I’ve recently been taking pottery classes at the local community centre. Recalling fond memories of lessons growing up, I went into the first session brimming with enthusiasm, confident that I would be spinning out pots and vases and plates in no time.
No such luck. I soon discovered I had no aptitude for the wheel. Class after class, clay balls wobbled off centre and flung apart, overzealous hands warped promising cylinders, and palms grew raw trying to coax shapes out of an alien medium. No muse or intuition came to me, and I realized I had a lot to learn.
After grappling with futility, I decided to take a break from the wheel to work with the clay by hand. Something clicked, and frustration gave way to the freedom of unfettered play. I found myself making figurines of flora and fauna as I did when I was a kid, back when clay gave my restless hands something solid to work on. From failed pots emerged mushroom landscapes populated by miniature elephants. Coils grew into dolphins which were also whales and seals. I was having fun.
Turning to Pinterest for more ceramic inspiration, I had the good fortune to come across the work of Canadian artist Ellen Jewett. To state that her creations are stunning would be a gross understatement – Jewett employs metal, clay and paint to create breathtakingly intricate animal sculptures. I am honoured and delighted to have permission to feature her work on Ekostories.
Like other art-based entries, I feel it more appropriate to let the work speak for themselves and allow you, the reader, discover the stories they have to tell. Yet as beautiful as these sculptures are, I find Jewett’s personal philosophy and artistic process to be even more fascinating. The following are my musings; the questions serve as potential guides for your own exploration, should you be interested. Enjoy!
Stories of Life Living
More than most forms of art, sculpting represents an intimate way of knowing and sense-making, requiring a skillset visual acumen, tactile awareness, and honed judgement that comes only with long practice. In pottery class, we were told that we will eventually come to feel the clay, if we have the patience. Watching my instructor work the wheel to form a clay ball into a pot or a plate or a bowl, I can believe this: She speaks clay, is fluent in it.
“…sculpting has always been about life, biological narratives and cultural statements.” – Artist bio
Such deep understanding can extend not only to the medium, but also to subject matter. To craft creatures the way Jewett does requires not only a sculptor’s touch, but also knowledge of living things. Equipped with a background in equine science and an interest in animal behaviour, Jewett grounds her fantastical and surreal creations on a foundation of anatomy and biomechanics. Her “White Stag”, even when mounted with a head full of branches and draped with a coat of vegetal growth, carries itself like a stag. “Humpback with norfolk pines” flows with sure and massive grace. Even her wholly fictional creations like “White Dragon” are locked in poses that make them seem alive. Sinuous and torsional, steeped in realism, each of Jewett’s handcrafted creatures speaks the kinetic language of life.
“If there was a theme to describe all of the subjects I tackle, it would be biophilic.”
Popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson, biophilia is defined as an innate urge for humans to connect with other lifeforms. In his book of the same title, Wilson hypothesizes that we are all genetically wired to perceive beauty in living things. Jewett’s work resonates with me on that base level. From sprinting wolves to flying foxes, each sculpture conveys the intrinsic beauty of its live counterpart, telling the rich and vital story of its being.
- Do you think Jewett’s work evokes this biophilia?
- Have you have experienced biophilia in art?
Mythic Ties to the Past
Yet the narratives Jewett’s creations tell are not only of animals, but also our relationships with them. Many of these sculptures showcase the mythic and supernatural qualities humans have attributed to animals since time immemorial. “White Stag” and “Celtic Boar” remind me of the Shinto-influenced deities of Princess Mononoke. “Tortoise of Burden” and “Earth Constrictor” are reminiscent of the world turtles and serpents that populate Hindu, Chinese, and Native American folklore. Many of Jewett’s creatures would not be out of place in tales told by cultures with rich storytelling traditions, as avatars and guides that help humans navigate a strange and inexplicable world.
“People and animals are supposed to be together. We spent quite a long time evolving together, and we used to be partners.”
With modern society’s growing disconnect with nature, I feel that art can play a vital role in helping us reconnect with the world of animal otherness. As I wrote last year in Orwell’s essay, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” and as the quote below asserts, I believe that we need to connect with non-human perspectives in order to truly flourish:
“We human beings have made a world reduced to ourselves and our artifacts, but we weren’t made for it and have to teach our children to live in it. Physically and mentally equipped to be at home in a richly various and unpredictable environment, competing and coexisting with creatures of all kinds, our children must learn poverty and exile, to lie on concrete among endless human beings, seeing animals only as a bird high in the air, a beast on a leash or in a cage, a film image. But our innate, acute interest in animals as fellow beings, friend or enemy or food or playmate, can’t be instantly eradicated; it resists deprivation. And imagination and literature are there to fill the void and reaffirm the great community.”
Jewett’s work, melding natural forms with cultural narratives, helps me remember those old psychic desires, reminding me of the power and necessity of wild denizens that dwell in what author David Abrams calls the “more-than-human world.”
- Do you agree with the claim that a human-only world would be an impoverished one? Why or why not?
- Do you believe myths still serve a purpose in today’s world?
Mechanical Musings of Artifice
Jewett’s deliberate and delicate insertion of artifice into her organic and mythical creations adds yet another layer to her work beyond surface aesthetics. Visible metal and gears in her octopus, anglerfish, and rhinoceros sculptures are technological statements. Domestication, a less overt but more pervasive form of artifice, is a theme found in “Lybica Waiting” and “The Curiosity of Laurices.” Both types of human influences are less fantastical and more modern, provoking thought on topics such as animal rights, genetic modification, and artificial life. In an age where synthetic biology is quickly becoming reality, Jewett’s melding of organic, mythical, and technological forms raises questions that merit serious exploration and reflection. Good art tends to do that.
- What are your reactions towards the mechanically-themed sculptures? Do you see them in the same light as the purely organic ones?
- Does wildness factor into the worth of an animal? What about rarity? Human utility?
- Does domestication heighten or lessen the value of an animal?
- Does human involvement in the development of a life form alter its worth?
- Are creations of synthetic biology of equal worth as normal creatures?
Perhaps I felt compelled to write this piece because I identify strongly with Jewett’s interests and motivations:
“As cliched as it sounds, my inspiration is nature. Not an idea of nature, not a pretty screen shot on a desktop background, more a lived visceral relationship. I consider the plants and animals in my life, those that I have experienced and known personally, to be my muses. In second place would be my academic interests, anthropology, biology, the rich interplay of human relationships with other beings. I find all topics related to this infinitely interesting.”
While I possess neither the talent or dedication to do what Jewett does, I find myself similarly fascinated by the interplay between humans and animals at the intersection of science and art. These topics and borders have served as wellsprings of inspiration for my thinking and writing, and I admire Jewett’s ability to pursue artistic freedom while satisfying her passion for animals. This synergy is something I constantly strive for in my professional and creative life, and it’s nice to see someone achieve that.
- X-Ray Photography of Nature, by Arie van’t Riet
- Art and Science, Wonder and Wisdom
- George Orwell’s Love of the Common Toad
- Nausicaä Vol. 2: The Acid Lake
Grandin, T. & Johnson, K. (2006) Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, 2nd edition. Mariner Books.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (2009) Cheek by Jowl. E-book edition. Aquaduct Press, Seattle WA.
All images posted with permission from Ellen Jewett.