Eddy, 24 in. (61 cm) in width, handbuilt earthenware, hollow construction, glaze, sandblasted, 2008.
Dough bowls and grinding stones: these humble, functional forms were the starting point for potter/sculptor Jerilyn Virden’s highly evolved, double-walled ceramic vessel sculptures. “I saw them in New Mexico” she says. “I was drawn to the massiveness of the forms. The dough bowls were very roughly hacked out of a solid piece of wood. The grinding stones felt as though they had just evolved into their forms through necessity. They were flat stones that became bowls over years and years of grinding grain on them. It gave the forms a gracefulness as well as a history. They seem to possess a slow movement with great power, like water moving down a river.”
She was studying with Peter Beasecker in the MFA program of Southern Methodist University and trying to follow whatever forms attracted her aesthetically. “I was looking at all this stuff,” she says, “and I didn’t know what I liked about it so I just started trying to make those forms, and I made these things that looked just like wooden dough bowls only they were made out of clay, and they were really heavy because they had a different shape on the outside than they did on the inside.” She was making the forms by building oversized forms out of thick coils and then carving back into them. “I could carve this really nice curve on the inside and spend a long time just focusing on that curve,” she remembers.
Virden is a lively person who smiles and laughs easily. She works in a small, rustic studio at the end of a gravel road in the North Carolina mountains, not far from Penland School of Crafts. It was during a Penland workshop with Robert Turner in 2000 that potter Julia Galloway suggested she make her forms with double-walled construction. “They were getting bigger and bigger,” she says. “I started working with slabs and they would just break into pieces. I was propping things up with newspapers and laying slabs over the top—I tried all these different things and they were terrible.”
Double-wall construction turned out to be the solution for creating the forms. “I was hesitant at first,” she remembers. “It seemed like a tedious way to work. But once I overcame the technical difficulties, it opened up a whole new world of form.” She was working first with high-fire porcelain and then with stoneware—the materials with which she was most familiar. But she had persistent trouble with cracking in the large pieces. After she completed her MFA in 2001, Virden began a three-year artist residency at Penland. One of her fellow residents was sculptor Cristina Córdova who persuaded her to move away from high-fire clays. “It was Cristina who finally drilled it into my head that I should be dealing with earthenware,” she says.
Red Ablation, 9 in. (23 cm) in diameter, handbuilt earthenware, hollow construction, glaze, sandblasted, 2006.
It was also during that time that Virden developed the surface treatments that still characterize her work. Again, she credits Córdova’s assistance. “She taught me how to layer materials so that unexpected things happen in the kiln. An electric kiln only provides heat, so you must set up the situation for something to happen,” she says.
She starts with a groggy clay that retains scratches as she scrapes and carves the forms. After bisque firing, she paints the surface with an oxide and then wipes it off so it stays only in the scratches. Then she sprays on an opaque glaze followed by a clear runny glaze. In the kiln, the clear glaze melts and begins to move, pulling pieces of the stiff opaque glaze into suspension. This creates thin sections in the opaque glaze that reveal the dark oxides underneath, producing patterns through a process she has set into motion but does not control. For this to work, she explained, the clear glaze has to be shiny, but a shiny surface is not what she’s after. “To remove the shine, each piece is sandblasted,” she says. “This also reveals tiny bubbles that are suspended in the shiny glaze, adding another pattern on the surface that I did not have to directly place.”
With her major technical problems resolved, Virden was able to concentrate her energy on developing the forms that had inspired her. “Originally, I liked the idea of a simple bowl as a sculpture so the pieces were really tied to a bowl. After a while I wanted to separate them from functional work and put them clearly in the sculptural realm. When that happened I just thought, wow, the walls can encroach on the center space and I can make it architectural.”
“When I started working with the double-wall construction, I realized that I could make the wall of the piece as fat as I wanted. When you look at a bowl, your eye kind of reads the rim to see how thick it is and how heavy it’s going to be when you pick it up. So if it’s got a wafer thin rim and it’s really thick on the bottom, the bowl will seem heavy when you lift it. But if it’s got a big fat rim, even if it actually is heavy, it will seem balanced, because you are expecting it to be heavy.
