It may be December, but for me the holidays arrived last July. Sandra Byers visited the James Watrous Gallery to discuss her upcoming solo exhibition with Jody Clowes and myself. She brought a small box with her and much to my surprise she removed the lid and revealed twelve of her tiny porcelain sculptures, packed like fragile ornaments. I had no idea she would be bringing actual artwork with her. I was immediately transfixed by the delicacy and texture of the pieces as they snuggled in my hand. One piece transported me to a moment in the forest, when I discovered a beautifully curved leaf next to my dog’s tufty paw. Another piece carried me away to Venice Beach, where I had a particularly good day gathering shells with my sister. While these moments are singular and personal, the magical experience of discovery in nature is universal.
It was in the 1970s that Sandra realized she had a voice through her artwork. She had graduated from Cornell and was living in a live/work loft on lower Broadway in New York City. Most of her studio work at that time was small, glazed, functional stoneware. It was an exciting time to be in New York City and she exhibited her work for the first time at the American Craft Council show in Rhinebeck, up the Hudson River. In 1976 she first tried using porcelain because she thought it might be translucent. This decision would launch her on a 30-year research journey and transform her work into sculptural, unglazed forms. Porcelain captured her attention because of its lovely smooth texture. Although it is known as a difficult material to work with, that did not deter Sandra.
Last week she invited me to visit her studio, which is in an old school house in Rocks Springs which she shares with her husband, fellow artist and ceramicist Win Byers. We began the day in Sandra’s kitchen—she was baking bread for our lunch. The sun was streaming in through the tall schoolhouse windows. When the pair purchased the schoolhouse in 1980 it had sat empty for six years. They spent a very chilly first year, but have gradually fixed up the building to include a light-filled gallery, office, large ceramic studio, kiln room, photography studio, and an upstairs living space. Nearly every room includes something salvaged from another old building or Delaney’s Surplus, which is just down the road.
After the bread came out of the oven, we headed down to the damp room, which is inside the ceramics studio. This humid room is where Sandra keeps her pieces while they are in process so that they do not dry out. Sandra works on her sculptures over the course of several days and at any given time has five to twenty pieces she is working on. “It’s a very patient process,” she says. She knows the material so well she simply has to touch it to know if it is ready for her to work on that day. As Sandra confidently picks up one of the pieces, she explains to me that she is evening out the edges so that every angle is just right. She gently pinches and smoothes the porcelain. “There is a lot of playing, responding to it. I’m constantly turning it in my hands…and the piece is constantly getting softer,” she says as she gently returns the piece to the table and covers it. If she keeps working on it, the porcelain will turn to mush. She’ll return tomorrow morning to check to see if it has firmed up enough for her to work on again.
With each day her pieces gradually become thinner and smoother, mirroring how the ocean tumbles and treats rocks and shells. She usually has an idea of the form before she begins, but the details are not worked out until she has the porcelain in her hands. “I’m letting the work at times tell me what to do,” she says. Sandra says her artwork is her response to the natural world, and after seeing her process the statement resonates even more. As the pieces are forming, inspired by sticks, rocks, leaves, seashells, and such, she is listening to those natural objects and the earth itself to tell her what to do. We all need to stop and listen to what nature has to say to us in its own quiet way.
Visit Sandra Byers’ exhibition The Nature of Things at the James Watrous Gallery through December 27, 2015. Rina Yoon’s Between In and Yeon is also on view. Please note that the gallery will be closed on Dec 24 and 25. For more details, visit the current gallery site.