I made a date to meet sculptor Liz Lescault on the site of her current collaboration, “Xenophilia,” a sound and sculpture environment at the Harmony Hall Regional Center Art Gallery on Livingston Road near Fort Washington. The show, which will run until Saturday, December 24th, was complemented on November 19th, by a site-specific performance featuring improvisational dance and music. Following our introduction and tour of the sculptures, we began an e-mail conversation about the show and some background on her work.
Entering the gallery, I was struck by the number of small sculptures arranged on platforms of different heights. I imagined a small constellation of microscopic particles rendered up roughly to the size of melons, vaguely resembling pollen, spores, or one-celled animals, scattered carefully throughout the room. Surfaces underneath or behind white sculptures were painted a soft gray instead of the predominant gallery white.
On the lowest platforms, the sculptures rested on sand that had been “painted” over the white surface.
Q: I wonder what kind of special narrative or design story you had in mind placing the works as you have done.
A: I wanted the visitor to stroll through the gallery, for the experience to be like a walk along a path in the woods, or on a beach, discovering treasures. I hoped to to create niches that would entice people to wander throughout the work. A painter uses his understanding of composition, color, form and value to draw the viewers eye into, through and around the scape of a painting. I hoped to draw people into the room, to seduce them visually to follow a diversity of visual paths. I wanted the exhibit to be elegant but not intimidating, to have an abundance of work but not appear cluttered. I allowed ample space between each piece to give viewers a chance to see the work from all perspectives. I laid some of my sculptures in sand low to the floor and painted the sand in undulating waves as if blown by the wind on a deserted beach. These low sand groupings have been particularly effective in leading visitors on a contemplative stroll through the gallery.
Harmony Hall’s art gallery is broken up by angled walls with several bays and peninsulas, and even areas cut out of partition platforms to furnish window views into other spaces as well as surfaces for featured objects. The works are mounted with the exacting eye of an architect. Wherever I stood in the room, the view in all directions was balanced and appealing. The sense of movement as an individual within the space, among the sculptures, was a real pleasure.
During my searches about Liz on the Web, I noticed that some subtle distinctions had been made between her work as a ceramicist and her work as a sculptor.
Q: I would like to know what phases you have gone through as an artist working primarily with ceramic media.
A: I have been in love with the vessel form all my life. As a young girl I was captivated by American Indian pottery. I always wanted to learn to throw on the wheel but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I had the opportunity. While my husband was doing graduate work at Cornell I hung out at the Cornell Pot Shop. Within a short time I was addicted and, after thirty-five years, I still have not kicked the habit. My work evolved from functional wheel-thrown, high-fire reduction pottery, and classical vessels, to elegant organic vessel forms. From the organic vessel forms I moved into sculptural work. Most of my sculpture originates from wheel thrown forms that have been manipulated and altered. Sometimes I join multiple wheel thrown forms in one piece. At other times, I grow the piece with various hand building techniques.
Certain passions have dogged me throughout my life: my passion for the vessel form, the feminine, round, container of things – the seductive, plastic quality of clay. I am passionate about being involved in the medium in a hands-on, hands-in-it, sensuous way. You get dirty. You push, you pull, you manipulate, exert and expend yourself. Then there is the magic of the firing, the uncertainty, the giving yourself over to the forces of the firing. There is so much that is not in your control. I love giving up my authority to the clay and to the fire. Accident can be your friend, your greatest resource.
When I first started making sculpture 7 or 8 years ago, I remembered a trip with my mother to the biological station in Bermuda where she had a grant to do research on the coral reef. I have never experienced so much awe and wonderment as I did within the world of the coral reef. I then remembered that, in my twenties, I had created a few sculptures inspired by my experiences in Bermuda. My work now echoes those earlier pieces.
I lived in the southern African countries of Botswana and Lesotho in the 1980s. While I was there, I went out into the villages to learn African hand building, burnishing, pit-firing and decorative surface techniques. It brought me back to my childhood love of “primitive” low fire, unglazed vessels as containers.
Returning to Washington DC, I continued my work with low-fire burnished surfaces. In the nineties, I began experimenting with low-fire glazing techniques. Over many years of experimentation with multiple glazing/multiple firing techniques, I developed the red and tangerine glaze surfaces I am best known for. When I started sculpting and creating more intricate work, I started to explore mid-range oxidation stoneware for of its strength and durability. Now I include high-fire reduction and wood firing in my repertoire.
Q: Is there any through-line in the development of your work where color or shape are concerned?
A: I am an opportunist and will use anything that works to create a surface that imbues the form with feeling and makes it come alive. Sometimes I want my sculptures to look like bone, sometimes like fossilized rock, at other times like leather or liquid, like shells, coral, flesh. I use glazes to create liquid surface effects or I use reduction or wood firing atmospheres on unglazed work to give them an earthy, geologic appearance. I also sometimes treat the surfaces with non-ceramic paint media and encaustics.
The only through-line is the end result. Ceramic purists do not always approve of the non-ceramic surfaces. On the other hand, artists in other media love the fact it is not always apparent what medium I am using or if the piece is clay at all.
In addition to novel surface color and texture treatments, Ms. Lescault uses stippling tools on her sculptures to further confound the eye. She admits that this approach sometimes destroys the works in progress. The sculptures may end up looking pristine or they may seem recently unearthed after thousands of years underground.
Q: Am I alone or are there others who have formed an initial impression of the sculptures as microscopic objects?
A: Many of my pieces are inspired by microscopic life. However, most of my work is not one thing or the other. I work intuitively and improvise, drawing freely from forms of nature, combining elements and, sometimes, deliberately attempting to confound viewers’ perceptions.
The gallery resonated in additional ways on Saturday, November 19th, when “Xenophilia’s” musical component, created by John Vengrouskie, was augmented by the live music of bass violinist Daniel Barbiero. An improvisational set responding to Vengrouskie’s sounds followed a segment in which the Kathryn Sparks InPlay Dancers improvised movement in response to the musical and sculptural elements. Dancers moved throughout the space as attendees watched from the perimeter of the gallery. During the final segment of the performance, the movement of attendees themselves provided inspiration for further musical variations.
Q: How did the live performance in the gallery change or shape your impression of the body of work displayed? Has it given you food for thought about future sculpture?
A: The performance reinforced my belief about environments in which objects or entities exist; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I had a notion about creating an environment to hold my works but I don’t think I understood how layered and satisfying that experience would be.
The environment enticed visitors to linger and indulge in both visual and auditory contemplation. John Vengrouskie’s interactive soundscape, composed for Xenophilia, reflected the spirit and flow I wanted to convey. It was only later when I explained to John what I wanted to accomplish that he told me he was attempting to accomplish a similar thing by programming the sensor system to track people in the gallery and to trigger sound in another part of the gallery, drawing visitors subtly to another space.
All the artists’ work that day was based on improvisation. The artists reacted not only to my sculpture but to the room, each other, and to the audience. It was a multilevel sensory experience. I was blown away by what happened in the moment that afternoon. I have been spoiled forever because it is no longer enough for me to show my work standing alone, “disconnected.” My sculpture wants a home with other artists’ work in a living, breathing, interactive environment.