Installation by Sarah Spencer White

Golden Belt Arts, Building 3, ROOM 100

Through Feb. 14

It took sculptor and ceramics artist Sarah Spencer White 18 months to hand-craft more than 100 individual pieces of earthenware for an exhibit at the Golden Belt gallery in downtown Durham.

White’s new installation, SPILL, references past and present handcrafted forms, and explores the shift between industrial and handmade, symbolic of the former Golden Belt’s recent past as a functioning factory. SPILL asks us to meditate on what we expect from a vessel. Functionality or dysfunctionality? A sieve or a container? In a Q-and-A with the Indy, White took the time to describe her vision, her discoveries and her inspiration.

Independent Weekly: What brought about this particular ceramics installation, SPILL?

Sarah Spencer White: The work for the SPILL exhibition was conceived and made for this particular space. I wanted to make work that would refer to the industrial production history of Golden Belt and also work well in a gallery that is basked in natural light from the large skylights. These two goals led me to conceive of an exhibition that would be mainly white in color and one that would be a large grouping of pieces. The idea to make pieces that all had a series of holes and perforations grew out of some earlier pieces.

Each vessel has holes that make it useless for the purpose of containing liquids. Why?

I wanted the pieces to reference various vessel and container shapes, but to also have holes that would make these containers unable to contain liquids. I like setting up contradictions. The perforations create a window of sorts into the enclosed space, but they also make it impossible to hold liquid. I think that the function/ dysfunction juxtaposition urges the viewers to ask more questions about the work, to look at it a little bit longer, to engage with it on a deeper level.

I’m curious about the connected network of ceramic pieces.

The table piece is called “Hydropathy.” I have used the table to house other collections of work in the past and originally fabricated it because I was frustrated by the pedestals that [another] gallery had to offer while [I was] planning a show. For this piece I wanted to create a system or network of pieces that implied a filtering-down. The holes in the piece at one end are the largest and the holes get smaller and smaller as you proceed down the table. I also wanted to use this piece for the Golden Belt show because it points back to the industrial history of the building.

You mention you were hoping to discover the shifting barriers between industrial and handmade in creating SPILL. Do you feel you made that discovery?

I have been thinking about and working with the shifting barriers between the mechanical/ industrial and the organic/ handmade in my work for a long time. I don’t know that I can name specific lessons learned from this body of work. I can say that anytime I complete a large body of work or install a show I am aware of how precarious and changing the human relationship with the industrial is. We live in such an interesting time of science, technology and medical advances. It is also a time where a value of the handmade and natural seems to be increasing in response to these advances.

What has brought about this Renaissance in viewing the handcrafted object as having value? Where do ceramics stand in relation to today’s more contemporary art mediums?

I think that the latest interest in the handmade is a sort of backlash against the consumer, mass production culture we live in. People can feel good about supporting local art and craft and not supporting unsustainable production and questionable labor standards. I think that people realize that it is worth it to pay a little more to get something that is well made and beautiful.

Ceramic history has an amazing story to tell. I feel like I am a part of that history, but also a bit separate. I have always been a sculptor and did not begin making ceramic sculpture after making more functional work. Ceramics is in a good place, right now, I think. It is finding its way into museums and fine art galleries and holding its own against more traditional media. There are also some amazing pots being made by a growing community of studio potters. Both potters and sculptors are also embracing industry and technology and blending those techniques with the handmade. The lines between art and craft are more blurred than ever before. For me, clay has always made sense. It is perfect for someone like me who likes immediacy and flexibility.

What inspires you?

How long do you have? I am really inspired by so many things. I love to look at the details and textures of tiny things. I pick up pieces of metal in the road that catch my eye. I love utensils and things found on the beach. I have spent a lot of time looking at microscopic images of cells, pollen, and viruses. I have also looked at a lot of mechanical parts and tools. Anatomy has been a source of inspiration for a long time.

When we view SPILL, what do you hope we, your audience walk away asking ourselves?

It is always my hope that viewers leave with some lingering questions about the work. I believe that these unanswered questions keep the work active and the viewer engaged. Specifically, I wanted Spill to invoke feelings of fragility and dysfunction as well as curiosity.

You have a note at the exhibit describing the day you began installing SPILL, Jan. 12, the same day as Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake. You mention futility, fragility and dysfunction-typified in your work, but also represented in the human world. Would you say your installation could-and does-speak to a larger global situation or crisis?

My work has always been abstract. It has never really meant to take a specific political stance. I was just so struck by the news coming out of Haiti the week I was installing. The piece “100 Ways to Spill Water” made me think so much about the reports of Haitians using anything they could find to try to transport water. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that it speaks to a global situation, but I felt that the coinciding times of installation and earthquake were worth noting. It also gave me an excuse to try to raise a little money for relief (15 percent of the sale proceeds will go to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders). As an artist, I feel that giving back to the world is an obligation.