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Courting Risk

Linda Sormin, Rhode Island School of Design


The work demands that I negotiate my presence before it, around it, under it, through it. The site looms above and veers past, willing me to compromise, to give ground. Overbearing and precarious, its appetites mirror my own. I roll and pinch the thing into place, I collect and lay offerings at its feet. This architecture melts and leans, it hoards objects in its folds. It lurches and dares you to approach, it tears cloth and flesh, it collapses with the brush of a hand.

Structurally, my work embodies questions around risk and survival that continue to surface for me. For four years in the early 90s, I lived in Thailand and Laos and worked for a non-governmental development and relief agency. During this time, I became keenly aware of the uncertainty of everyday life and began to ask: What is at risk? Who is at risk? What might I risk?

I am curious about the fractured, unpredictable, wet spaces of ceramics. In my studio and teaching practice, I investigate fragility and precariousness, vulnerability and aggression.

In the Studio

Facts like ‘ceramic material may move, distort or fail at extreme temperatures’ hold my attention. My strategy is self-defeating in a sense – through an ongoing impulse-driven approach I attempt to subvert my logic and so-called ‘visual acuity’ as an artist. To sustain curiosity, I leave myself guessing as to how much wet clay will shrink around a fired body, how much tension and weight an original fired structure will be able to support, how much a glaze will flow and overflow, how straight and tall a coil may or may not stand through a firing. I do this in hopes of relocating my expectations of what ceramics can do and what meanings it can hold. This speculative practice and intermittent rushes of drama and delight, dismay and alertness continue to motivate my work.

I am engaged in the process of ‘ungrounding’ sculptural form1. I might begin by knitting soft coils into a precarious three-dimensional grid – stopping only when the form begins to shudder under its own weight – then glazing and firing it. In its newly fired state, I could turn it on its side or its head, disorienting it and continuing to build upward. After another glaze firing, I may press wet clay into the side of the open grid structure, creating solid, protruding forms. After fusing these parts together in yet another glaze firing, I am able to roll the piece out of the kiln onto its new belly. Building and re-firing of this piece may continue until it finally collapses, or verges on the point of collapse.

Hand-rolled coils are pinched and clustered into unruly lattice structures that roam through and colonize their environments. Alone, each coil projects a small inquiry into space. Linked to another, and yet another, the coils grow into forms that surround the space, reach across the room and extend beyond the peripheral vision. Every bit of clay is pinched, prodded or clutched. The often romanticized ‘maker’s touch’ becomes willful and excessive, ubiquitous and unrelenting. This process may occur rapidly and erratically, or at a steady, slower pace. It mirrors the way that information in culture invades our consciousness – intensifying through repetition and accumulation. It discloses an aggression that is not immediately apparent. It is, rather, a violence that moves quietly, in small increments.

Clay in Context: Community-Engaged Practice

This spring at the Rhode Island School of Design, I am teaching a course called Clay in Context. My students are engaged in making site-specific work with 16-18 year old boys at Harmony Hill, a residential school for socially, emotionally and behaviorally challenged youth. Pairing up or working in groups of three, the RISD and Harmony Hill students meet once a week to work together in the studio. In daily therapy, our youth partners confront issues of trauma and abuse -- most are in aggression replacement training at the school. On many levels throughout the semester, the students are navigating this rich and difficult terrain, working through and across their differences in maturity, emotional stability and life experience. Our goal is to experiment with material, process, context, dialogic practice and our understanding of ‘site’. Together, students are exploring traditional and non-traditional approaches in ceramics: mining clay from local riverbeds, hand-building, slip-casting, ram-pressing, decorating, firing, flinging, breaking, shrink-wrapping, suspending and melting clay beyond its limits of structural integrity.


Because of the intense, traumatic issues being dealt with in the boys’ therapy, touch is not permitted between people on the Harmony Hill campus. The hand, the human touch – so integral to the ceramic process and so vital to relationships and community – is necessarily withheld from our interactions. In its absence, the haptic experience – knowing the world through one’s body – takes on heightened significance, resonating in new ways for RISD students and myself as we work with our partners.

Ceramics & Architecture in Collaboration

A major component of Clay in Context this Spring has been team teaching ‘Wet Space/Digital Space’ with Professor Hansy Better, my excellent colleague in the Architecture Department at RISD. My Clay in Context students collaborated with Better’s 3rd, 4th year and graduate Architecture students to propose, design, construct (with the Harmony Hill boys) and install architectural ceramic screens in the Harmony Hill counseling and therapy center. Together, our students used the ‘wet space’ of the ceramics studio and the ‘digital space’ of 3D computer modeling and fabrication in the architecture studio. The dialogue that grew from our students’ cross-disciplinary interaction was insightful, critical, visionary, heated, awkward and full of potential for the future.

Roaming Tales

Is it comfort with no risk that is embodied by this insistent pinching? Impersonating the mindless, repetitive gesture of a Victorian lady’s embroidering hand, the faith and duty to produce, to remake, to help, to meddle, to fix?

In January of this year, I was invited to install a work at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan in the group exhibition, ‘Mobile Structures: Dialogues in Ceramics and Architecture in Canadian Art’. I took this opportunity to invite local individuals and community groups into the gallery space with me. Although I have worked with students in the past to install work, Roaming Tales was my first conscious attempt at initiating collaboration through the building and installation process.

I began by raiding ‘Deep Six’ - the huge basement storage area in the gallery. With the help of an extraordinary gallery staff I was able to scavenge and install several larger-than-life props: cardboard Roman columns, a golden plaster lion, a sweat lodge wall, jail doors and other ‘ghosts’ of gallery fundraisers past. We carried these up to the designated space in the gallery and began to cobble together a sort of fictional urban environment.

