A Shrewdness of Apes
The first time I put my hands in clay I was in Oaxaca, taking an introductory pottery workshop. The experience was not unlike the feeling of sinking my fingers in the soil while gardening, or manipulating soft dough while making a piecrust. The physicality, the texture, how responsive the clay was to touch and the simplicity of working with one medium were all so appealing. Artists need to love their materials, and I found a new material to love in Mexico.
Without hesitation, the earthiness of the clay brought to mind the image of an ape, an animal that I have felt an attachment to since 1980. It started with a dream: I was going to my family reunion dressed in a gorilla suit, the head of the gorilla tucked under my arm. I woke up amused, went in to my studio and made a small gouache self-portrait of this dream image. My gorilla portrait inspired an entire series of biographical gouache collages. Although my primates did not appear formally in my art after that, they remained a part of my aesthetic vocabulary. Now I had an opportunity to return to my apes, this time using clay, a medium that resonated so well with this subject matter.
I began looking closely at chimpanzees, that species of ape that are our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA. But my clay chimps are not about scientific interest, but my empathic response to them. Their bodies are a lot like ours, and their range of emotions so relatable — I can see myself in them. There are times I am expressing my own emotions, as much as theirs. I imagine what it would be like to live in the natural world, and when I think about that, I cannot help but reflect on all of the perils that threaten their existence.
As a painter my work has always been about my desire to capture a likeness and the feeling of my subjects, always working to achieve a freer, more expressive approach. With the same intent, I have turned to clay creating unembellished, emotive portraits of these sentient beings.