Arts » Feature

The Nature Of Things

Outdoor inspiration drives Carolina artist

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Among the things good art does is give the viewer a sense of who the artist is -- how they think, what they feel, what kind of personality they have. Even though you may have never met the artist, it's possible to intuit their character from what you see of their work.

Case in point is Alice Ballard Munn, who can rightly say that her way of believing and being and processing is fully expressed by the forms she creates. This ceramic sculptor -- now living, teaching and working again in Greenville, SC -- is a self-professed introvert who says she needs "lots of alone time and outdoor time to re-energize, and to let my ideas gestate a long time before I do anything with them. I'm constantly using them even though they're not visible."

If her vocabulary brings to mind certain natural forms, such as dormant bulbs, bare trees, seed pods, fruit and the like, then you know her subject matter. Like the onions, branches, beans and pears she sculpts, Munn is a vessel wherein entities spark, develop and spring forth. Like these smooth-skinned objects, she is unprepossessing on the outside, a small person who moves carefully through the world, the better to preserve and observe. She collects what she can -- a bundle of twigs, a fallen acorn or pine cone, an unfurling bud -- to take back to a studio built by her husband, architect Roger Dalrymple, to the specifications of someone who, if she is not in close proximity to plants, animals, earth and air, will not thrive.

In the studio the found items sit on shelves and hang from rafters so that light can delineate their silhouettes and atmosphere dry their husks. Munn internalizes these shapes and textures so that, when the time comes, she can operate on instinct.

"It is the metamorphosis that attracts me," she explains, "the change from season to season. I spend countless hours contemplating a particular form in order to feel its energy."

As when a plant sends roots out into the soil, Munn also pulls energy from external forces -- travel, teaching, life experiences -- to bring to bear on what will soon become tangible work. Her confidence in and respect for this method led her to structure her life so that things that might distract or exhaust her -- friends, family, teaching -- are balanced with re-energizing activities such as yoga and gardening.

She actualizes her concepts in the same substance from which the real models are born: clay finished in an ancient Greek method called terra sigilatta, a very fine slip with a subtle sheen. Rolling out thin slabs on a worktable, she curls them into globes. Their bellies bulge from a quiet, unseen force within. From some, tender green sprouts unfurl like babies waking from a nap. In others, they thrust upward, sleek and powerful, like swimmers driven to the surface for air. In either case, they are signs that a promise has been fulfilled.

Likewise, the buds on her "Tree Totems" bubble to the surface as if from a primordial cauldron deep underground. The stalks of the totems are charred; their buds pure white. Munn considers their regal verticality and directness to be the masculine counterpart of her rotund, receptive, embracing crocus and narcissus. So reverently are they handled by their maker, they stand as sacred symbols protecting all that is beautiful and good in the world.

"The totems are a response to September 11," explains Munn. "It took me a whole year of thinking before I actually did any work on them." They embody the ideas of, in nature, new growth generated by fire and, in culture, the history of a people or family.

They also represent her eternal optimism, a trait used to best purpose during Munn's own dormant periods. "I didn't know how much time it would take before I got back to my studio again," she says of the mourning period following her first husband's death in an airplane crash in 1983, "but I had no doubt I'd come back. In the meantime, I was using everything in different ways. For instance, I thought I'd try professional landscaping. That didn't work out but from it I learned severe pruning creates new growth." Look at her totems to see how that idea emerged.

While living in Alaska, she and Roger designed large public art works, which led to a new understanding of architectural space. "Before, I'd exhibit wherever they put me. Now, I need to have a proper environment, where the light and scale befit work that has become, as a result, more site specific."

In India and Macedonia, she renewed studies of Buddhism, Taoism and so forth -- philosophies that support the interconnectedness of life and the spiraling, cyclical patterns represented by her subject matter. At Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, she absorbed the floral and landscape imagery of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Three professional milestones for Munn since she returned to her work are a recent purchase by the Renwick Gallery, the modern craft division of the Smithsonian Institution; a $7,500 South Carolina Arts Commission Artist Fellowship Grant; and the inclusion of her work by the Jerald Melberg Gallery in this past weekend's SOFA (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) Expo 2003 in Chicago.

Two things excite her now: the nature-based projects she designs for art students in Greenville, which help them develop sensitivity to both internal and external climates; and the adults in her summer workshops at Penland.

"I view my life and my avocation as a series of lifetimes, so the older I get the more I'm interested in sharing my story and my creative process," she says. "In showing students slides of my earliest work -- red and black sawdust fired raku -- I remembered the moment I decided not to use that technique anymore, and do everything white. I remembered planting corn and beans with my grandmother and being struck by the way they suddenly sprouted. And at six, I was cultivating an African violet collection. Then I found a folder where my father kept my first artwork -- pictures of Alaskan Eskimos, elephants, Hopi dolls, and cars and trailers, all things that came true in real life. I've always been working on my art!"

Which is to say that if you see a garlic bulb sitting quietly in a dark corner, or an artist asleep in a hammock, don't wake them -- they're hard at work, creating something splendid.

Works by Alice Ballard Munn are part of the permanent exhibits at both the Jerald Melberg Gallery in Morrocroft Village, 3900 Colony Road (704-365-3000), and the Mint Museum of Art, 2730 Randolph Road (704-337-2000). Munn will also hold a 2-1/2 day ceramics workshop November 7-9 at the Ice House Center for Creativity, Craft & Design, 432 South Main Street, Davidson. The $225 fee includes materials and hands-on instruction. Call 704-892-7323 to register.

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