Clustered near Route 1 in Mount Rainier, Maryland, a series of ordinary cinderblock buildings gives little hint of the creative talent at work inside. Attracted by low rents and a vibrant art community, established and aspiring artists from all over the region converge at this dynamic center. Known as the Gateway Arts District, it’s part of Prince George’s County’s effort to revitalize through arts an historically industrial two-mile corridor along Route 1 and Rhode Island Avenue. On May 16, a tour will share the work of more than 100 of these artists with the public.
In two of these cinderblock buildings a network of ceramic artists shares ideas and a preference for spare, sculptural work that evokes pottery’s rich heritage while at the same time expanding its traditional boundaries. “It’s cross-pollination,” says Margaret Boozer, director of Red Dirt Studios, where many artists have started out and moved on—some to the next building. Activities at Red Dirt demonstrate the artistic energy on site. One chilly Saturday morning in February, ten artists, wrapped in wool scarves and outdoor jackets, huddled around a worktable in the barely heated structure, warmed by animated discussion. They were there for their weekly meeting, part of a four-month graduate seminar headed by Boozer.
By midday, critiqued pieces were cleared from two gallery walls to make way for a slide show presentation by ceramic artist Willi Singleton. In warmer weather, when the front doors are rolled open, neighborhood children arrive on skateboards, dig in the dirt and sometimes make pots alongside the artists. Genuinely down-to-earth, director Boozer can also be found shoveling red clay right outside the studio. “For ceramics, it’s awesome,” she smiles.
Boozer founded Red Dirt 13 years ago. After teaching at the Corcoran College of Art + Design for ten years, she recalls, “I wanted a real studio where I could discuss my struggles and challenges.” In this less structured setting, she points out, “There’s a lot to learn from others working in your peripheral vision. It influences you in ways you’re not aware of.”
Boozer’s works-in-progress fill every surface of her two-story studio. Red earthenware—dried and cracked into sections—awaits reassembly like pieces in a puzzle. She used a similar technique on a dramatic sculpture now hanging in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Its eight wheel-thrown bowls were dropped into liquid red clay while wet. Once dry, the bowls emerged as if from the surrounding cracked earth.
The framed piece at the museum illustrates Boozer’s artistic intent, as she has written, to orchestrate “small studio processes that echo large geologic events.” In her new wall pieces, Boozer assembles textured discs, often in complex compositions. The small ovals are suspended on thin steel wires and set into foam board. On one recent commission, the artist wrapped these pixilated forms like stars in a galaxy around a curved lobby wall of Washington, DC’s Metropole condominium. Her latest work employs diluted clay in what she describes as “dirt drawings, a direct response to using the material as it is, unaltered.”
Red Dirt offers temporary studio space for other artists as well. During nearly two years as an artist-in-residence, Ani Kasten has shifted focus from functional to more sculptural forms, mainly vessels standing alone or in multiples. Rough-textured and gritty yet refined, Kasten’s work distills influences from her travels in Nepal as well as in decaying urban environments closer to home. Kasten, who recently won an award of excellence in ceramics at the
Baltimore Craft Show, will soon move to a larger studio in nearby Brentwood to pursue larger-scale sculpture.
At Flux Studios, also in Mount Rainier, artists were busy constructing walls to accommodate the work of five full-time artists, as well as visiting artists from the U.S. and abroad. Novie Trump founded Flux in 2007. Former director of the Lee Arts Center in Falls Church, Virginia, she now directs renovations at the studio. Its pristine white walls and professional-quality lighting set off changing exhibits.
Along an extended wall in her own studio, Trump’s ceramic boxes in nuanced charcoal and ivory shades line up like weathered reliquaries. These constructions enclose small clay objects—a branched sapling, broken eggshells, a baby bird—symbolizing life and death. They reflect Trump’s training in classical archaeology as well as her positive spirit. Her burial-themed treasure troves—solemn, serene and streamlined—reinforce the continuity and mysteries of life and nature. Trump currently is working on a public-art commission for a park in Anacostia and an interactive ceramic mural for the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health.
While the layered slabs and surfaces of Trump’s ceramic forms resemble patinated stone, in still another studio within Flux, Laurel Lukaszewski’s black-stoneware filigree sculptures might easily be mistaken for ornamental iron. At an exhibition where Lukaszewski’s graceful swirls were characteristically mounted on the floor, the artist watched in silence as visitors walked over and stepped on them. Happily, she reported, only a few nicks resulted.
Around her studio, corkscrew squiggles and airy arabesques project from the walls. White porcelain cubes nestle asymmetrically in a corner. “They’re all based on doodles,” notes the artist, who compares her assemblages to three-dimensional ink drawings. “I’m playing with shapes and forms, working with positive and negative space.”
The process begins with an industrial extruder used to form clay into three- to four-foot ropes. Each rope is coiled by hand before firing, then twisted gently into place. Interwoven pieces are held together by friction. Only hanging sculptures require an armature like the one used on her largest work, a commission 16 feet long. “I love the tension of a ceramic hanging in space,” the artist beams. “It seems so fragile, but it’s really not.”
Both Lukaszewski and Trump commute from Virginia. Asked about selecting a studio far from home, Trump immediately replies, “This is the center of a lot of exciting creative, innovative work, and I wanted to be a part of that vital community.”
Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
On May 16th, visitors can participate in the Gateway Community Development Corporation’s 2009 annual Open Studio Tour, during which working studios will be transformed into galleries that are open to the public. Visitors can also explore galleries and retail spaces showcasing a variety of media in the municipalities of Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville. For more information and a studio map, call 301-864-3860, extension 1, or visit http://gateway-cdc.org.
Meet the Artists: Margaret Boozer and
Red Dirt Studio: www.margaretboozer.com;
202-607-9472. Margaret Boozer’s dirt drawings will be on display in the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, June 27 through August 16.
Ani Kasten: www.anikastenceramics.com;
510-387-4828. Novie Trump and Flux Studios:
www.fluxstudiosdc.com; www.novietrump.com; 703-346-5284; Laurel Lukaszewski: www.laurel lukaszewski.com; 703-801-4927.