‘Earth & Fire’ Shows the Alchemy of Natural Elements, Heat and Human Imagination

click to enlarge "Iron Woman" by Bette Ann Libby - COURTESY

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  • “Iron Woman” by Bette Ann Libby

The current exhibition at Mad River Valley Arts in Waitsfield shows what can arise from the alchemy of natural elements, heat and human imagination. “Earth & Fire” — underscored with the subtitle “formed in earth, forged in fire” — is an exhibition of works in clay and glass by a dozen area artists. Curated by Jean Sharry with assistance from MRVA executive director Sam Talbot-Kelly, it assembles a multitude of functional and sculptural pieces.

Valerie Dearing delivers both — with a message. In her pit-fired ceramic vessels, part of a series she calls “New Earth,” Dearing reacts to “vast changes currently happening to the earth,” according to an artist statement. “With this body of work, I am interested in visualizing the essence of these destructive forces and how we need to nurture and care for our world and the universes beyond immediately,” she writes.

Dearing’s small wall-hung sculptures collectively titled “Masked” feature spikes à la the coronavirus. The artist’s response to the pandemic considers how we humans isolated from each other and “entered our own personal world behind the masks.”

The exhibition is rich with diverse styles of pottery — platters, bowls, vases and even piggy banks. A striking entry is Noel Bailey‘s wheel-thrown and hand-built porcelain bowls and pitcher. White with a dark-glaze accent and distinguished by asymmetry, Bailey’s work is inspired in part by the fluctuations of water. “I am drawn to serene, fluid, and graceful forms, which I find abundant in vertical ice and water-carved rock,” he writes on his website. His approach results in pieces “that convey a narrative of movement and change.”

Bette Ann Libby approaches her practice with an eye for both beauty — in splatter-glazed stoneware platters — and wit, such as in her “Iron Woman” ceramic sculpture. In the latter, the textures of the pedestal-like structure suggest a centuries-old artifact, but the hand iron perched at a saucy angle on its top asserts a more modern feminist humor. Call it iron-y.

If glassmaking is not quite as ancient as pottery, the craft has more than compensated with transcendent elegance. Gorgeous examples in this exhibit are Michael Egan‘s tall, graceful vases with classic Murano-style swirls of color.

David Leppla writes that he has focused for 30 years on representations of nature in his glasswork — specifically the “fleeting qualities of natural beauty that appear all around us but are often missed.” This exhibition presents pieces in Leppla’s “Seed Pod Series” — bouquets of colorful glass pods hung upside-down as if for drying. His wife and fellow glass artist, Melanie Guernsey Leppla, contributes blown-glass cairns that echo the stone totems erected by humans from time immemorial. “I hope that my work will inspire a moment of reflection and connection with nature,” she writes in an artist statement. It does.

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