Gerit Grimm and Gina Litherland are contemporary Wisconsin artists inspired by the imaginations of long ago. Though one works in clay and the other in oil, one in unglazed and earthy monotone and the other in lusciously lacquered color, both turn to folklore and fairytale to express truths.
Grimm uses wheel-thrown pots as foundational components: a torso, a billowy skirt, a tree trunk. From there, she shapes and fires clay into figures or groupings of figures. Her large-scale ceramic sculptures and installations are astonishing technical feats, though that’s not the first thing about them you’ll notice. Grimm’s renderings of sometimes puzzling, sometimes poignant characters—a girl on a swing, a woman in mourning, a group of women dancing—are utterly captivating.
Litherland’s world is a two-dimensional one, and her figures are placed in settings that merge the familiar with the dreamy. She works in oil on Masonite or wood, building layer upon thin layer of paint and incorporating intricate detail to achieve an effect that is part storybook, part surreal, part romantic: Two women (or are they one and the same?) read tea leaves in a cup while a goat looks on; mother birds lament a dead fledgling; an upside-down fiddler hovers over a boot engulfed in flame.
Born in the former German Democratic Republic, Grimm began as a commercial potter before coming to the United States to study and work. Since 2012 she has been an assistant professor of ceramics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, teaching graduate-level courses to up-and-coming potters and artists. Litherland is a working artist and lifelong Midwesterner. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, and schooled (formally and informally) in Chicago, she has for the past 25 years worked out of her home in Cedarburg, north of Milwaukee.
Though the two artists had never met before their side-by-side exhibitions at the James Watrous Gallery, curator and gallery director Jody Clowes saw in their work similar themes that made for a good pairing. For Grimm and Litherland both, fables and fairy tales seem to be a means of connecting with something more real. The wisdom of nature, the instincts of the ancients, and knowledge handed down through folklore are the artistic wells from which they draw. It’s never easy to make sense of the world we’re in, so why not look to clues from another?
A consuming attraction to clay
Gerit Grimm isn’t exactly sure why she became attracted to clay at such a young age, but she has a theory: As an anemic child, she developed an innate attraction to the traces of iron found in clay. “I was just fascinated by the smell,” she says, adding with a smile, “I even secretly ate it.”
Grimm grew up in Halle, about 25 miles from Leipzig, in what was then part of Soviet East Germany. “We weren’t introduced to commercial stuff,” she says of those early years when the availability of goods and services was controlled by a socialist government. “We had only so much and basically we read all the same fairy tales, we watched all the same movies.” Aesthetic innovation seemed to begin and end with the Bauhaus Movement, which hoped to merge fine art, craft, and industrial design.
Constriction, however, can encourage imagination. Hobbies and handicrafts were part of daily life, and Grimm’s creative mind looked to clay to fill her time. She took her first ceramics class at age twelve. When a teacher bypassed her and instead chose a boy to train in wheel throwing, Grimm hardened her resolve to one day master the potter’s wheel. She bided her time sculpting, and, after high school, traveled from factory to factory in search of a pottery apprenticeship. In Bürgel, she found someone who told her, “If you can find someplace to live within an hour, you’re hired.” By chance, her waitress at lunch later that day was also a landlord, and the apprenticeship was hers. She spent three years learning to produce traditional Bürgel Blue earthenware pitchers, bowls, and other household pottery.
After her apprenticeship, Grimm became a journeyman potter with Joachim Jung, again making functional stoneware. Both experiences refined her skills at the wheel and taught her to work fast. At first, she had dreams of being “a hard-core functional potter,” living the hippie life in the middle of nowhere and tending a garden when she wasn’t at the wheel. “I don’t think I would have gotten very rich,” she laughs. But she also wasn’t exposed to many alternatives.
After the Cold War ended and Germany was reunified in 1990, capitalism began to open up new possibilities for many citizens. But the pottery scene in Germany was still stuck in a past that Grimm found to be stifling. It wasn’t until she returned home to Halle and enrolled in art school that Grimm would be introduced to Pop and Funk ceramics: colorful, hand-built objects from the West that were playful to the point of oddball, and under no obligation to be functional. Realizing she too could break from the disciplines of her training, Grimm found her new direction—and decided to leave the wheel behind.
A grant to attend the University of Michigan School of Art and Design brought Grimm to the U.S. in 2002, and she continued her study of ceramics at Alfred University, which houses 8,000 ancient and modern ceramic objects in its Alfred Ceramic Art Museum. She returned to the wheel after an instructor informed her that she had two left hands (Grimm’s translation: “It means, basically, ‘I sculpted badly’ ”). But this time, her cylinders became something to be flattened into slabs and cut, glazed, and handled almost like paper. She began creating installations reminiscent of pop-up books.
In the ensuing years, Grimm finished her studies and continued to draw inspiration from folktales and myth. Many of her ceramic figures were two dimensional and sometimes life-sized. She played with the idea of figurines, adding her own twists and teasing out the tensions between pop and high art, elegance and whimsy. Her work remained colorful, and gradually became more sculptural. Pots made a return as she realized she could leave them intact and incorporate them into her figures.
One day someone left Grimm a large quantity of brown clay. She decided to give it a try. As she explored ways to use it, she came to love the way the clay’s unglazed finish felt like skin, mimicked the appearance of stone, and revealed the throwing lines from the wheel. When she fired the brown-clay pieces in a reduction atmosphere—a process that restricts oxygen to force different qualities from the clay—serendipitous, subtly metallic shades of browns and brownish green appeared.
Grimm began her Brown Series in 2011, and has worked exclusively in this style since then. With color and shine stripped away, the clay’s texture is revealed and the potter’s hand becomes more evident. Her figures feel less decorative, more real, with imperfections that leave room for intimacy. Grimm points to many modern-era ceramicists who inspire her, particularly those whose work is figurative, but she is also influenced by Renaissance art and Hellenistic sculpture.
