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Blending worlds, exploring space

Ceramic artist’s vessels layer materials, experiences

Ceramic works by Ann Christenson, a Washington State University professor emeritus, are on display at the university’s Museum of Art in Pullman.
Ceramic works by Ann Christenson, a Washington State University professor emeritus, are on display at the university’s Museum of Art in Pullman.

Curator Ryan Hardesty imagines ceramics artist Ann Christenson’s studio walls as porous, the boundary between art and life cleared with ease.

Ideas move in, become entangled with other ideas, “and there’s kind of this resulting beautiful array.”

Some of the results – more than 100 pieces, many containing references to Christenson’s cross-cultural experiences, her domestic environment and the natural world – are on display at the Museum of Art at Washington State University in Pullman.

Christenson, who began teaching at WSU in 1990, retired from the university in 2012. She’s been using clay to make art for more than 50 years.

While the exhibition includes a sampling of Christenson’s early work, the bulk of it is more recent, Hardesty said. The show includes “intimate” semi-functional pieces – bowls, mugs, teapots – along with sculptural vessels and larger-scale sculptural works combining steel and clay.

Christenson, of Pullman, holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. She credits her time working in the “Cal pot shop” in the early ’60s and demonstrations by abstract expressionist Peter Voulkos for helping to shape her ideas about clay.

Some five decades later, she said, “it’s surprising how much of the initial interests and influences remain.”

She’s long been interested in the idea of the vessel – what it stands for, how people have used it to express ideas about the natural and design worlds. She’s still more interested in the decorative tradition related to clay – ornamentation and elaboration of space – than the functional one.

And she’s long been combining steel and clay, the interaction between organic clay and industrial steel opening the door to metaphor.

The WSU show also includes photos of a large-scale sundial Christenson created for a courtyard on the University of California’s Clark Kerr campus in Berkeley, as well as pieces reflecting her cross-cultural experiences.

Christenson made the first of several trips to China in 1995 for the International Women’s Conference. She said she was drawn to China’s history of ceramics.

While Christenson created some work in China, she said she spent more time looking. She saw huge storage pots – “beautiful things” – created within a folk tradition. She visited sites including wood-burning kilns used by farmers who became potters after growing seasons ended.

After the conference, she helped set up an exchange program with artists in China, hosting women in the U.S.

Jo Hockenhull, a printmaker and painter who taught with Christenson at WSU, traveled with her friend to China and also worked on the exchange program.

Hockenhull said Christenson is a master of materials and has a sense of form that seems entirely intuitive.

“She can make clay look like lace and steel look like fluffy, wind-blown curtains,” Hockenhull said. “She just bends her material to her will.”

Hockenhull, who now lives in Salem, said Christenson’s work is built of multiple layers.

“She pulls together a lot of subject matter – it’s not always imagery, but sometimes it is – and layers these elements on top of each other,” Hockenhull said. “It’s sort of like the way life is. As you get experience, as you go through a process, one thing is put on top of another on top of another on top of another. And she does that in her work.”

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