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Clay artist works to share her vision

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 3:06 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband
The 'Pandora Boxes' installation is part of the 'Topographies' exhibit at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
'Entrada PA5-10' is part of the 'Entrada installation' at the 'Topographies' exhibit at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
'Shield de Pyrenees W5-07' is part of artist Barbara Sorensen's 'Shield de Pyrenees' installation at the 'Topographies' exhibit at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
The 'Hanging Boat' installation by artist Barbara Sorensen is part of the 'Topographies' exhibit at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
The 'Foothills' installation by artist Barbara Sorensen is part of the 'Topographies' exhibit at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
The 'Hanging Boat' installation (foreground) and the 'Foothills' installation (background) by artist Barbara Sorensen are part of the 'Topographies' exhibit at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Since the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild opened its doors more than 40 years ago, many notable ceramicists, such as Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner, Don Reitz and Rudy Autio, have all taught workshops at the center, which was founded by Bill Strickland, a clay artist himself, in 1968.

All of those masters have another thing in common. “I had the opportunity to work with them, too,” says Barbara Sorensen, a clay artist whose work is on display at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in her solo exhibit, “Topographies.”

Sorensen is the mother of Kristine Sorensen, a television-news anchor with KDKA. And although she divides her time between homes in Winter Park, Fla., and Aspen, Colo., she still visits Pittsburgh three to four times a year to spend time with her daughter and her husband, Marty Griffin, and their three children.

“I've been a studio artist since the 1980s,” says Sorensen, who discovered clay, an ideal medium for her interest in texture, as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. After completing her degree there in 1968, she went on to work with her aforementioned mentors and others who were pushing the medium in fresh, sculptural directions.

“I feel very fortunate to have learned from the fellows that were at the grassroots of the movement,” Sorensen says.

Something of a retrospective exhibition, “Topographies” features many, though not all, of the works that were on display in her retrospective exhibit of the same title at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida, at this time last year.

“My work is about the landscape and the environment,” she says of the pieces in this exhibit. “Most of the work in this exhibition is made of clay. The Earth is made of clay, and this exhibition is about clay. So, the exhibit's title is kind of a double entendre.”

In many ways, the work takes on double meanings, as well. For example, the three heavy boat-shaped sculptures in her “Hanging Boat” installation look like they were literally sliced from the Earth, complete with rocks and geologic striations, even though they take on the shape of boats.

“They are about the journey, but they're also really about the landscape,” Sorensen says.

The metamorphosis of the Earth, as in plate tectonics and the buckling of the Earth's crust, are all points of reference for the artist. “I even think of volcanoes and the bubbles of the lava bursting,” she says. To that end, she has embedded the surfaces of the boats with stones, many of which have burst and cracked open in the firing of these pieces.

“These are stones that I pick up when I hike,” Sorensen says. “I do a lot of hiking. I've hiked in New Zealand, the canyonlands of this country, as well as our national parks. I pick up stones and put them in the surface of the clay. And when they get to a certain temperature, they start to bubble and burst. And that's also part of the metamorphic process of the Earth. The Earth is always expanding, growing and changing. That's what these boats are about.”

She hand-carves the striations into the surfaces with a special tool. “They really help you read the form better,” Sorensen says. “It kind of makes you read all of the different layers, because this is about layering.”

In a gallery next to the “Hanging Boat” installation, Sorensen has arranged a display of five of her “Pandora Boxes.”

“I started as a wheel-thrower, as a lot of potters do, making vessels, bowls, vases and things like that,” she says in regard to the boxes. “These are kind of the first things that I made after I decided I wasn't going to be a wheel-thrower anymore. They are little vessels, though. I think of them as Chinese boxes. But they are slab built.”

Like the mythological story of Pandora's box, in which hope is at the bottom of a box filled with the ills of the world, Sorensen says, they are crusty and gnarly on the outside, but they all have something special to say on the inside. “I think of them as boxes of hope,” she says. Each is lined in gold leaf.

“The reason that I moved to slab work was because I want to make big things,” Sorensen says of her technique. “The slab technique allowed me to work large, and work fast, actually. It's better for what I want to say.”

Behind the boxes hang half a dozen prints that form her “Entrada” series.

“These are monotype, which are one-of-a-kind works on paper,” she says. “It's instant gratification for me. My big work takes three months to get through the kilns, from start to finish. And these I make in a matter of days. I make it, I see it and it's finished.”

Opposite the prints and Pandora boxes hang five large shield-shaped pieces from her “Shield de Pyrenees” series. Having even more of a textural quality than the boxes, Sorensen says of these pieces, “Most of my work is soda-fired. I don't use a lot of glazes. I basically use slip, which is the same clay as the body, but diluted. And I will add a little bit of color to it.”

If you look closely, you can see that the surfaces of each have been embedded with things other than clay, such as computer parts and metal springs. “I really love to experiment. And I break all the rules. Like throwing stones in it, computer parts, springs. I have a general idea of what the melting temperatures are, but I'm kind of guessing at it, but I kind of don't care, too.

“I love texture,” she says. “I'm very sensitive to it.”

Sorenson says she sees the shields as being topographical. “They look like aerial views,” she says. “They're very rich in texture.”

The exhibit culminates with an installation titled “Foothills II.” Comprised of 16 large ceramic “mountains,” arranged in a triangular grid formation in the center of the floor in one gallery, it is lit from above with a video projection of the four elements — earth, air (in this case, clouds), fire and water.

“This piece really speaks to topographies more than any other piece in the show,” Sorensen says. The piece is accompanied by a score arranged by composer Stella Sung. “For me, this would be like what I see if I take an airplane arrived from Aspen to Denver and Denver to Aspen. It's like when you're in an airplane and looking down, and you see how the clouds roll over the mountains. It's about how nature's elements reflect on the topography of the landscape.

“The idea is that you are supposed to stand here and have quiet time and appreciate the landscape,” Sorensen says. “I really hope that my work will help people take time to appreciate this amazing land and Earth that we are on and really see. Maybe by seeing what I see, you might see a little more. That's my message.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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