Ceramic Sculptor Jennifer McCandless on Female Perfection, Breaking Boundaries and Addiction to Clay | Talking Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Ceramic Sculptor Jennifer McCandless on Female Perfection, Breaking Boundaries and Addiction to Clay


Published September 29, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 29, 2021 at 12:15 p.m.

"Hanging With the In Girls" - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy Of The Artist
  • "Hanging With the In Girls"

Artist Jennifer McCandless is from Detroit, works in Connecticut — at the Loomis Chaffee School outside of Hartford — and lives in Vermont. "It's complicated," she said of her life. Specifically, she's held an endowed position at that independent college-prep boarding school since 2010; she teaches ceramics, is chair of the art department and runs the gallery. Her husband teaches at the school, too.

About a decade ago, the couple and their two sons were on vacation in Vermont and, like so many visitors before them, they fell in love. "Burlington felt like where I belonged," McCandless recalled. "One month later we bought a place in Vermont."

Now her sons, ages 21 and 19, attend the University of Vermont. During school breaks and "about every third weekend" throughout the academic year, the whole family is here.

Jennifer McCandless in the studio - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy Of The Artist
  • Jennifer McCandless in the studio

McCandless, 54, said she's been working since age 18; she's been making art for even longer and showing it at venues across the country. But her current exhibition of ceramic sculptures, titled "Living Among the Humans," at Burlington's Soapbox Arts, is actually the first in her adopted state.

The artist's creations are exquisitely crafted and wonderfully weird. Her figures are human, human-esque — or maybe magical? Some are funny, some are grotesque, and nearly all of them make a personal or political point, if only in their titles. McCandless called working with clay "some kind of primal joy."

In a phone call with Seven Days last week, she revealed that her sculptures are really self-portraits, and her biggest influence is "the reality of everyday life."

SEVEN DAYS: Do you always use stoneware? I wondered whether some of your more delicate-looking pieces were porcelain. Either way, can you explain the medium and why you like it?

JENNIFER MCCANDLESS: I use stoneware exclusively, as it is more durable, shrinks less in firing, and is easy to drill and alter after firing in order to get the effects I want. Porcelain is beautiful for wheel-thrown pottery but not the best for sculpture.

"Haunted by Heroes: Concealed by Christo" - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy Of The Artist
  • "Haunted by Heroes: Concealed by Christo"

SD: In addition to sculpting clay, you also paint it. I understand this is different than glazing. Can you describe the materials and the process?

JM: Having been born and raised in the car culture of Detroit — my father is an automotive technical illustrator — I was exposed to "tricked-out" surfaces. I saw that they gave me the exact effect I wanted without being limited to pottery materials, like glazes. I worked in a garage with auto-body painters when I was in my twenties and thirties, and they taught me how to safely use [the paints] and do things like flames and pearls.

SD: Clay has been used throughout history for utilitarian and decorative purposes. Your sculptures are not functional, nor are they merely decorative. Aside from the pleasure of art making, what are you aiming to achieve?

JM: I love that my works are small and accessible to people on a number of levels. They are about laughing at what is painful or just ridiculous in Western culture and the human experience. I am purposefully trying to break down the hero artist concept that grew out of the '50s and '60s, where the viewer is so separated from the work.

I want the viewer to see themselves in the work and to interact with it, to get a little reprieve from this crazy life through laughter. Humor comes from a dark place, so that's everywhere, as well.

"Fantastical Meat" - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy Of The Artist
  • "Fantastical Meat"

My MFA is in kinetic, interactive sculpture, but I moved away from that. I felt all the bells and whistles were too much of a crutch and the work should be able to stand on its own without things whizzing and whistling. I use it sparingly. I am currently working on an interactive sculpture called "Flaming Pile of Angry Vagina" that growls. I guess nothing is off-limits.

SD: Your artist statement says, in part, "My fascination with human behavior is cultivated in the study of the figure." Could you elaborate on that?