The field of ceramics is unruly, unkempt. As the work becomes form without edges or named territory, I see three green turtles, a musing blue-and-white boy, a shipment of ghost cattle – and they are in place with no sustained direction, no reliable sense of gravity.

During my artist talk that week at the University of Regina, I invited people from the community to work with me, to respond to what I had begun in the first two days by making forms of their own. They were invited to re-compose the ceramic parts that I’d been making, to transform any of the found materials and to bring in personal objects. I asked each person to consider leaving their contribution unfinished – for the next person coming in to continue building or unbuilding.

My first collaborator was Dr. Christine Ramsay, film and media professor, who arrived at the gallery the moment it opened the next morning. We spent the first two hours of the day working in near silence – me crouched on the floor pinching clay, and Christine up high on a ladder. The only sounds in the gallery were of ceramics clinking lightly overhead as she suspended teapot shards and perched miniature cows and water buffalo on dented clothes dryer drums from the local architectural salvage yard.

Different people came in each day, many returning throughout the week with partners, friends, children and grandchildren in tow. Some initiated conversation, sharing their stories, professional goals and personal advice – others preferred to work quietly. They included students and faculty from the University of Regina, as well as local clown, breath and performance artists. The generosity and sheer force of each participant surprised and moved me. We took turns video documenting each other throughout the process. I continue to reflect on how each person made an impact on the work and on myself.

Some of my most powerful collaborators were 9th graders from St. Luke’s, an alternative school located in North Central Regina, one of Canada’s most socially and economically challenged neighborhoods.

Cheyenne: Can we break, like, anything?

Linda: Yeah, but it has to happen right here. (pointing)

Linda: Are you recording?

Jasmine: Yep.

Leroy: (crushes a piece of pottery with his foot -- continues to stamp his foot down, over and over, with force).

Jasmine: Oh dude. That’s kinda harsh.

Leroy: My hammer got taken away, how else am I supposed to do it?

Linda: All right, next - who’s up?

Cheyenne: Anything, you said?

What propels the desire to make and compulsively make? Is this how I reassure myself, how I prove that I really am here?

Leroy: That’s nothing, man, I want to break this.

Linda: Give him the hammer then, I don’t want his ankle to get… sliced.

Leroy smashes with hammer.

Jasmine (jerking camera): Oh my god.

Leroy: Ho.

Cheyenne: That looks dangerous.

Leroy smashes.

Jasmine: (high-pitched laugh)

Leroy: Oh something hit my ankle! Smashes more. Throws hammer down.

Leroy: That’s all I wanted to do, is hit something.

Is making how I perform identity and establish presence?

Leroy: That’s somebody’s artwork, this bowl… smashed to bits – I just

wish I could see the look on their face.

Linda: Come talk to him, actually. I’ll send him this video. Yeah, this is

Greg Payce, what do you want to say to him, who made the work?

Leroy: (to the camera) Hey Greg Payce, I just broke your work.

Jasmine: (giggles)

Leroy: Something else I can break?

(more giggling)

Leroy: See that’s why I don’t make things – so no one can break anything.

If this tonne of clay is in the room, and over time it is transformed -- behaving and misbehaving -- because of me, then surely I must be here too.

Leroy: Wanna see my face? Come to Regina, buddy.

Oksanna: You want to see his face?

Leroy: Oh, I wanna see his face, yeah.

Yeah I would like to see his face when he sees that video.

Leroy: Where’s he from?

Jasmine: (giggles)

Linda: He’s from Calgary.

Leroy: Oh a Calgary boy. Well, come to Regina.

(more smashing)

Leroy: Take that, Greg Payce or whatever your name is.

Jasmine & Cheyenne: (laughing)

Lynn: This tail represents when I was more in a state of…. You know that altered state, a bit crazy, a bit – and then you come out of that and you learn new things? And these tails are going to be my five friends who are supporting me through something right now, and I was going to cut it off, but I had this piece here and I realized I could just join all the tails together because we’re all friends.

Linda: Totally, oh yeah.

Lynn: It’s so neat how this work happens, eh? Wow, it’s so cool. I’m learning so many things.

Linda: Me too.

Roland: (yelling over the wall): Gramma we’re done!

Lynn: So what would you like? By telling us you’re done, what would you like us to do?

Nothing is thrown away. This immigrant lives in fear of waste. Old yoghurt is used to jumpstart the new batch. What is worth risking for things to get juicy, rare, ripe? What might be discovered on the verge of things ‘going bad’?

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  1. Ungroundedness’ is discussed in terms of architectural and social spaces by John Rajchman in his book, Constructions, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 1998, pp.79-89. back to text

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Introduction from
Walter McConnell

Welcome from
Mary Drach McInnes

On Function and Content

by Sanam Emami

Courting Risk

by Linda Sormin

Conspicuous Consumption

by John Byrd

Functional Languages

by Anders Ruhwald

Towards Incongruence

by Michael Jones McKean

Edited conversation, discussion panel

Listen to the speakers presentations (mp3 files)

Walter McConnell

Linda Sormin

John Byrd

Michael Jones McKean

Anders Ruhwald

Sanam Emami

The complete recording of session number CA07-054 (“Ceramics: Five Emerging Artists Survey the Discipline”)and other sessions from the 95th Annual Conference of the College Art Association may be purchased online by going to the Conference Media web site.

Eddie Hopkins
(obituary by Ron Wheeler)

Courting Risk • Issue 9