Three of a kind
An exhibit in Fallon of three veteran Reno artists is a study in paths diverging
Walking into a museum-like gallery inside Oats Park Art Center in Fallon, Program Director Kirk Robertson mentions that he hadn't specifically set out to put together an exhibit of veteran ceramicists. That's just what it became. Artists Joan Arrizabalaga and Edw Martinez have known each other since the 1960s, and have collaborated many times over the years. They both work mainly in ceramics and also in other sculptural media. So, from a curator's perspective, they were a natural pairing.
Robertson also wanted to show the work of Catherine Schmid-Maybach, who moved to Reno from Southern California a few years ago. She uses clay for both its sculptural properties and as a surface for drawing and printing.
These three artists are featured in two separate exhibits at Oats Park right now, and the distinction between one show and the other is hard to detect. The whole array comes off as a telling comparison, illustrating how artists can apply different ideas about craft and concept to the same material.
Last week, all three gathered in the shady seating area in front of the Wedge Ceramics Studio, which has in recent years become a hub for artists—one they all frequent to share some thoughts about their work.Lucky lady: Joan Arrizabalaga
Arrizabalaga studied sculpture in the 1970s, spent a while making what she calls “just plain useful ceramics,” then in 1986 got a job as a wardrobe mistress at Harrah's Casino, where she worked full time for decades while also pursuing her sculpture career.
“It was like growing up and joining the circus,” she said about working in the casino. She liked everything about it, especially the way things were back in the ’70s: the jingling sounds of the pre-digital-age slots, the air of excitement.
“I think people believe in a lot of things that are unseen,” she noted. In particular, the idea of casino patrons’ belief in luck caught hold of her. She nurtured that fascination from backstage, taking all the gleam, glitz and dreams that she saw every day and translating them into her sculptures.
Arrizabalaga’s section of the exhibit includes dozens of wall-mounted, ceramic slot machines. They’re all about the same shape and size, but their surface treatments and the pictures she’s put on them vary like wild cards. She plays up all the possibilities, cramming in a range of utopian dreams and stark disappointments. She takes Nevada clichés—everything from showgirls and money to barbed wire and petroglyphs—treats them with equal care, and imbues them all with equal appeal. One slot machine’s surface is embellished with shimmering gold accents, a crackled glaze finish that makes it look 100 years old, and the hopeful, old-school gambling imagery of lucky sevens and bright, red cherries. A few feet away, another one is completely unvarnished, intentionally chipped, and crawling with two-dimensional ants. The indented spots for the lucky sevens are empty, the cherries have faded to dark gray outlines, and there’s a foreboding, three-dimensional anthill where the coin slot should be. This machine dispenses only pennies and sand. Both pieces come off as celebratory and wry. Arrizabalaga treats the good luck and the bad luck as equally valuable subjects—and revels in describing them both from behind the curtain.Stories from home: Catherine Schmid-Maybach
Ceramicists often think in terms of making a vessel, even if it's not one that'll actually be eaten from, and Catherine Schmid-Maybach kept with tradition here, making dozens of platter-like wall plaques to use as canvases for lithographs and collages.
She culled thousands of family photos and letters from California, Nevada and Germany, each of which tells a piece of her own personal history, lithographed them onto the clay in layers, sometimes firing each piece as many as five or six times to get the right layering effect.
She said, “It’s like layering experiences regardless of time and place, just smushing them together because that’s how it is.”
Some pieces have an added layer of dimension from geological-looking fault lines, cracks, or even punctures, some “repaired” by melting crushed glass into a crevice or inlaying it with a thin line of gold-leaf. Schmid-Maybach also adds small objects to some compositions: scraps of old, rusty decorative metal; bullet casings, shards of old dishes.
The assemblages come off as enticingly historic without being nostalgic, deeply personal yet readily accessible, and dense with imagery yet ruthlessly edited and never chaotic, adding up to a dynamic but immensely disciplined chronicle, a half-open diary of memories and places.Creative process: Edw Martinez
Martinez, sitting next to Schmid-Maybach as she talked about her work, said to her, “You were very organized in editing. Rauschenberg has similar images, but his process was random.”
He relates strongly to Robert Rauschenberg, who rose to fame in the 1950s using pieces of debris found on the street as collage materials, and also to Jasper Johns, who Martinez quotes in his artist’s statement: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something to it.” Which is to say that Martinez is more taken by process than by finished product, and that the process of creating isn’t always the same as the process of communicating a specific message.
The majority of Martinez’ sculptures at the art center are ceramic shrouds, topped with clay baby-doll heads and embellished with wire, beads, and scraps of fabric or lace. Like Arrizabalaga’s slot machines, they’re variations on a narrow set of visual themes, but they leave much more open to interpretation. Depending on which cultural references a given viewer carries around, these works could come off as historic, ironic, solemn or creepy, just to list a few of many possible readings.
For Martinez, translating his references into declarative statements is not the point. He uses each item because it fascinates him personally and provides fodder for him to mentally digest what he sees in the world.
“I don’t want to be arrogant,” he said, “but I don’t care how people look at them.” He sounded more sincere than arrogant, explaining, “One thing leads to another. … You lock into certain themes, or ways to go.” Then he keeps noticing new directions he could take his materials in, pushing an idea or process along one step at a time. He’s been making these particular effigies for 11 years.
Work like Martinez’s often speaks louder to viewers when they approach it already having heard a few stories. Here’s one to start with: While he was fishing on Sardine Lake a few years ago, he decided that when he dies, his ashes should go in the lake. He made a ceramic urn, using some of his signature burnt-looking colors, experimental textures, and stamped with a date so it’d also look like a grave marker. He stamped on his birth year, 1934, but realized he didn’t have a prediction about which end date to stamp on. Arrizabalaga pointed out, “Your dad lived to be 101, dammit, go for it,” so he stamped the first one “2014,” and began making urns for each subsequent year. He made a plan to smash each one in celebration as he passed each birthday in August. Presently, there are about a dozen urns, arranged in a small forest on the floor in the exhibit, one of them smashed. No need to report the broken one to the curator. That’s just part of his process.