JM: I use the body to relate to the viewer — breaking down boundaries and demystifying/making less precious the art object — and to take them on a journey to a neighboring reality where they can hopefully look objectively at what we [humans] do and be able to laugh at it or think about it in a new way.

I feel like we've all been through hell for quite a while, and this is my poking at society and myself and women and history and the future. It's my way of processing it all to keep from being angry all the time.

I come from Detroit punk-rock culture of the late '70s/early '80s, and there was a lot of anger there. I've pretty much been fed up since I was 13 years old.

"Scenes From the Apocalypse: Children Are Evil Too" - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy Of The Artist
  • "Scenes From the Apocalypse: Children Are Evil Too"

SD: Many of your figures are clearly human, but a lot of them are, well, something else. Some are comical, some downright hideous. Where do these ideas come from? Your imagination, obviously, but what influences that?

JM: The reality of everyday life is the main influence. They are all self-portraits dealing with things like stress, weight loss and gain, ideas of perfection, patriarchal pressures on females, the fact that we are animals but are in constant, vigilant denial of that fact: shaving hair, dressing up as animals, making up mythologies that we are separate from nature, controlling other animals by eating some but having others as pets, and even growing meat in labs, pumping ourselves and animals full of chemicals. It goes on and on!

SD: What's the thinking behind your bulbous figures that are squeezed into — and out of — too-tight clothing?

JM: That's all about my and others' struggle with weight loss and ideas of female perfection. I think of some of them as being what it feels like from the inside out, to be measuring oneself daily by putting on clothes that make us feel good or bad. They are self-portraits and questions I am posing to myself but also to so many other people that feel the same way.

SD: I know you've studied abroad — Ghana, Mexico, Indonesia. How did exposure to different ceramic traditions affect your work?

JM: I think it just continued to build on my respect and feeling of solidarity with artists around the world and throughout all histories in our utilization of clay to create gods [and] utilitarian objects, and to bring our societies together in our own little ways. Every artist I visited could have been me, and I could have been them. Clay is like that; it's a primal force to those of us addicted to it. Also, I wrote a globally focused clay course, and that was research for [it].

"Scenes From the Apocalypse: Western God Trying to Convince Other Gods They Never Existed" - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy Of The Artist
  • "Scenes From the Apocalypse: Western God Trying to Convince Other Gods They Never Existed"

SD: Your "Haunted by Heroes" series, which throws shade on dead white male artists, is hilarious. Do you typically come up with a concept and then create figures to fulfill the theme?

JM: In regard to that series, it was inspired by my experience of showing a sculpture to someone and literally watching them try to think of an old white male artist they have heard of to compare my work to. It happens all the time. I feel like the works women produce are so often so different, more personal, narrative, about connection and experience in the world, sensation and histories. We need our own art history.

Yes, there is an idea behind everything. Having gone to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my MFA in sculpture, we were forced to defend everything we did and to explain the "whys" of materials, scale, concept. Form and concept had to be one and the same, and that has guided my thinking. Although, at the same time, these sculptures just pop into my head like visions, so I guess I am lucky to have a brain that does that for me. They definitely come from specific, real-life frustrations I am living with, and I think the sculptures are my own coping mechanism — coping with the realities of being a female artist.

SD: What other artists, ceramic or otherwise, do you particularly admire?

JM: Nanette Vonnegut is my soul sister in art. I am obsessed with everything she does and own a number of her works. We had our dream show together at A.P.E. [Ltd. Gallery] in Northampton [Mass.] last year called "Seeing Red, Feeling Blue."

I also think I was very influenced by James Ensor's "Christ's Entry Into Brussels [in 1889]." I went to Otis [College of Art and Design] in LA for my BFA; that gigantic painting lives at the [J. Paul] Getty Museum and is just about the best thing ever.

I love everything the Guerrilla Girls have ever done and secretly wish I was one of them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The artist and the gallery are hosting a ceramic sculpture giveaway contest via Instagram. Learn more and enter to win at @soapboxartsvt.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Only Human"