Unconventional ceramics highlight Kate Roberts’ body of work

Through an ingenious use of ceramic, Roberts’ work has a distinctive visual texture.

Image By: Photo courtesy of Kate Roberts

UW-Madison’s thriving art department continually brings in brilliant artists and instructors to its Visiting Artist Colloquium, and Kate Roberts is no exception. With both a BFA and a MFA in ceramics from Alfred University, one of the top ceramics programs in the country, she’s carried her unique approach to ceramic art through residencies and internships at art centers around the world. This includes Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, La Meridiana in Italy, Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, Project Art in Massachusetts and Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill in Massachusetts. Her work is currently on display in the Art Lofts Gallery in a mixed-media show entitled “Strange Habits.” The show opened on Friday, October 2 and features Robert’s new work and several other talented instructors including Jordan Adams, Barbara Landes, Kate Roberts, Barry Roal Carlsen, Maggie Snyder, Grace Sullivan and Michael Velliquette. It is a collective commentary on habitual human nature and the physical and abstract presence that it exudes in our lives and the world around us.

As a part of the colloquium lecture series at the Elvehjem Building, Roberts gave a talk last Wednesday about her artistic journey, her work and the forces that drive it. A native of Greenville, S.C., she opened with a photo of the lush, overgrown, foggy mountains in which she was born and raised, explaining the slow-paced southern humidity that not only pervades the physical environment, but the rhythm of the people and the environment it encapsulates. This set the scene as a baseline pulse that permeates the pieces she makes, allowing for a parallel between the medium and motive of her work. This intertwining ebb and flow of natural environment and human force is precisely the essence of the ceramic medium. In reference to her pull to the material, Roberts explained, “It’s just dirt, but its ability to be manipulated has kept my attention over the years.”

The inherent ingrainment of the ceramic material into her work is far from traditional. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Robert’s work is the way she pushes the boundaries and traditions of the ceramic medium as a whole. Take her earlier undergrad work, entitled “Bitch n’ Stitch,” for example. Roberts crafted ceramic doilies, convincingly elegant lines portraying delicate lace and conversing female figures. Although ceramics is often associated with its tough rigidity, the image of this piece exudes a soft fragility, simultaneously exploring the limits of a medium and examining traditional femininity.

Her later work challenges the notion of permanency, taking a traditionally eternal medium and making it ephemeral. Once a ceramic piece is fired, it is no longer able to return to the ductile dirt it once was. In her MFA thesis show, Roberts threw a conceptual wrench into the ceramic process, perfectly illustrating how artists are able to depict what she referred to as “the moments in between.” Many of her pieces exist impermanently for an undetermined period, just as the emotions they aim to render.  So much of what exists, like the unseen happenings and emotions that mold our lives, is hauntingly fleeting, and her work captures these moments and forces.

Her piece “Porte” in the show “Strange Habits” is an embodiment of this lingering ephemerality. For having such a remarkable presence in the space, it manages to maintain a transient air: ghostly looming and impossible to ignore. For a first-hand experience with her ominously beautiful work and the poignant pieces of other UW-Madison instructors, visit the Art Lofts Gallery before the show closes on Wednesday, October 14.

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