Debbie Reichard, the curator of the upcoming “Around the Campfire” exhibit at Artworks in Trenton, came up with the idea for the exhibit while working as a visiting artist at Southern Methodist University in Texas. While speaking with two people she had previously collaborated with, the conversation turned toward design and architecture.
“An architect has to have an understanding of the site, the landscape, and who is going to use the building,” Reichard says. “They have to have the entire big picture before they can start with the details — what kind of building, what it’s going to look like, and what kind of materials they are going to use. In the group of artists I put together, some of them are involved in architecture.”
Lesley Baker, for example, who works in slipcasting and ceramic decals, studied architecture before she got into ceramics. Many of the pieces by Tom Lauerman — whose artwork represents an intersection of ceramics, sculpture, and architecture — look like miniature buildings. The work of others, such as Julie Wills, who works in sculpture and mixed media, has to do with the idea of construction combined with ideas of domesticity.
“The works in this collection always have to do with objects and their surroundings and how they influence your life,” says Reichard. “Or how your life is influenced by those objects that make up your surroundings.” The title of the exhibit refers to playing house with friends in the “wilderness” and re-enacting a more survivalist way of life.
In addition to Baker, Lauerman, Wills, and Reichard, participating artists include Rory Mahon, large- scale carved brick sculpture; Kathleeen Preziosi, wheel-thrown and assembled sculpture; Danielle Bursk, experimental clay work; Emily Bivens, clay and mixed media; Paul Henry Ramirez, functional vessels; and Rob Raphael, ceramics and mixed media.
Reichard herself has been involved in ceramics since graduating from the College of New Jersey in 1992. “I think I started with functional pottery because I needed the structure,” she says. “I needed that process, and I needed a goal to work towards. To me, painting seemed too open ended.”
Over time she moved more into sculpture and got away from ceramics. “I just came back to it partly due to my move back to New Jersey and returning to my old life and my old habits and all the people I knew,” she says.
One aspect of the exhibit that excites Reichard is how all of the artists share Reichard’s ideas about the ceramic medium. “They are all trained in clay but interested in breaking the rules and changing the parameters of the medium,” she says. “All the people in the show are pretty highly informed about functionality, even though I think most of the work will not be functional at all.”
The idea of function and the use of functional objects is a recurring theme in Reichard’s work. “In some of my functional work I’ll take an object that could be really practical and sensible, like a ceramic tray or a bowl, and make it really impractical,” she says. “Sometimes we need to forget that life is all about trying to create a straight line from one point to another. Everything is so scheduled and regulated and needs to be so efficient and economical that I think it really appeals to me to make something that is totally ridiculous — not so useful, out of place, and awkward. I can show the distance between something that started out as really practical and grew into something very impractical and non-sensible.”
Reichard’s current work centers on a theme called blobatecture, from the words blob and architecture. “I like making fun, not as in poking fun, but turning that into an interesting or funny situation,” she says. She describes one of her works in the exhibit as a coil-built wall wart, an abnormality like a bad growth, but with funny-colored lights on them. “It’s a globular form that goes on the wall. I lighted it and I put those little Christmas lights on it that you’d see on a ceramic Christmas tree. They are kind of strange and silly.”
She describes the larger meaning of this themed collection as one of combining rigidity and fluidity. “They are very structured,” she says. “They go on the wall, and they use electricity. But they are very not straight. A lot of my work will have one very hard edge and one very soft edge, like if you were to take a cloud and split it in half. It’s pretty formal in that way. Conceptually, it’s a misuse of the ceramic medium a little bit.”
Reichard was born in Philadelphia and spent most of her childhood on the Jersey shore. Her father was a Navy engineer and her mother was a teacher’s aide in special education. “I lived really close to the beach for most of my life, which was excellent,” she says. “I never thought I would live quite so far inland as I do now, even though I’m only an hour and a half from the beach.”
Though neither of her parents showed artistic tendencies, Reichard describes herself as an artsy kid. She studied art at the College of New Jersey, then spent several years working at the Arts Council of Princeton, teaching art classes and taking ceramics classes.
She credits Allison Paschke, who was running the ceramics studio at the time, with awakening her interest in ceramics. Eventually, Reichard ran that studio and had her own work space. She also spent some time at Princeton University as a technician in the ceramics studio. From Princeton she went to Peters Valley for a yearlong residency. There, she worked with Hopewell artist Jim Jansma, whose work is also a part of the upcoming Artworks exhibit. She credits Jansma as another influential career mentor for her.
Moving on to Southern Methodist University in Texas, she worked with the ceramic artist Peter Peasecker and made the portfolio that enabled her to get into the University of Washington in Seattle, where she earned her masters in ceramics in 2002. Following graduate school, she spent some time at the Kohler company in Sheboigan, Wisconsin. “I learned a lot about plaster mold making and slipcasting,” she says. “I really like that industrial look, which is why I decided to go there, to use the same processes they use to make the sinks and the toilets.”
After several years of traveling from place to place for residencies and teaching opportunities, she felt she needed to make a choice between following the career path to becoming a professor and having a home life. “All that time I’d been commuting and living with my boyfriend here,” she says. “I finally decided to just forget all that and move back to New Jersey and set up a studio.” She is continuing to teach but is trying to move more towards focusing on the artwork. She hopes to collaborate with local artists, and this exhibit is part of her efforts.
Reichard hopes this exhibit will show people a type of ceramics they haven’t seen before. “They will also see work coming from around the country by professional artists who have invested a lot of their time and energy in the medium and in their work,” she says. “I think the people coming to the show will see really interesting sculpture and will see new ways of using clay.”
Art Exhibit, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Saturday, March 6, 6 to 9 p.m. Opening reception for “Around the Campfire,” an exhibit of mixed media and clay. Music by Windjammer. Wall of Voodoo features ceramic mugs and objects for sale. A Slide Slam, in which several New Jersey and Pennsylvania artists will show three to five images each, takes place on Saturday, March 27, 5 to 7 p.m. On view to April 17. Free and open to the public. 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.