An Interview with Kelley Eggert

by Robin Gary

As summer winds down and August heats up, Texas Clay Arts Association features the imaginative work of sculptor Kelley Eggert, http://www.kelleyeggert.com. Kelley’s journey to becoming an artist is one that some artists only dream about. The truth behind it includes hard work, a synthesis of talents, support of mentors, family and friends, and (did I mention?) more hard work. She has evolved from an art student to artist and instructor via the Art Institute of Pittsburg, the Myers School of Art at the University of Akron, and a Master of Fine Arts with a concentration in ceramics from the University of Florida. She currently is teaching at Houston Community College, Lone Star College and the Glassell School of Art while maintaining a studio in Houston.

I couldn’t resist a quick Google of bioengineering! Stanford Bioengineering (http://bioengineering.stanford.edu) describes bioengineering objectives as: “focused on advancing human health and promoting environmental sustainability, two of the greatest challenges for our world. Understanding complex living systems is at the heart of meeting these challenges…” This excerpt rings true for Ms. Eggert’s current sculptural adventures.

From the first visit to a museum of fine art at 24 to accomplished/award winning ceramic art student to Houston Center for Contemporary Craft Resident to full-time artist and instructor...WHAT exhibit did you see at the museum?

There is irony in my first museum visit because I was not at all inspired. Rather, I was dismayed at what was considered “art”. My friend, an abstract painter, took me through the contemporary wing at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I just could not understand why a canvas painted white or dripped with paint or sculptures consisting of aligned green boxes could possibly be considered “fine art”. As I am not one to keep my opinions to myself, I told my friend that these artworks were all crap. It was in his explanations as to the relevance of each work that I become interested in art. At the time I was completely ignorant to an art world and the history that accompanied it. As I left the museum, I had a need to know more. Now after many years of study, I may still think that some of the work in the contemporary wing is “crap” but I do have an appreciation for it.

Your biography indicates that you are a dedicated object maker. Did this dedication start in your youth? What other mediums have you tried on your way to clay? When did you consider yourself an artist?

I have always been creative. My artistic expression went through many phases. When I was younger I would draw images off cereal boxes or from coloring books. Then I went through a song writing / poetry phase. Then I made beaded jewelry. In high school, I thought I would be a clothing designer. I got plenty of looks during that phase of my life. I would literally wear costumes to school. I was also in plays trying on my dream of acting. Talk about running around aimless with my creativity! At age 18, I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for Video Production. I believe that is where I started to really understand myself. I ended up writing all the material for my team’s projects and did all the directing and editing. I realized I had a knack for design – no matter the medium. During this time I did a lot of ink work on paper and discovered polymer clay. I wrapped and baked everything I could find in that clay. Although I did not discover “earth” clay until later, I think my obsessive poly-clay experience primed me. The long story short…I have spent my life making things. I am sure that my desire to include mixed media stems from all my different artistic stages.

As far as when I began considering myself an artist…very recently. I graduated school and joined the work force 4 years ago. The test is to continue making art while working a full-time teaching load. So far I have succeeded in doing that. So, I guess about a year ago I figured it was time to accept the title of “artist”. I am comfortable with that.

Given the bioengineered concept of your sculpture, did you have a previous life in the sciences? Your artist’s statement presents a strong concern for bioengineering in our society. The sculptures are beautiful in their representation of the ghastly. What is the spectrum of reactions you get from the public? What is your answer when someone asks you "Why?”

I love science and believe if my brain were programmed a little differently, I would be a great scientist. But, I do not have the capacity for the sciences. So I indulge the only way I know how; artistically. The natural world is my greatest inspiration. I am dumbfounded and awed by the way everything looks and functions. When you start to factor the consciousness of man into the equation, it gets even more interesting.

I have been asked countless times if I have nightmares. I find the response fascinating because the work is really just a combination of organisms that live among us – some of which are very beautiful. I personally do not see the “grotesque” or “creepy” in my work, but it must be there in multitudes because that is the common reaction. I fumble when asked why the work is the way it is because for me, there are layers of meaning to it. I want it to portray an element of danger. I want it to feel uncomfortable. I want my viewer to see that it is familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. Beauty and intrigue are also important to me. I choose to include details in the work so that my viewer steps in to take a closer look. This creates intimacy and hopefully a desire to touch. I am always hopeful that a conversation about Genetically Modified foods, factory farming and/or consumerism takes place. I hope the conversation then leads to our responsibility to the earth.

Your overall process is well described in your artist statement on your website. The colors, textures and shapes evolve into fairly complex sculptures. Can you talk about how you have addressed some of the difficulties artists might find in working with clay construction, joining pieces to create these complex shapes? What are your favorite tools, supports, and processes to make these biotechnical shapes?

