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This Month's Feature.........

Kelley Donahue, Artist-in-Residence
Clay Art Center

All art, to some extent, is a reaction to the artist’s perception of the world. For ceramicist Kelley Donahue, whose exhibit “There’s No Such Thing as the Future” just closed at Clay Art Center, working with clay and painting elaborate designs opens a clear window to understanding reality. “Creating, for me,” she says, “is the only thing in my experience that isn’t confusing.” Donahue creates figurative and abstract organic objects of clay and uses them as three-dimensional canvases.

Donahue’s quest for clarity manifested early in her childhood. “I have been drawing and painting intricate designs my whole life. In fact, it is the clearest part of my nature,” she explains. The drive to “work out” meaning through complex doodling on paper evolved into a pursuit of an undergraduate degree in studio art at Humboldt State University in northern California. Her focus was on painting, but she found it increasingly frustrating: “I felt constricted by the flat surface and played-out rectangular shapes. I couldn’t find the expansion that I was looking for. The whole time I was struggling with painting, I was taking clay classes on the side, and having a blast with it." She admits that she was looking for something fun, as a contrast to the difficult cerebral approach she was taking toward her painting. She recalls, “I rolled some slabs and made some sculptures and had the idea to paint on it. Suddenly there was freedom. I had solved the surface problem and the answers I had been looking for materialized.” She says that clay allowed her to escape from the dense cerebral thinking she was applying to her painting and open up to the experiential presence of the medium. "I am intrigued by the concept of using a material that is part of the natural world. In a painting, it’s as if you are looking through a window into a different world. With 3-D sculpture, you can walk around the object and experience it in a physically present way.” Clay allows ease of tactility in the process of creation for Donahue. She describes the satisfaction of the “immediate results” of touching and forming the clay.

Donahue was able to extend her tenure at Humboldt for a two-year independent residency. She worked in the studio, exploring with clay. “Clay let me say more about the dimensionality of my creative questioning. “It gave me more power. I see my work as a sort of conjuring – bringing into being things we cannot see, the unrecognized mythologies of the past, the present, and the future.” It was a period of intensity and freedom for her, with no pressure from a class schedule or expectations from faculty.

In 2012, Donahue moved from California to New York, to seek an MFA at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Here she was able more deeply to realize her artistic vision and clarify her thoughts on philosophical concepts. Her thesis, entitled “Secret Handshake (remember why we chose this place),” puts forth the notion of achieving a clarity of vision and self-actualization through the confrontation of limitations. She explains: “We are a footstep away from everything we never knew we were. As a whole, we have chosen to view ourselves as separate from one another, and our surroundings. This fragmentation of the collective self is the lens through which we search for linear comprehension of a beginning that has no end. But since we have the power to embody separation, then surely we can dissolve our own disembodiment. To arrive fully and completely into who we are, in the state that we are in, is what transcendence means to me on the deepest level.” Her large clay figures evoke the human body but challenge the viewer with ambiguous form. The surface patterns add an element of complexity. She describes the effect: “The object and its surface create a psychological labyrinth woven through a suggestion of narrative. The human figures are active, engaging with their surroundings. The form frames the images with the question: “What kind of veil are you looking through?’” From a technical standpoint, the large pieces present certain challenges. During the drying and firing processes, there is a tendency for the clay to crack. Donahue uses Standard Ceramic Supply's 420. She says, “It's the first clay I've found that doesn't crack – as long as I'm doing everything that I can to prevent it while building. It's incredibly strong and has so much grog in it that it's almost like working with cement.” In spite of the grog, Donahue has perfected the practice of smoothing the surface so that it doesn’t show in the finished pieces.

Donahue’s move to Port Chester in 2014 brought new experiences that have influenced her work. With the New York City only forty minutes away, she has been able to take advantage of its cultural bounty. Dance performances, seminars, and diverse cultural exchange enrich her experience and manifest in her creativity. As Clay Art Center’s Barbara Rittenburg Fellowship recipient, she spent the last year teaching students, which she says helps her learn about her own work. “My stuff,” she says, “is more about real life, not just about being a clay artist.” The Clay Art show included an installation of small tiles arranged in a corner, presenting a complexity of color and pattern formed from individual pieces. She sums up her intention in her work as “to expand my conscious awareness of what is real, of how I operate as a human being, and to expand my capacity for creativity as a human being.”

Kelley has recently accepted the position of artist-in-residence at Clay Art Center for another year. She is currently seeking gallery representation, and when her tenure at the center is finished, she hopes to find a new suitable situation to continue making her work. She has an upcoming solo show scheduled in Boston at T + H Gallery. It will open January 8, 2016 and run until February 1.

To learn more about Kelley Donahue, visit www.kelleydonahue.com or www.clayartcenter.org.

Look for news of Donahue’s upcoming Boston show at www.tandhgallery.com.


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