Unfired Clay: Cella by Phoebe Cummings

Cella by Phoebe Cummings

Stepping into the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Art Gallery, I am engulfed in a rich, musty scent of earth. I breathe in deeply and the air, filtered by the clay and imbued with its telluric essence, fills my lungs easily. Thick, damp and fresh, the smell is calming, reminiscent of the final minutes of early morning just before the sun takes the dew. The room itself is dimly lit and spacious. At the center, eight lamps glow upward to show the underside of the long clay sculpture suspended six feet above the ground. It’s as if it were a creation of Mother Nature herself, rising and falling, growing and shrinking, building upon itself over and over and snaking unpredictably down the diameter of the room. But it isn’t the work of nature. It was granted breath by the imagination of Phoebe Cummings, whose artistic progeny finally saw the light of day.

Moving closer, the sculpture begins to flower and unfold, revealing itself to me. It is a mass composed of clay portions about the size of large marbles. Each piece has been pushed through iron grating before being carefully put into place. Some dangle open like angel hair pasta while others press into themselves or tuck into the earthiness of a partner, softly closed, asleep. The sheer amount of detailing is overwhelming and retains a holistic visual quality similar to coral reef, as if it had built upon itself over the course of many years with the guiding ebb and flow of current and tide.

There are many visitors who have come to see the exhibition’s opening. Phoebe has come too, watching, witnessing and becoming involved in an ethos she, along with many UH Manoa art students, have worked hard to create – one of inspiration, awe and sensorial exercise. She may not be here when you visit, reader, but her fostered spirit will linger for as long as Cella is open.

The exhibition is very much a temporal and unique experience. Cummings is fascinated with the notion of transformation and evolution, and the unique malleable nature of unfired clay allows her to create works that change naturally with the environment throughout the course of an exhibition, all while retaining a physical state of complete recyclability. Once a showing is over and exhibition closed, the clay is collected, reworked and reassembled to assume a brand new form of existence, a new work of art. Cella will be recycled at the end of its showing too, ceasing to exist as it does now in physical space. When that happens, it will continue to live only in the documentation and memories of those who had come to absorb and experience what its presence had to offer.

Phoebe Cummings is an internationally acclaimed artist who graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 2005. She has since done residencies in Greenland, United Kingdom and the United States. Cella will be on display at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Art Gallery through April 5. For more information, click HERE.

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