Because of the nature of my forms and all the mixed media I use, the work is a small feat to complete. My biggest challenge is thinking ahead as to what is going where and trying to imagine what it will look like. My drawing skills are despicable. The final result does not usually manifest itself until I am literally putting it together at the end. Sometimes things don’t physically fit together correctly or aesthetically look right. Sometimes my proportions between the parts are off. Often I cannot find the color or size of materials I need. Post-fire assembly creates a great deal of stress and thought. My studio becomes ground zero and I am a walking, sticky, stinking mess. It is by far my least favorite part, although it is the most exciting because I start to see the piece come alive.

I usually work in a series of 5 -7 pieces at a time. This means I have hundreds of clay parts (counting beads and such.) It is hard to keep everything straight for glazing purposes. On more than one occasion I have glazed something the wrong color thinking it went to a different piece. I have learned to draw each part separately in my sketchbook and make a chart. I place all the pieces in numbered trays that correspond to the chart.

The gluing requires lots of tape and supports. Supports come in the form of kiln furniture, bricks, stuffed stockings, sandbags, bisque forms that I made, boxes, my cats left paw (kidding), bags of clay, clumps of clay, me – whatever it takes to get the job done. I have on occasion held appendages until the glue sets. Ten minutes doesn’t seem like a long time until you have to sit there holding one “antenna” at a time in place – and you have 14 antennae to do. Ugh.

My favorite tools: Serrated rib, serrated modeling tools, tiny wire loop tools, shrinkage tile with holes of various sizes drilled in at leather hard. I could not live without any of these tools and make the work I do!

Your work is so wonderfully unique even in the sphere of the unique-in-its-own-right biomorphic sculpture. What brought you to the next level from simple, singular shapes to evolved techno-organisms, luscious in their compositional and structural diversity and 'dressed' up colors?

I have no idea. Really. I have had a fascination with insects and flowers for years, both of which look alien when observed in a certain way. So as far as the aesthetics of my work, I would equate that to years and years of looking at insects, flowers and sea-life. I am not interested in making representational work. Abstracting form gives me permission to do ANYTHING I want. I do not have to follow rules. I personally must use my imagination in this way. There is freedom in it for me.

I have spent many hours pulling flowers apart and lining up the individual pieces. I am interested in the way all the singular parts fit together, the way the separate elements nestle inside each other. I love looking at anatomy books – both botanical and animal. The complexity of the way every part fits together and functions is miraculous to me. When you look close enough to see how something works, intimacy is created. I like that idea.

I also spent my entire undergrad working with mosaics. I have always loved how all the individual shards of colorful tile or glass fit together to make a larger picture. Perhaps that is why I work in parts and with so much color. Color is fun. I may not always use it the way I do now, but for the time being I am giving myself permission.

Who were your strongest supporters and most important mentors?

I have had the privilege of working under Linda Arbuckle and Nan Smith at the University of Florida and Donna Web and Kate Budd at the University of Akron. Through many critiques and pow-wows, these mentors showed me how to be an effective teacher and a dedicated artist. I am profusely grateful to them.

My husband Matthew has given me more support than I could ask for and is quite useful when I run into an equation. He is wonderful at helping me figure things out.

There have been countless friends throughout the years that have affected me in one way or another. Too many to name but everyone appreciated. And of course, my family, who still have no idea what I am doing but cheer me on anyway! You are teaching and creating.

What are your favorite concepts/practices to pass on to new students?

Craftsmanship is number one. If the work is sloppy and haphazard, nobody will care to spend any time looking at it or thinking about it. I really push that.

After craft I try to help them find their voice so they can put soul into the work. It doesn’t have to be a mind-blowing concept but it should be important to them. At the end of the day I hope a student walks away with an appreciation for object making and artistic expression. Creating something skillfully rendered and contextually meaningful out of raw materials is very hard work. Everyone should have an understanding about that.

Where are you showing next?

18 Hands Gallery will be featuring 16 of my Wall Flowers. This series of work is an offshoot from my typical sculptural work. The “designer” in me really enjoys making the flowers. With them I feel much more free to experiment than with my calculated sculpture. They are also less “creepy” so I’m told.

Flowers
18 Hands Gallery
249-B W. 19th Street, Houston, TX 77008
Opening Reception: Saturday, September 7, 2013, 6-9 PM

View Kelley's Work | Kelley's Profile Page

 

Texas Clay Arts Association 2014

Images in header (from left): Annie Foster, Karmien Bowman, Mimi Bardagjy

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