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Pot of the Week

The Aquaria of Anne Hirondelle
by Gretchen Adkins

Originally published in Ceramics Art & Perception.

Jug by Anne HirondelleAnne Hirondelle knew soon after she had started law school that it was a mistake, but she finished out the first year and then  immediately enrolled in the BFA program at the University of Washington in Seattle, earning her degree in 1976. Hirondelle already had a BA in English and an MA in Psychology, but with the BFA she found her true calling and she has been a full-time artist ever since. However, that instinct for clear thinking and logical presentation which initially enticed her to law school remains in her art. Her work reflects the direct vision that a clearly-written law brief exhibits.
When I first encountered Hirondelle’s work 10 years ago, she was using the diptych format. The pairs of vessels were straight, formal and hieratic, sitting on a wooden tray which acted as a plinth for the architectural elements. Each piece was a frozen still life, best seen from a single perspective. Move one of the elements and the balanced drama was off kilter. However, even though the overall effect was cool and disciplined, the tableaux were not necessarily self-contained. The elements of the diptych were vessels and the vessels had handles which, by their nature, invited touch and involvement. They also suggested function and with function comes human participation.

Over the years, the idea of two equal parts has been modified. First the elements of the diptych became unequal: sometimes the two parts consisted of a dominant vessel and subsidiary base, sometimes vessel and lid. In her most recent exhibition at The Works Gallery in Philadelphia the various parts have merged into a single tall unity which Hirondelle calls “aquaria”, the Latin word for ewer.

“The vessel has always been the core metaphor for my work,” says the artist. “These particular forms have grown from the plant forms that surround me in my perennial garden. Women have been the traditional waterbearers of many cultures,” reflects the gardener as she remembers the hours she has taken water to cherished blooms. In ancient times it was the women who fetched water for the family. Rebecca at the well in the Old Testament is only one of many examples.

Jug by Anne HirondelleHirondelle lives in Port Townsend, Washington, a beach community of rocks, not sand, that is close enough to Seattle to share the city’s cultural advantages, yet far enough not to be a bedroom community. It is home to one of the country’s most successful publishers of poetry, Copper Canyon Press, whose founder is one of Hirondelle’s closest friends. Both the editors and poets often drop in on her. This easy companionship with poets is telling in her work. Poetry is about nuance. It is finding just the right shade of meaning or specific verb to describe a universal feeling. If the word has too many syllables for the music of the line, it is jettisoned and a new word must be found. This constant refinement is also a hallmark in Hirondelle’s work.
Her current body of work is remarkably consistent. Each piece is dipped in the same soda ash glaze and fired to the same temperature. They look metallic with an occasional freckle of crust on their skin. The forms – the aquaria – are also consistent, all springing from the same columnar base that flares into a full skirt. However, the subtleties reveal themselves with a closer reading. Sometimes the neck is only a choker wide before the spout takes over. Sometimes it stretches as long as the throats of the African women who wear copper coils to extend their necks. And the oversized spouts have individual personalities. One is perpendicular and resembles an old-fashioned coal scoop. Others are angled into the same neck-thrusting motion of an egret or a crane. Several have a slightly inward curling lip such as the large petal of a calla lily. Even though the pieces are all watergivers, some of  the spouts look as though they would be awkward for pouring, their strong personalities getting in the way of easy function.

To balance the exaggerated spouts, the handles either make a circle or follow the more gradual profile of a flying buttress. Aesthetically they keep the ewer from tipping forward by being the weight on the other end of the pulley. They are the counterpoint to the strong forward  motion. Many have thumb rests for easier gripping. But when put to the test, these aquaria are too large and massive to use. They are made of thick-walled stoneware and when filled with water, they would be quite heavy. Better to enjoy them as three dimensional design rather to take their function literally. Each aquaria belongs in a place of honour where it can be given poetic licence to be conceptual rather than actual water bearers.

Gretchen Adkins is a writer on the arts from New York, NY. Caption title page: Aquaria #36. 1997. 68 x 32.5 x 29 cm. Photographs courtesy of Garth Clark Gallery, New York.

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