folio arts

Where the DESERT Meets the SEA

Rawness and wildness in Larry Wilson’s Spirit Vessels


Simplicity is hard. So, too, is an unaffected-but-confident aesthetic. It takes hours of practice and dedication to make things that seem to wholly inhabit their own space, and do so in a manner that’s sure-handed without being self-satisfied.

Artist and award-winning interior designer Larry Wilson walks the fine line between solving the problem before it exists (after all, that’s what designers do) and letting the forms in/of his pieces unfold before him. “It’s just you and the clay,” he said of his process, “I push and pull literally, [but] try not to overthink it.”

A sculptor working primarily in clay, stoneware with lots of grog (sand for texture and body), Wilson has several concurrent bodies of work; figures, vessels and, very recently, boat-like forms. For his upcoming show at the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach, a selection of his Spirit Vessels will be on view along with images by Angela Casini and Joe Crozier.

“The whole Spirit Vessels series is ongoing ... I spend a lot of time out in New Mexico [Santa Fe] and one of the things I really admire, enjoy and respect is Native American culture. Their history, traditions and past, and their understanding and love of Mother Earth and how to respect it,” said the artist. He then explained that in the Southwest, he feels much more grounded, and attached to a still-palpable wildness. “There, I feel like a part of the whole.”

The Vessels he makes are handmade pots (coil built) that take ancient utilitarian forms like seed pots, water pots and storage pots as points-of-departure. For the artist, working in forms that recall Southwestern Native American vessels is a way to pay homage and investigate how the materials and “desires” of the clay impact the final form. Reflecting on the title of the series, Wilson said, “For me, I was trying to find a way to describe the series that has the essence of the [original] Native American pottery.”

“The shapes are so beautiful and the philosophy behind them is so beautiful, so I want to be very clear: I’m not trying to ‘cash in’ on Native American pottery; this is my tribute,” he said emphatically.

When naming the pots, he often cites the original form used. For instance, in the piece Small Seed Pot with Cloud (pictured), Wilson indicated that in the research he conducted, scholars identified this particular shape as being that of a pot that held seeds, so he carries the convention forward in his own work.

However, unlike the ancient peoples of the Southwest, Wilson eschews decorating the surface of the forms, preferring instead to let the subtle manipulations of his hands and the simple tools he uses leave their marks. He favors a metal scraper and a flat, wedge-shaped wooden tool that’s as cool and smooth as silk to the touch. It’s easy to imagine the calm tactile pleasure he experiences using the implement is transmitted to the viewer through an alchemical process that defies linear logic.

Like Brancusi, whose works seem to occupy space even as they clear space, these pots are restful to the eye and mind yet still richly evocative; perhaps because, like Brancusi’s work, they are rather idealized forms. In Wilson’s case, that means the vessels he builds are in a recognizable lexicon, but tailored by his own hand, to his own journey. “They’re unadorned because I didn’t want to give any sense of arrogance, or hint that I could even replicate the markings or how they handled the pots as far as surface treatment,” he said, regarding the unglazed and minimally altered exteriors.

That the vessels are unglazed doesn’t mean they’re unembellished. On many of the works, the artist has constructed a handle of sorts, attaching found wood (often NEFLa-sourced). “The found wood is a reference to me being born and raised in Florida. I am not from the Southwest, so the language I inherently know is not of there,” he explained. Thus in fusing the foraged Florida wood with ancient forms designed to withstand the desert, it’s as if Wilson is bringing two ascetic environments together.

The pots become a launching pad. Symbolically, in addition to the artist’s stated use of wood as a linchpin to Florida, the shape of the “handles” is reminiscent of a door or passageway. Thus, the notion of a liminal space within the body of the works seems to suggest that maybe, just maybe, if one were to peek at the vessel at just the right moment, in a private time, one would glimpse the “being able to see forever[ness]” that is central to the physical experience of being in the Southwest. And somehow, despite the clearly visible edges, foreverness seems to inhabit the very spirit of these forms, too.

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