This is a guest post by sculptor Kathlyn Avila, whose exhibit “No Ordinary Woman” is on view at The Art League through January 3.
My process of generating ideas can begin with looking at photos, usually vintage photos that spark nostalgic memories of my childhood or stories from older relatives. Iʼm an observer of mannerisms, body language, and other little quirks of behavior that are identifiable to some personalities. I begin with a very broad idea of how I want the figure to look, but as it progresses, I let her do the talking as to how she wants to be “birthed.” Once I sculpt the eyes, I immediately detail the eyes by painting them with underglazes so I know she can see me. The nostrils come next. Itʼs at that point I feel we can communicate with each other and the character begins to really take form.
Iʼve always been fascinated with women who have exceptional knowledge and talents, whether it be a seamstress, a singer, or a grandmother. The women that I have become most curious about are the ones that donʼt have traditional jobs, but are fortune-tellers, tea leaf readers, or healers who know how to use roots or the power of prayer.
Before making narrative figures, I made cloth dolls. As I transitioned into working with clay, my goal was to explore a variety of glaze techniques and various mixed mediums that I could create texture and possibly give the illusion of textile. I want the surface of the clay to transform into a surface that canʼt be absorbed by the eye alone, but also by touch.
The Seamstress Chatelaine was inspired by those women that made careers out of sewing, mending and designing garments. For many women, sewing was considered to be a “respectable” job that enabled them to be able to contribute to the welfare of their families. A chatelaine is a decorative belt hook or clasp worn at the waist with a series of chains suspended from it. Each chain is mounted with household appendages such as scissors, thimbles, watches, keys, or tools of her trade.
My queen figure is crowned with vintage replica scissors and hat pins. She is a homage to an outstanding woman in my childhood neighborhood (the Nauck Community of Arlington, Virginia), Ms. Grace Hill, who was extremely gifted and recognized for her talents as a seamstress throughout the metropolitan area.
The ceramic bust, Pearl, was inspired by a great aunt I never met. Her sepia colored photo in the family album always left me in a trance, mesmerized by her beauty. She died of pneumonia in her twenties in the 1920s. Aunt Pearl was stylishly elegant, dressed in typical twenties style dress, her hair was coiffed in meticulous placed finger waves. She was known for her calm, loving spirit. Although I didnʼt sculpt Pearl to look like my aunt, my intention was to capture her elegance and spirit. Pearl was selected Best In Show at the Clay National Exhibit at the Workhouse in Lorton.
Who does not want to be touched by Lady Luck? Señora Fortuna is a figure that embodies the essence of good luck and protection. Her adornment is coated with symbolism and charms that are representative of various cultures. Her crown of wishbones adorns her head to capture “merry thoughts,” while her Native American turquoise charm that dangles with silver eagle feathers is centered on her forehead for honor and protection. Mexican milagros encircles her sacred heart as the three keys bracelet ensures you have good health, happiness and fortune. On the back of the Señora, the Hamsa is the final touch to draw in goodness, abundance, luck and good health.
The Tea Leaf Reader
While I was visiting in Spain and Mexico, I encountered gypsies who wanted to read my palm or tea leaves. The Tea Leaf Reader was a combination of my experiences with both. My inspiration was generated by my curiosity I have for women that practice that lifestyle. My interest is not in the telling of my fortune, but in the women themselves, their personalities and where they come from. My grandmother would tell us about a neighbor that she claimed was a gypsy, a free spirit woman with a family history of moving frequently. In Spain, I was told to stay away from the gypsies, never look at them in the eye. My attraction grew like a moth to a candle, I was drawn to look at them straight in the eye to see what powers of magic they had. While in Mexico, a beautiful gypsy woman strutted down the street like she owned it, her full ruffled skirt swayed rhythmically with every stride. Her confidence exuded from every pore, our eyes locked and the moth flew into the flame.
JuJu Woman has goat horns, which means perpetual abundance and determination. JuJu means energy; the experience of positive and negative forces all around us that charge our lives and shape each unique day on this planet. You know JuJu: itʼs that thing when you enter a space and get that “off” feeling in your gut telling you itʼs time to leave; itʼs the warm embrace of your loved ones, the sensation of sand between your toes walking on the shore. Itʼs the powerful stuff that we pick up on everywhere when we let our intuition take the reigns.
There are “No Ordinary Woman” figures among us. My figures have all been inspired by women, friends, or acquaintances that I have encountered in my life. Their stories, mannerisms, and quirks have been my treasure box of inspiration.
— Kathlyn Avila