The Art House: Lawtons’ not-so-humble abode
Artoberfest workshops show what they do (and where)
Any question about what goes on at the house shrouded in vegetation next to Sophia’s Thai Cuisine, where Bidwell Avenue dead-ends at Nord Avenue, is answered at the place where an abrasive water jet has intersected with a slab of aluminum in the parking lot.
The letters A-R-T-H-O-U-S-E have been sliced into the slab of metal, and behind the sign and the vines, Chico artists Dave and Jana Lawton have fashioned an environment of interwoven gardens, sculptures and ceramics that lives up to the name out front.
You can’t see much of The Art House from the street. To appreciate it, like any environment, you have to step into it and let its hidden secrets reveal themselves. On Sunday afternoons (as well as on Art 1st Saturday), the public is invited behind the chain-link gate.
Just inside is the first barrage of Dave’s rusted metal sculptures, some fused with concrete forms or giant rocks, interspersed throughout an expanding garden that wraps around the front buildings into the couple’s backyard.
Stepping stones faced with imprints from party trays lead to a sunlit ceramic studio and then a backyard landscape where every piece is introduced with a story.
The metal sculpture sprouting two hole-filled yellow kidneys used to be on display in his father’s dialysis clinic, says Dave. That Mushroom sculpture on the lawn marks the top of the septic tank, explains Jana. The female form in the in the center of the yard is actually a dress mold that belonged to Jana’s mother that Dave dipped in concrete to preserve as a memorial after she died.
This is how a tour goes: Dave offers insights and easy conversation about his work, the garden and the couple’s years of involvement as leaders at the Chico Art Center and with the Open Studios Tour—punctuated with frequent boisterous laughter. Jana’s reserved demeanor and dry, subtle humor provide welcoming atmosphere.
Maybe some of the Lawtons’ relaxed friendliness (not to mention their insanely energetic work ethic) is a product of the couple’s Midwestern roots. Before moving to Chico in 1986, they were farmers in Iowa, which is where they met, as art students at the University of Iowa in 1969. They’ve raised two sons, Jess and John. The former works in applied physics and the latter is a Marine on his third tour in Iraq.
For their contribution to the month-long Artoberfest celebration, sculptor Dave and ceramicist Jana are inviting the public into their world for weekly demonstrations of some of the techniques they use to make their art.
“We wanted to have something that people could come and see,” said Dave, “get people enthused about the process.”
The first two of the four classes—one by Dave on using concrete in sculpture and one by Jana on decorative techniques for porcelain and pottery—attracted a couple dozen participants over the Art 1st Saturday and Open Studios Tour weekends.
During an initial tour of the property, Dave recapped his concrete demo by showing some of the elements that he introduces to the aggregate/Portland cement mixture. Smashed bits of porcelain settle into a mosaic on the surface of a square mold. A few marbles (“faced prior to placement”) act as swirling catch lights. Broken bits of glass, discarded shards from a rock polisher and pink-and-black native rocks from Oroville, all out on a metal table in individual plastic containers, serve as other choices for what might be thrown into the mix.
On a second visit, the couple showed the front buildings. There’s the lovely indoor gallery, featuring Jana’s offerings of ceramic dishware, ornaments and hand-built sculptures—plus a massive shop that houses grinders, saws, two kilns, a forge, a plasma cutter and a variety of torches and welders for making metal do what Dave wants it to do.
Jana explained some of the detail work and techniques that go into her pieces, such as slip trailing, the process of squeezing liquid clay onto the surface to create raised patterns. “It’s like writing with clay,” she said.
There are two more weekends of activities to come, and both Lawtons expressed enthusiasm for not only attracting art lovers to their decorative neck of the woods, but for the promise of Artoberfest itself and its focus on all of Chico’s arts for a month straight. Said Jana: “Maybe people [will] take the time to do something they wouldn’t normally do.”