Ceramicist Elizabeth Kendall shapes undulating porcelain sculptures in her studio.
A recent wall installation,

Volumes in Space

In Elizabeth Kendall's work, ceramics mimic the fluid softness of fabric

As a child, Elizabeth Kendall played happily in her grandmother’s sewing room, surrounded by fabric scraps and threads. She watched as her grandmother sewed Barbie Doll dresses, beautifully finished with French seams. Kendall didn’t end up pursuing a textile career, but those early impressions are deeply embedded in her ceramic art. The sculptor’s spare, sensuous abstractions are shorthand memories coded in clay. From Kendall’s perspective, porcelain disks cascading from the wall represent a button box let loose. On a table, silken ceramic curves billow like boat sails blowing in the wind, linked to a longstanding family activity.

“My work relates to telling stories of family history and showing how porcelain can behave, so soft and luscious like fabric,” says the artist. On a break from the studio she’s occupied for 20 years in her split-level home in Vienna, Virginia, she reflects how casual comments by her mother became a major force in her work.

“One night my mother said, ‘Look, the night is shining through the curtains.’ And another time, ‘Oh, they painted the white lines darker,’” Kendall relates. “She turned things around in a way that made you think about them differently. In her mind, the curtains, which are white and soft, were hard. And the night, which is dark, was shining. I’ve retold those phrases in a lot of ways.”

Black against white, light against shadow: unity in opposites. The artist continues to reinterpret these messages of contrast and family—a smooth, porcelain rectangle inlaid in the rough, black body of an oil can indicates an inserted window or fabric scrap; a wall sculpture that unites porcelain and sprung steel casts moving shadows when touched. “It makes the metal seem soft and fluid,” says the artist. “While the porcelain, which people think of as wet and soft before it’s fired, remains hard and fixed.”

Kendall took ceramics classes in high school and some sculpture courses at Smith College in Massachusetts, where she majored in history. Still, her entry into pottery as a profession was serendipitous. When her son, Eli, was born 23 years ago, she searched for an income-producing, home-based activity. She enrolled in a wheel-throwing pottery class with the idea of becoming a production potter and discovered: “I didn’t like making the same thing twice. I wanted to make work that had meaning behind it.” When a teacher asked students, “What do you want your work to be about? Give me five adjectives,” Kendall found her calling. 

“I realized I was pleating and tucking the clay, treating it like fabric,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘That’s my story. Let me push that.’”

Starting small, she made stylized bottles, vessels, teapots and cups. Those cups—altered and without bottoms—began migrating to the wall about five years ago. “I wanted to move beyond something you hold to something that occupies a bigger space, to put the same stories into a different framework,” Kendall says. She has adapted these open-cylinder assemblages as panels in the Hyatt Regency in New Orleans, and for a tabletop at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, among other commissions.

Kendall’s largest project, composed of 1,000 spindle forms, hung from the ceiling at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts in 2012. Named “Shear Lines” both for boat-building and sewing scissors, the work spanned 10 feet between columns. Each individually hand-thrown and altered spindle was suspended on a clear fishing line at a specific length that followed the sheer-line measurements, at one-third size, of the boat Kendall’s family owns and uses each summer in Maine. Despite its massive scale, the installation appeared to float. 

On a recent day, work was underway on a nine-foot-long wall sculpture destined for a bank in Dallas. Kendall’s college-age daughter, Emily, had completed the first step in the hand-building process—pressing the wet porcelain through an industrial roller to form a slab. Using a French wooden rolling pin, Kendall finished smoothing the sheet and beveling the edges. Based on a sketch for the elongated-garland design, she cut the slab into 35 triangles, similar to paper templates for pattern pieces in sewing.  After lifting and shaping each section, she inserted foam or cotton balls to maintain the curves while the porcelain hardened. Pieces were then fired in an electric kiln and sanded to a smooth, touchable surface. Pegs glued to the back offset the sculpture from the wall, assuring a contrast of pristine white porcelain against dark shadows. 

Over the years, Kendall has adapted varied techniques for different uses: wheel-thrown curves, gas-fired glazed vessels, brushed underglaze for colored patterns on functional objects. “The next step for me is to transfer the way I do colored work onto sculptural pieces in a way that resembles fabric pattern,” says Kendall. “The challenge is to integrate color without interrupting the line of each curve, the light and shadow, the sense of volumes in space.” She adds a personal message: “In my head, each piece talks about the story of my mother and grandmother, about fabric. Others can enjoy it as form.”

Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Elizabeth Kendall’s art is on view in two group shows. The “First Annual Cup Invitational” will take place at Flux Studios in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, through January 15; fluxstudiosdc.com. “Small Worthy Works” will be on view at Cross MacKenzie Gallery in DC  from December 13 to January 8; crossmackenzie.com. Kendall’s work will be exhibited and sold at the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore, February 21 to 23; shows.craftcouncil.org/baltimore. Visit ekclay.com or email eakendall@gmail.com.