A Delicate Balance

June 4, 2013

Text by Allegra Muzzillo     Photography by Gary Mirando

Jennifer McCurdy’s intricate porcelain vessels have a gravity-defying sense of movement that evokes the rhythms of the natural world.

Almost every piece Jennifer McCurdy creates in her Vineyard Haven studio is crafted of unglazed white porcelain. Now and then she gilds the interior surfaces with 23-karat gold, but moast often she leaves the pure white material in its natural form. The thinness of the porcelain gives the pieces their translucency and lets McCurdy explore the structure, rather than just the surface, of her vessels.

It might be tempting to think an artist who throws, cuts and fires unglazed white porcelain over and over again would feel limited, would itch to explore other materials, colors and shapes. But for McCurdy, the fascination with her chosen medium never fades. In fact, the longer she works at her art, the more boundaries she finds to push beyond. “There are no shortcuts to this work,” she says. “My artwork has evolved very, very slowly.”

While earning her master’s degree in ceramics at Florida Atlantic University, McCurdy met renowned artist John McCoy. He introduced her to porcelain clay—the snow-white material that becomes nonporous when fired, and with which she became so enamored. McCurdy spent the first part of her career as a potter, creating functional stoneware pieces like mixing bowls, goblets and wall sconces. Eventually she shifted her focus back to the porcelain she fell in love with in school, and began exploring ways to create pieces that go beyond the purely functional.

In 1992 McCurdy, along with her husband and their two daughters, decamped to Martha’s Vineyard, where her family had been since she was a teenager. “It was challenging for our careers,” she says about the move to the island, “but then again, I’d never really envisioned raising our kids too far from my family.”

Perhaps it is serendipitous then that McCurdy, who lives in Vineyard Haven, has been able to continue her artistic journey in such a rarified landscape, one so affected by nature’s cyclical qualities. A typical morning sees her pedaling twenty miles on her bicycle along the island’s many gardens, grasslands and waterways. It’s enough to motivate any artist, let alone one who is clearly inspired by the physical world. “My work looks organic, because it’s not exactly linear,” she says. “It’s more rhythmic, like nature.”

McCurdy’s vessels are stunning feats in structural integrity. She likens the technical aspects of her work to bridge building, referencing components that impart soundness and stability. “There’s gravity and there’s tensile and compressive strength,” she says. “Those forces come into play in ceramics, too.”

For example, for her Ribbon series, she first incises the thrown pieces and then positions them upside-down on stilts in the kiln so that the porcelain does a sort of free-fall during the firing process.

Motion, light and space are at the very core of McCurdy’s mission. What she calls “hard and soft shadows” are projected onto—and inside—her pieces, darker where clay is denser, lighter where it’s thinner. Each vessel also begets an exceptional visual tension created by the negative and positive spaces made by the artist’s instinctive and elaborate carvings. “A lot of the forms are incised to the point where you can see through them,” she says. “You’re seeing that struggle—that balance.”

Museums and galleries around the country have made a place for McCurdy’s work. Her Wheat Bottle—inspired by the tip of an undulating stalk of wheat—is in the permanent collection of Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Renwick Gallery, and her Coral Nest—a bowl-shaped assemblage of nested oceanic appendages—sits at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California. Lately, she is developing new vessels she describes as, “more radical—with more curves and negative spaces.”

After manipulating porcelain for more than thirty years, the freshness of the artist’s pieces is still palpable as she hones her craft and develops new techniques almost daily. “I couldn’t do the work one year ago that I’m doing right now,” she says. “Anybody could spend three lifetimes in clay and never scratch the surface of it—but I know I’ve grown my skill with the completion of each piece.” •

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jennifer McCurdy is represented in New England by the Shaw Cramer Gallery, Vineyard Haven, (508) 696-7323, shawcramergallery.com.

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