A Conversation with Lindsay Pichaske, a Fine Art Ceramicist
What do you think of when you hear the word “ceramics”? Bowls, plates—lamps, perhaps? No matter what comes to mind, I doubt you have conjured up images of the amazing clay sculptures produced by Maryland Hall Artist in Residence, Lindsay Pichaske.
I first met Lindsay when we became Artists In Residence (AIRs) at the same time, a little over two years ago. She is always on the go, and since I have known her she has consistently produced pieces she ships off to the galleries that show and sell her work, both in Chicago and at Miami Basel. Meanwhile, she also travels north to teach at the esteemed Maryland Institute College of Art, or MICA, and south to teach at the College of Southern Maryland in LaPlata. And recently, she gave birth to the now 18-month old Max, who is beloved by all the AIRs.
From the start, I could tell Lindsay was a well-established and very focused artist, and I immediately fell in love with her work. Each life-size animal she creates possesses an amazing presence, whether it is an immense orangutan or a graceful and elegant deer-like creature. But I don’t want to describe her work; it is best to hear it in her own words and to learn from her how it all began.
It is evident that your sculptures animals are born out of love. Where did it all start?
I always had a love of animals, especially great apes. Growing up between Washington, D.C. and College Park, I had summer internships at the Zoo in high school and a couple of years in college.
I started college at UNC Chapel Hill with a dual major of pre-med and art. My junior year was spent studying in Florence where I took only art classes, and I fell in love with figure sculpting in clay. We would sit on the steps of the Duomo and sculpt the relief heads of the saints, and then be in a tiny room sculpting from life. While I was in Italy, I visited the Museum of Zoology and Natural History, called La Specola, known for their collection of wax cadavers, a technique developed in Florence in the 17th century for the purpose of teaching medicine. It had a huge impact on me: I had a sort of morbid curiosity; I was drawn to the glistening flesh that was kind of repulsive, but also very beautiful. It was the combination of beauty and gore that resonated so much with me.
That semester was a turning point. I discovered that my love of science and the body translates so well to art-making. So when I came back to UNC, I dropped the pre-med, and just focused on art. In the ceramics area, I was able to get access to welding and mixed media sculpture.
Another turning point came pretty soon after, when I took a two-month concentration workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, led by artist Cristina Cordóva, who was creating interesting and poignant large-scale figure sculpture. That‘s when I learned that one could be a fine art ceramicist. I had always thought of ceramics as craft. It was such a great experience that I moved there to spend a year as her assistant, which is where I got most of my education. It divorced art-making from academia, making it joyful but also conceptual. Everyone was up all night in the studio, and then waking up to the beautiful mountain air was wonderful!
My education at Penland School of Crafts, the graduate program at University of Colorado and a one-year residency at the Archie Gray Foundation formed the path of my work.
Working with Cristina, I began creating human figures that had an element of the grotesque. I then started making human figures that were interacting with an animal. I was interested in the ambiguous, loving but domineering relationship between man and animal, specifically the outcasts, like rodents and other animals we view as pests.
My first animal-only piece was based on a taxidermy form and a chest of a deer; I made the neck and head and then covered the whole thing in black string. I loved that surface and the act of doing it; it was like making a death mask, following the musculature.
Taking the human out of the picture, the viewer became the human, allowing for a more empathic relationship with this creature rather than me illustrating or narrating it, ad it creates the relationship, which is really what my work is about.
I eventually moved to creating pieces that were just the animal, first based on a taxidermy form and then I started making my own creatures out of clay, rather than responding to a taxidermy form, because I connected more to the animal that way.
They are beautiful! When I look at one, I recognize what it is and yet, it has different qualities than one expects. What do the animals represent?
The sculptures are based on specific animals but they are also hybrids. I like the idea that these animals look very familiar but don’t actually exist in our world…at least not yet.
Some of your animals have bright pink feathers, while others have a smooth clay surface. Do you go back and forth?
Sculpting clay is such a malleable and lifelike material but formless so it can become anything – it can be made to look like anything. So for me, working with other material like feathers, strings, etc., created this sort of order for me. You can really sense the love for the creature by the way the sticks or feathers interact with the clay.
My move from the west back to the east (a few years ago) changed the materials I used slightly. For the recent orangutan, I sculptured the body and fired it, and the fur was made by adding stain and wedging it into the clay, and then slicing into many individual pieces that I fired in layers. The pieces were attached to the body with epoxy. I loved the slow act of repetitive covering.
Material that is pre-existing tells you what it needs to be. Working with clay, I can make the rules up myself.
I’m still changing and moving back towards only clay. I am working towards commission for next spring in Boulder, Colorado, to do three pieces at a hotel in Colorado. Fired clay is the most archival material you can work in, and I’m excited to use that as a surface rather than gluing things on.
Do you do many commissions?
This is my first one, and it is a different kind of challenge. I’m excited to have a legacy in a place I love and feel connected to. I can make something that will last for years outside where it is cold and snowy and the inside pieces will have sun exposure.
It’s going to be a different process because I work with a gallery now, which is a good fit, but for the amount of work that goes into it, it’s not a lot of money. So I make what I want to make and what is in my soul. That orangutan was from my soul, and it sold at SOPHA in Chicago.
If I don’t make what I love, I’d rather be with Max!
What impact has Annapolis and your studio here at Maryland Hall had on your work?
I love the natural beauty here, and I love this studio. I walked in and felt that I could breathe – big space and natural light. The first piece I created here was a bird with anchor ropes, a waterfowl based on a heron. Conceptually, the idea of these ancient birds resonates so much for me because it is our link to the dinosaurs and they transcend time and represent a bunch of species.
Including Lindsay, eight juried Artists In Residence (AIRs) work out of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, at 801 Chase Street in Annapolis. The AIR studios are on the top floor, with 20-foot ceilings and huge windows. The next time you are in Annapolis, stop by to see a performance, visit the galleries, or peek in on the AIRs on the top floor.
Photos of sculptures, courtesy of Lindsay Pichaske; photos of Lindsay Pichaske, courtesy of Rachel Hicks