here. I hollow each elephant, then reassemble the pyramid.
Detail being added to the hollowed, and reattached elephants.
Unfortunately, this top piece did not fit in my kiln! So the last elephant had to be fired separately and glued on. This is common in my practice. I am often using mixed media materials, and various epoxies to make my ideas a reality. I think the seemingly impossible balance in these pieces comes from the way I build them as one piece on an armature. the vertical pipes provide a perfect center of balance for the piece. This one did not need anything to help it balance on its own once it was fired.
Hans the High Flyer is another giant ground sloth, though probably more acrobatic than the animal that inspired him. Giant ground sloths could be up to 20 ft. tall! I love the humor in this piece, and when he hangs in a gallery he swings just a little.
The Prehistoric Circus will be displayed in a solo exhibition at the Beatrice M. Haggerty Gallery at the University of Dallas in January 2016.
You can learn more about this series in a recent article in the 100th issue of Ceramics Art and Perception, pgs. 36-39. Click Here to purchase a copy online.
Even though this pivotal series has come to an end, I see many more animals on the horizon. I am currently beginning my graduate study in ceramics at the University of Florida. I have a lot of ideas for new pieces and will be documenting my experiments, research, and process right here. Click the Follow button below to receive updates about new work, and see where the parade will take me!
Photo Credit: Chirstopher Kemler