The Fluidity of Clay

Matt Wedel’s botanical sculptures

I believe we choose materials that allow us to seamlessly translate our ideas to real space. Clay, in this respect, works for me; it’s like working in black and white.

I’ve always been attracted to folk art. I’m a second-generation ceramicist; my father is a functional studio potter. In this regard, my practice started early.  My earliest and fondest memories of sculpture were of a local folk artist from our town named Lyle Nichols.  I would visit his home as a child and wander amongst his statues of beasts and silly automobiles constructed out of car bumpers and rusted machinery. Another memory is looking at photos of the Terracotta Horses from Southern India. These fifteen-foot tall ceremonial animals would be created in nine days and piled with wood and straw to be fired in about three hours. They are such stoic objects and continue to hold so much power.

It wasn’t until I was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where my sculptural practice started to go anywhere; four years later my current work began to emerge. Prior to Chicago, I studied with Michael Wisner, a contemporary craft potter and long-time apprentice to Juan Quesada and the Manta Ortiz craft movement. From this relationship, I worked with traditional vessel forms that were reminiscent of this folk history. Over a period of six years, these works transitioned from the vessels into a series of sculptural abstractions dealing with landscape. I continue to use this handbuilding technique to this day.

In Chicago, I worked primarily with welded steel and cast bronze and was thinking about the faceted work by David Smith.  I realized that I had no strong connection to metal and returned to clay--as it seemed a starting place in its relationship to my youth and childhood. It is a study of form, composition and narrative. It shrinks, changes color and becomes something new, and I never decide the color until I reach this point. This allows space to understand what the object has become and where it needs to go.

My sculptures are more powerful to me when I allow them to breath and move in thier own direction.  Clay is so fluid and seems to punish those who try to control it. It’s important I make my pieces rather than fabricate them.  All of the  pieces are hand-made rather than from a mold. With the floral work, for example, this means that the petals are individually formed and placed one at a time. Thus, my artwork is about understanding my own ability to make. I am interested in how my hand translates an idea and the flaws or awkwardness that might come with this.  

The pieces I sculpt revolve around the idea of landscape as a platform to begin working.  It’s a space that I imagine where anything I chose can exist.  Sometimes they are from the world, sometimes from history, or from my imagination. The flower, animal, figure and rock are all elements that emerge from this space. Each object allows a different way of working. With the rock forms, I work intuitively, while the animals I tend to work from a set idea.

In the case of the flower sculptures, they alternate between the two, while forcing me to work with issues of complexity and density. I’m interested in my own idea of a flower. As an abstraction of landscape there became a point where this was not the right vocabulary I needed to make what was in my mind.  At the time, as I began to work representationally, I was living in Southern California.  I think subconsciously my artwork became a strange mixture of succulents and the flowering trees of that landscape. 

As for my other sculptures--the Shetland pony, poodle, cat, and sheep forms--they are all humiliated, yet delightful creatures.  I see this kind of energy in all my sculptures. I am attracted to work that has a sad and clumsy humor to it.

To see more of Matt’s work, please visit www.mattwedel.com.

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