Cheryl Ann Thomas in The Santa Fe New Mexican

Delicate Forms: Artist Cheryl Ann Thomas
By Michael Abatemarco

Fragility and stability combine in the elegant, ephemeral ceramic sculptures of Cheryl Ann Thomas. What began as an experiment to see how high and thin she could make a cylindrical sculpture led to a series of collapsed and fraying forms, transformed in the kiln.

“I made the commitment to follow the process before I had any idea what would happen, Thomas told Pasatiempo. “I was surprised by what came out and I’ve been following that ever since.”

Thomas, whose exhibition at the William Siegal Gallery opens Friday, June 24, lets an element of chance determine the end result of each porcelain piece she fires. She begins a new work by forming a hollow, round column of coiled clay. The heat of the kiln, reaching more than 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, causes the collapse. “I start with a 10-inch circle, and the columns go up to about 38 to 46 inches,” she said. “The piece is drying as I’m working, and it’s getting strong as it dries, but if I were to poke it, it would just all go down.”

Perchance: Ceramic Sculpture by Cheryl Ann Thomas includes eight of her recent works, some of which comprise two or more previously fired ceramics that have been refired together to form a new sculpture. They also bend, twist, and tear at the seams along the coils, ending up looking like piles of gathered scarves or other fabrics with splitting seams, or, because of their textured surfaces, like sheets of peeled tree bark. But her sculptures seem less like something cast off, such as an article of clothing, and more like the repositories of unseen entities. Winged, for instance, is an amorphous dark shape that looks like a specter whose cloak is lifted by the wind. “It made me think of Winged Victory,” she said, referencing the Nike of Samothrace (also called Winged Victory of Samothrace), an ancient Greek sculpture dating to the second century BC. “Usually the title would remind me of the piece, but I don’t want anything too specific. I don’t want to interpret it for people.”

Thomas’ work is process-oriented. The coil method allows for an artist to build a sculpture higher, with less risk of collapse. Most ceramists would smooth out the coils after constructing a vessel, but Thomas leaves them exposed. The thin coils lend the surfaces of her pieces a rough but uniform texture. “The fact that it’s built up coil by coil, that’s the way a lot of things in nature grow,” she said. “I pinch the coils together but don’t use anything to make them really stick. The coils interact with each other in the kiln, and fold or break. They’re perfectly symmetrical when I put them in.”

Most of the pieces at William Siegal have some color. Thomas uses soft muted tones in a piece called Repose, a tripartite construction whose upper section is taupe, middle section is a pastel blue, and lower section is off-white. Compress, another sculpture composed of several originally separate pieces, has at its center a collapsed form tinted pastel pink. Winged, however, is a dusky form veined with blue. “I used black and white for a long time,” she said. “Maybe in the last two or three years I added color. Everything progresses really slowly with me. I take my time, and I don’t plan on making any changes, but they occur through accidents or through curiosity. The colors are oxides like manganese, black iron, or copper. The blue comes from cobalt. They’re natural elements, the same things that color stones. I add that into the clay.”

Thomas was born in Santa Monica and graduated from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena in the early 1980s. “My degree is in painting, and there was a long time when I didn’t have a studio practice,” she said. “I took an introduction to ceramics course, and I tried a lot of things, mostly slab work.” Perchance is her first exhibition at William Siegal, but she has exhibited in Santa Fe in the past, including a solo show at the Jane Sauer Gallery in 2006 and several group invitationals at Santa Fe Clay. Early in her career, she intended her ceramics to be conceptual and also minimal. The colors were monochromatic and the forms retained their cylindrical shape. Some of her Relics, a series of works begun in 2002, give some idea of what her sculptures look like pre-collapse. Now she builds on her original concept with modifications, not just by fusing multiple pieces together, but sometimes by taking parts away. “When I’m combining, I’m making choices about color and placement, but of course, I still don’t really know how they’re going to come out, so that’s another part of the art. For a while I was doing some bronze pieces, but that was too expensive for me. I would make a piece out of wax and then have it cast. It had a totally different look but was still process-based.”

The delicacy of the sculptures is also what gives them their strength. They collapse because of their fragility, but also settle into their permanent, stable forms. Thomas gives up some measure of control. Chance becomes her collaborator. “I’m drawn to chance and fragility, probably through life experiences I’ve had, but I didn’t set out to express that. I set out to remain distant from it, but no matter what work you do, you end up revealing yourself to yourself. You find out about things that maybe you didn’t even know were there.”