Grimm continues to draw on folktales and mythology today in order to create peddlers, harvesters, gardeners, and groupings of figures that call to mind scenes by the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. While there is a theatrical, puppet-like quality to these narratives made from clay, they can sometimes hold you in an uncomfortable place between endearment and distress. While her Sunday Morning (2011) features a cheeky girl caught in the act of climbing her dresser, the women of Beauty Salon (2011) work with limbs, heads, and braids on a macabre assembly line. Other somewhat grim tableaux feature a beheading by guillotine, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and numerous versions of Leda’s rape by Zeus in the shape of a swan.
An insatiable curiosity
Gina Litherland’s voice brightens as she recalls a moment of discovery. She was just a teenager, her older brother was home from art school, and “there was this book laying on his bed. It was Lucy R. Lippard’s Dadas on Art: Tzara, Arp, Duchamp and Others. I thought, Dada? I was taking art classes but—what was this?” Not every Midwestern girl raised on fairy tales and Catholic-school catechisms would feel so drawn to an avant-garde European art movement. It was an early sign of Litherland’s intellectual curiosity, and a clue to the artist she’d become.
Before she started requisitioning her brother’s art school books, Litherland’s influences were more homegrown. She remembers sobbing over “schmaltzy and lurid” fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. In summer, she roamed the sand dunes and undeveloped lots around her Indiana subdivision, unsupervised and free to imagine. She still cherishes those unstructured moments with nature as precious counterpoints to the indoor strictures of Catholic school. Yet each had its magic—one wild and natural, another ritualistic and supernatural.
Litherland initially studied English Literature in college. But she felt out of place at Indiana University’s large Bloomington campus and dropped out to find a job. She moved to Chicago, fell in with a group of artists, and started to study drawing at an art studio. Litherland eventually earned a BA from the Art Institute of Chicago, but she says most of her education happened outside of formal institutions and inside the city’s blues and jazz clubs, art film houses, and, of course, the Art Institute, with its massive collection of classic and contemporary works from around the world.
Litherland explored photography, drawing, and even performance. But painting became the place where her interests met most happily. “I really hit my stride when I realized I could use the storytelling aspect of painting. That was when I really found my voice.”
After seventeen years in Chicago, Litherland and her husband decided to move into his parents’ house in the Town of Cedarburg. It was a dramatic urban-to-rural shift, but appropriate. Litherland is deeply moved by the natural world, and draws inspiration from it. Her paintings are chock full of lush vegetation and animals that often interact with human characters and even take on human qualities.
Litherland usually starts with an idea that hits her when reading a book or musing over a topic. For instance, her Don Juan paintings sprang from a period when she and her mother were attending a lot of operas (Mozart’s Don Giovanni is based on the fictional libertine). She might have a tableau in mind, but the details don’t become clear until she paints. Elements are assembled in ways that can seem random, and might even be conceived from random thoughts. Scaled to be intimate, typically no more than 24 inches across, her paintings draw in the observer through intriguing and mysterious details.
“I always like to have a channel open for an unexpected idea. And then I’ll add another dimension to the story line.” In this way, the process of a painting becomes “a process of revelation to me.”
Revelation is what she hopes a viewer will experience, too. You needn’t know anything about the Brontë children when you’re viewing Anne and Emily Brontë Escape from Glass Town (2014), but you can bring your own understanding of why there are clouds inside a house and children at play beneath an oversized table. This holds true whether she’s depicting Seráphine, Lilith, or Little Red Riding Hood. The source might be mythology, a novel, or an obscure folk tale, but Litherland’s artistic interpretation invites us to create our own story.
Old world attributes
Painstaking is a word that comes to mind when viewing the works of both Grimm and Litherland. Not coincidentally, each artist has chosen to incorporate Old World techniques that require hours of labor and concentration.
Litherland uses a multilayered glaze-and-scumble technique in which thin, transparent layers of paint (glazing) combine with dry-brushing over opaque light areas (scumble). Each layer must dry before the other is applied. As such, one painting might take as long as three months to complete.
The luminous glow found in Litherland’s work is reminiscent of works by the 15th century Sienese masters of the glaze-and-scumble technique, suggesting a timelessness that both contrasts and complements her subject matter. Much like Litherland does today, these narrative-based painters of the early Renaissance often layered symbolic details into their scenes and created stylized figures that fused the mystical with the human.
Since gravity and the kiln can undo a potter’s work at a moment’s notice, risk is part and parcel of Grimm’s chosen medium. Even though she has spent years perfecting her techniques for life-sized figures, she has seen large pieces break apart in the kiln. Grimm once had a rule for herself: If it breaks in the kiln, rebuild it bigger. “It’s good to use that rage and disappointment and energy and just do it again. You have no choice, right? If I make it bigger and again, I’ll actually win.”
These days, Grimm is adjusting to a smaller kiln and assembling large-scale pieces from smaller components. “Now I have to build out more connection systems. So if I want to build a large tree, I have to make multiples and they have to fit together like a lid and jar. I have to be really smart about it.”
Viewing the art of both Grimm and Litherland and learning more about them as artists, it’s clear their work requires trips down the rabbit holes of childhood memory, art history, and classic literature. If one were to compose a Litherland-Grimm encyclopedia of allusions, it would include Wuthering Heights and Lady Godiva, Goethe and Ulysses, Rimbaud and Commedia dell’Arte, walks in the forest and tango dancing.
“I just find many ideas of the past much more interesting than the commercial world of now,” says Grimm. It’s a deliberate choice of the enduring over the transient, and one that Litherland echoes when she says, “It has always been important to me to create work that presents a deeper vision of what is really valuable in the world.”