Triptych, 23 in. (58 cm) in width, handbuilt earthenware, hollow construction, glaze, sandblasted, 2007.
“I like that generosity or massiveness. I want it to feel bigger than it is. I’m trying to look at scale and proportion and the way you can expand different parts of the form. So I was blowing up the walls, blowing them up out of proportion to a bowl shape, but since you are reading it as a bowl it makes it seem even bigger. If I made a house to the same size as these pieces, it would look cute, because it looks like a house. But because it looks like a bowl, it feels even bigger because it’s something small, blown up. And then some parts started shrinking. The interior, the bowl part, got smaller. I can do this because of the double walls. They are connected, but they are independent. If they were solid then I could only exaggerate the difference between the inside and the outside up to a point.”
As her work evolved, the rims not only got fatter, they sometimes doubled or tripled in volume. All that volume has to go somewhere and so the pieces acquired a deep fold in the middle. The interior spaces became so small that they functioned not so much as void or a well, but more as a dividing point or a fold between two voluptuous forms—reminiscent of blossoms or the roof of the Sidney Opera House or, in their more angular variations, the compressed steel sculptures of Tom Joyce.
In some of her recent pieces, Virden has bisected the form along two perpendicular lines and then folded the resulting sections to make pieces she has titled Eddy for their resemblance to a swirling current in water. “I was trying to make them less like bowls; I wanted more movement,” she says. “So I started making maquettes. When I begin with a drawing, everything is an outline and I tend to end up with a two-dimensional profile. If I start with a ball of clay and I just cut it and move pieces back and forth, then it starts to look like folding or crinkling or something cut open.
“Because the maquettes are small, they have the proportions of a small object; the walls are thick compared to the overall size of the piece. When I scale it up, I try to retain those proportions. I am presented with the engineering problem of how to translate a solid, complicated form into hollow walls. A problem that I initially thought sounded tedious has become the part that I really enjoy. Another advantage of maquettes is that if I decide to change the shape of a wall I don’t have to worry that I might cut into some part of the structure, ruin it, and have to start all over. It’s purely form, and I can deal with whatever technique I need when I scale it up.”
Looking at the last decade of Virden’s work, what is striking is an almost straight-line evolution. She has maintained an amazing level of focus on particular techniques, creating a unified, distinctive body of forms. Her most successful pieces perfectly integrate form, color, and texture and present the viewer with arresting visual poetry.
The noted ceramic artist Tom Spleth has followed Virden’s work closely, and he offered this assessment: “Jerilyn is one of the most dead-on intuitive ceramic artists I know. She is a 21st-century young woman with a husband and family who has an uncanny ability to make work that resonates with the most profound ceramics ever produced in any culture. She is unerring in the decisions she makes concerning her work. By that I mean she is not influenced by contemporary trends and attitudes or the vicissitudes of ambition but holds true to her own powerful vision.”
Hollow construction allows the walls of a piece to have tremendous volume, but it brings up several technical difficulties. These issues can be overcome by paying close attention during several stages of the process. By the term hollow construction or double walled, I am referring to a form that shares one bottom, and the walls are hollow.
I begin with an open bowl. As I build the walls up, I begin a second wall from the floor inside of the bowl. Once these are to the height that I want, it is time to bring them together to trap air in between. The closing connection is the most crucial. Once the walls are closed, I can no longer access that inner space to reinforce joints. It must occur without having a hand inside to compress against. This can be done by having the last connection be at a place where the wall changes direction. This allows me to effectively push one surface against the other with both hands on the outside.
The piece is dried for the first two to three days under a layer of fabric and plastic. For the next three to six days, the piece dries under a layer of fabric only. It is best to wait at least six days before firing, so I make the double-walled pieces at the beginning of my work cycle. If cracks form, they will be where the wall transitions from the outside to the inside. This is the case during the firing as well. For this reason, I make sure that all drying occurs slowly enough that the inside form and the outside form shrink at the same time. I fire in an electric kiln with a computer so that I can control the rate of rise in temperature.