“The exterior environment is always with me,” says Catherine Schmid-Maybach. She’s made her artwork residencies in India, Cuba, Hungary and Spain, and worked in several spots in California before settling in Reno in 2011. In each place, she’s collected influences and memories, either her own or those recorded in maps and newspaper articles.
“I have whole suitcases of diaries and pictures and notebooks,” she says.
If you’re guessing that stack of suitcases is the kind of thing a collage artist or scrapbooker might keep in the attic, you’re getting warm. Schmid-Maybach is actually a ceramicist who prioritizes three-dimensional construction and two-dimensional imagery about equally. She makes compact wall sculptures, usually shaped like abstracted chairs. The back of each chair is a flat slab that doubles as a surface to put an image on. She uses pictures of all kinds, such as family photos, historic newspaper clippings, or, say, a map of the part of central Germany her mother’s family came from.
To make an image, she applies layers of laser transfer, ceramic glaze, white slip—that’s clay liquified to a paintable consistency—and decals, all of which are fused together by up to four or five firings.
“If I don’t like it, it goes back in the kiln,” she says. An artist who can wait out four or five kiln firings is a master of delayed gratification, and that kind of patience is consistent with the contemplative attitude the finished pieces give off.
Chairs are often used as metaphors for a person’s station or status. Schmid-Maybach’s abstracted chairs give more of a general idea of what one person’s story could be, rather specifically representing someone specific.
The images work the same way. To some extent they’re reminders of her own life, places she’s been, things she’s seen, but more often she uses pictures as stand-ins for anyone’s history.
“When I use the political, it’s not the politics, it’s the consequences on normal human beings,” she says.
When looking for historic photos, she’s looking more for a human face than a summary of an event.
Referring to a Gold Rush-era photo taken after a mining disaster, she says, “If you think yourself into their situations, it’s really powerful. The pictures, because they’re really recognizable, invite you to enter them. For example, I could imagine myself being inside that collapsed mine shaft.” It’s as if she’s de-alienating history by reminding us of the similarities between contemporary people and historical people.
Just as Schmid-Maybach integrates the past and present into one collage, she integrates sculptures and sculptures and pictures into one piece. Whereas often artists find 2-D and 3-D media to be different ballparks, she’s leveled the fields.
“I find it easier, because they have to interact,” she says. “It’s like a conversation.”
Lately, Schmid-Maybach has been working at Wedge Ceramics Studio, where a few artists have full-time studios and several drop in daily, weekly or occasionally to use the shared warehouse space and equipment. She says working in an environment that’s more social than a private studio has had positive effects.
“The challenge is, how do you grow in your own work?” she says. “When you’re not in school nobody pushes you.” (She graduated with a MFA from San Francisco State University in 1988.)
Wedge has provided her with a steady stream of input, from visitors to its front gallery space—who are welcome to peek into the studio and say hi to Schmid-Maybach and other ceramicists while they’re at work—to University of Reno, Nevada professors and other ceramics pros who teach workshops there.