Susannah Israel: Landscape Figures, 2010-2020
The idea of representing the figure as landscape comes from a personal and emotionally charged relationship with place. Many of the figures in this ongoing series were a response to loss and grief. Sweet California, 2010, came out of missing a beloved friend while I was hiking in our favorite park, where the very landscape was imbued with memory. He seemed to be present everywhere I looked. I began making drawings of the landscape as a person, which became a sculpture of a figure in lotus position with pagoda spires on its head and a lake cradled in its arms; the legs have the shape, color and texture of the golden California hills.
The series which I call Darwin’s Atoms was made during my 2011-2012 artist residency at Black Bean Studios in San Jose. The name of this series derives in part from a wonderful interview with Peter Voulkos, in the documentary Color & Fire; he comments about the timeless nature of clay which composed of the same elements as our own bodies, and endlessly recycled. I found this poetic attitude both scientifically accurate and profoundly appropriate when considering the body of work in my series.
Working with terracotta sculpture clay at Black Bean, I began to construct large pieces in sections, showing the layers like core samples of earth. I limited my colors, using only yellow, blue and white, often only one color at once, leaving the natural clay surface to signify the earth.
North and South, 2011 is about connecting with the San Jose community. Two figures sit on am overpass bridge with its characterustic arched curve, arms and legs attenuated. Their feet are blended into the landscape and represented with lines drawn though white slip into the clay beneath.
Landboat, 2011, shows a figure imbedded in the semi-urban landscape. The form of the piece is tall and slim in the shape of a oceanging cargo ship. I used white slip and sgrafitto technique to represent the landscape, and the hand of the figure becomes a part of the bridge and water, drawn through white slip. The figure’s knee is part of teh skyline and on ots head is a hat made of partly demolished urban buildings.
Geography, 2012, is a reclining figure in two sections, where the hip, torso and shoulder form a curving landscape. The left section forms the shape of an ocean liner. The figure’s yellow fingers become blue, turning from land to water, pouring into a river beneath a bridge.
Scribe, 2012, is composed of ten separate blocks with orange faces that show when it is assembled into its 3 x 5 x 3 ft whole. The figure is sunken into the landscape, amkng up its topography. The right leg extends to the front face and appears as a bare foot. The left leg is drawn into the side using sgrafitto technique. On the figure’s head are a small house and tree, and it holds a book on its lap. The fingers of the left hand flow into the current of the river flowing around the base of the sculpture, unifing the composition. I have included a view of the work in progress inorder to share my methods with other clay artists.
California Maitreya shows a central figure being embraced by two other figures whose faces are hidden. One of the embracing figures is green, the other yellow, and there are six legs making up the rolling hills of the California landscape. This piece strongly brings out the abstraction of the figures, morphing into the landscape form. The Maitreyea is a future Buddha, and the sculpture speaks to the way our own past life experiences and our loves and losses make us wiser.
Pieta, 2013, was made after a long drive into the hills of Mendocino for a woodfiring. All day the landscape reminded me of friends long gone, at every turn of the winding mountain roads.That night I made drawings for a piece about the landscape as a person, tenderly holding a loved one. The lamdscape elements here are the hills and bridges I crossed. The detail shows work in progress.
Delta, 2020, is an homage to the Sacramento River valley. Currently water rights and use are hotly contested in the area, and unfortunately this has been true for centuries. Yet the feeling of the rolling hills, the cottonwood trees, the broad river and the fields of corn, strawberries and vegetable is tranquil and placid. In this piece the figure is sewing a quilt out of the fields along the highway bewteen Oakland and Sacramento.
I used this approach to create all the complex landscape figures for the Darwin’s Atoms series. My original intention was to carpet the entire gallery floor, creating an uninterrupted installation of the earth/figure forms that would be experienced as if traveling on a highway. Fortunately, although this proved unworkable due to space limitations, the landscape elements linked visually and the sense of a large vista was visually successful when the forms were placed more separately.
It is an honor to acknowledge and thank Will Johnson and Ruben Reyes of Black Bean for their friendship and creative support, Bryan Vansell of Mission Clay for providing materials and rent at the studio during my residency in San Jose, Michelle Gregor, Diane Levinson and Fred Yokel for much wonderful feedback and suppot.
- Sweet California, 2010, terracotta, engobes, 38x29x21in
- North and South, 2012, terracotta, 36x22x16in
- Landboat, 2012, terracotta, 43x46x15in
- Geography, 2012, terracotta, 23x41x20in
- Scribe, 2012 terracotta, 35x61x30in
- Scribe, 2012 detail of work in progress
- California Maitreya, terracotta, 26x27x21in
- Pieta, 2013, terracotta, 35x46x22in
- Pieta, 2013, detail of work in progress
- Delta, 2020, terracotta, engobes, 24x32x15in