“One of the reasons I like to work with clay is that it allows flexibility and it demands it, too,” says local ceramic sculptor Sarah Spencer White. It is a statement that could just as well apply to one of White’s primary sources of inspiration, the human body. Her eerily beautiful and disturbing sculptures, currently exhibited at the Durham Art Guild Visual Arts Gallery, combine abstracted images of the body with forms that reference tools, machines and industry. The child of a nurse, White became interested in anatomy at an early age. As she witnessed her father’s long and fatal fight with cancer, she grew even more aware of “the confusing merger brought on by the tenuous relationship between our bodies and science. Today, the anatomical is often overshadowed by the mechanical,” she says. “Our bodies are becoming unfamiliar.”
Compulsively hardworking, White has had to scale back her studio time since taking a job at Durham School of the Arts, where she instructs middle- and high- school students in ceramics. She has taught ceramics, sculpture and drawing to both children and adults in places as diverse as a fresh-air camp for urban children, a Boston-area boarding school, and a local community college. Though she is a Greensboro native and a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, her work has mostly been shown in Colorado where she earned her MFA at UC-Boulder. Her sculptures have also appeared in national juried exhibitions in New York, Texas, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, as well as in solo and group shows in Greensboro and Charlotte.
While she does have a throwing wheel and occasionally makes functional ware, her sculptures are all hand-built. She works from what she calls her “philosophy of inundation.” First, she gathers information from as many sources as she can, reading and searching through all sorts of imagery. Then she may make some sketches, but often begins working the clay with only a vague notion of what a piece is going to look like. Her most recent body of work resulted from looking at numerous anatomical drawings, both current and historical. White found the older drawings especially interesting because they were often incorrect, placing organs in the wrong place or making them the wrong size. “They might show the heart as if it were as big as a football,” she says, “based on a perception that because you could hear your heart beating, it had to be larger than we now know it is.” The sculptures then evolved as she considered the ways in which disease and injury distort our perceptions of our bodies.
The exhibit consists of 13 large wall pieces and a collection of smaller pieces gathered on a long table. The wall pieces, in various shades of green, blue, gray and yellow, have an alien presence that is simultaneously organic and mechanical. Reminiscent of internal organs, industrial valves and hoses, and insects, the pieces evoke queasiness and the fear of sickness. The glazes on the outsides of these earthenware pieces are rough, scaly, pebbly, even reptilian. They are thickly encrusted with strong but subtly varied color. By contrast, the interior surfaces are smooth, the color of flesh or sand, with metallic glints that suggest wetness. White intended the glazes to both attract and repel the viewer. “Bright colors are not what we think of as negative, but inside the body, bright colors often signify disease or infection,” she explains. Structurally the sculptures are impressive not just because they are big, substantial and somehow hang stably on the wall, but because sometimes skinny parts must hold up heavy parts, the way our necks support our heads or trim ankles hold up a sturdy pair of legs. The titles of the pieces, words like “Distrix” and “Otitus,” are derived from medical terminology.
“Symptom II” consists of 46 smaller works, all made of unglazed porcelain, stark white against a steel table that White built. This obsessive grouping of similar but not identical objects is like a pile of bones in the process of being sorted. On closer inspection, one form resembles a stomach, some are like spoons or sieves, others like seedpods and cocoons. But the resemblances are only suggested, so you are never confident that you know what it is you’re looking at. After examining the wall pieces, which are so vibrant in color and texture, the smooth whiteness of “Symptom II” is both relieving and startling, referring you to another part of the body altogether.
While “Symptom II” is the first work in porcelain that White has shown, she hopes to continue working with porcelain, perhaps on a larger scale. “I’d also like to experiment more with unglazed work because it forces the viewer to consider form more than color,” she says.
As she gets ready for her next exhibition, a show at a Detroit gallery, White is focusing on new experiments. She intends to rework her smaller pieces, emphasizing the connections among the individual sculptural figures to explore the relationships suggested in physically or visually joined parts. Such connections will further stretch that idea of flexibility inherent in the clay. And they will continue to evoke in new ways our uneasiness with our own bodies, forcing us to think about the innate elegance and awkwardness of the human form and the oddity of what lurks beneath the skin.