Greenberg: The beauty of trees and clay at two local galleries

Aug. 21, 2014 @ 10:50 AM

“Tree: Witness To Life,” Frank Gallery, 109 E. Franklin St.,
Chapel Hill, through Sept. 7.

“Emily Cox and Margaret Griffin: Ceramics,”
Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (ERUUF) Gallery,
4907 Garrett Road, Durham, through Sept. 4.

Themes attached to group shows make it much easier for the visitor to be a part of the process, and trees are a perfect example. We know what a tree should look like, and we can weigh our ideas against those of the artist; there is also the chance to compare one artist’s vision with another’s. And then there are the unending numbers of ways to present a tree through the medium of art. 
In any event Frank has invited its members and its consignees to enter a juried exhibition focused on the tree. It is a large show with a significant number of three-dimensional artists included. According to the rules of Frank, members must take a turn organizing, jurying and curating a theme show and Nerys Levy and Sudie Rakusin created this one.  Rakusin walked me through the gallery, saying they had hoped this theme would give the wood workers a chance to show their art, and she was pleased with the response.
Looking around I realized there were no lessons here about the deforestation of the earth where clear cutting is the order of the day by farmers planting crops and developers building subdivisions. Rakusin agreed but said that was a conscious decision. “We wanted this exhibit to be a celebration rather than finger wagging and, hopefully, that’s the way to teach nurturing and protection of trees,” she said. She went on to say these objects are meant to connect to the energy of the tree; to figure out what the tree means.
William Neville’s thick circle from a mighty oak, standing on end with a beautifully turned vessel hanging inside, announces the exhibition just as the visitor steps through the door. Trees and their wood, it seems, come in as many forms as there are artists to visualize them. There are mobiles, ceramics that look like wood, ceramics adorned with pictures of trees, photographs, paintings and furniture. Keith Allen and Erik Wolken, both furniture makers, present tables and lounge chairs, respectively. Emily Lees decorates her flattened ceramic vases with pictures of trees and Carmen Elliot fashions clay trees as supports for tiny figures, like the earth mother or earth child holding a bird. And then there is Lucartha Kohler’s “Tree with Leaves,” a tall skinny steel tree with large leaves of glass and Mark Elliott’s “Mr. Stick on a Stroll,” an object made of a couple of found sticks of wood. John Rosenthal’s photograph of a fairyland of trees at Los Alamos, New Mexico, juxtaposes a visual memory with the reality of the place and what was created there.
On the center wall are two photographs of Triangle artist Patrick Dougherty’s commissioned sculptures of bent twigs, one for the University of Philadelphia and the other for Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Rakusin said Dougherty’s sculptures were not the genesis of the theme, but he was the perfect choice for a speaker during opening week.
My absolute favorites are Eric Serritella’s “Bleached Blonde Birch Bowl,” a clay bowl which looks as if it has just been carved from a recently felled Birch, and Larry Favorite’s “Tree,” a wall piece containing 48 squares of highly polished wood embedded with a sprawling turquoise tree.
If the designers of this show are right, these beautiful objects made from or about a tree will remind all of us to be more thoughtful when cutting even the most bothersome one.  It is possible those highway planners and land developers do not think about the trees they are destroying so it is up to those who do to demand better and broader rules to protect trees from the wanton ax.                                                     

Sculptural figures and vessels
Tucked away, just off U.S. 15-501, is the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship complex, a tree-shaded oasis just minutes off a busy highway. In the lobby of the office is a small space devoted to art. Emily Cox and Margaret Griffin, friends from the days they met at Claymakers for classes, are exhibiting together. Both have become enamored of the Japanese process of raku, and the show is a demonstration of the technique and the wonderful special effects the artists can realize.
The Japanese invented the raku process to make the bowls used for the tea ceremony.
The tea bowl is traditionally characterized by being hand shaped rather than thrown and is fairly porous. Contemporary potters have changed the traditional firing and now remove the piece from the kiln while still glowing hot and place it in a container filled with combustible materials.  
This show has both sculptural figures and vessels of various shapes and decorations.   Griffin’s red raku jar with lid stands out as very special. Among the numbers of small statues is a Buddha by Griffin and Cox’s Greek figures, which would be comfortable as architectural elements in ancient Athens. Cox’s “Forward Together? Not One Step Back" is one of these classical figures with an added wing. She said this was a celebration of the many Moral Mondays. And, indeed, the members of the Fellowship are dedicated to the peaceful protest the Rev. William Barber has orchestrated and have backed this movement 100 percent.
This small art space in a church lobby is more common than one would think; art touches all the senses and is at home just about everywhere. I have also seen art in banks, public buildings, public libraries, restaurants, even beauty parlors and it always seems to fit.  The visitor, who may never go into a museum, stops and gets something special out of that moment. The human spirit cries out to make beautiful things; not all will make their way into rarefied museum spaces, but thanks to alternative venues, the art will be seen and enjoyed.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.