Smile Politely

Parkland’s Giertz Gallery vibrates with earthenware energy

Curator Chris Berti’s selections for this year’s Ceramics Biennial at Parkland College’s Giertz Gallery present us with spectacularly multidimensional work. Brillaint is too pedestrian a term for the expressive pieces from such luminaries as Janis Mars Wunderlich and Jenny Mendes. Their work, among others, explodes with color and dimension, inside and out. From Wunderlich’s Vulnerabilities to William Brouillard’s Steam-Punk Buddha our senses are teased and delighted in every cup, platter, carving, and multi-fired ceramic embrace.

Image of a student with glasses carving a haunted house out of clay. In the background there are dozens of pots and tools in this well-used ceramics lab. Photo by Amy Penne.

Photo by Amy Penne.

Giertz director, Lisa Costello notes, “This year’s exhibition is exceptional because the curator, Chris Berti is retiring after over 35 years of teaching. He has provided unbridled enthusiasm, expert knowledge, and has a stalwart commitment to the Giertz Gallery.” Berti, a native-New Yorker, earned his BFA from Alfred University and his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. But his street cred in this community isn’t limited to his beautiful work; it sparkles through the students he’s taught over the last three decades. One of his current students, Danielle, was busy at work on an intricate haunted house when I interviewed Berti in the ceramics lab at Parkland College. Berti’s students, from beginners to the more advanced artists, delight in his non-nonsense inspiration. Berti is a treasured artist and colleague at Parkland and his retirement, while well-deserved, will be a hard loss for those of us privileged enough to work with him.

Image of Chris Berti, smiling, in front of multiple photographs and clay pieces strewn about in his colorful study.

Chris Berti in his studio in Urbana, photo courtesy of Laura O’Donnell.

Berti’s selections for this year’s Ceramics Biennial represent some of the best and brightest ceramics artists in the nation, notably Cleveland, Ohio native, and Penland School veteran Jenny Mendes, whose works in the show include Fawn, Butterfly, and Spiral Theory, all terracotta pieces, electric fired with underglaze and terra sigillata. The movement and colors of these pieces are enough to bring you to the Giertz all by themselves. But placed in proximity to Janis Mars Wunderlich’s (Assistant Professor of Art at Monmouth College), multidimensional multi-fired ceramic characters, makes the exhibit all the more memorable.

Wunderlich’s pieces in the show, including The Embrace, Release, Rocking the Boat, and Vulnerabilities will take you to another realm of imagination. Beyond Alice’s rabbit hole and through Frodo’s forests, Wunderlich’s characters keep revealing more and more story elements the closer you look as you study these stunning figures. As is the case with most vibrant visual art, words cannot suffice: you have to immerse yourself in these to grasp their complex beauty.

Whimsical image of a pot with a lid in the shape of a bandit robbing a train amidst the brown and white train with colorful white clouds on a blue background. Photo by Amy Penne.

Peter Jadoonath, Train Bandit Box,  2021. Earthenware with underglaze. © Peter Jadoonath. Photo by Amy Penne.

But don’t get so distracted by the size and scope of Wunderlich’s pieces or those of Brouillard’s that you miss the whimsy of one of my favorite pieces in the show, Minnesota native Peter Jadoonath’s Train Bandit Box, an earthenware with underglaze piece that will delight you on every level. As Jadoonath notes in his artist statement, “I focus on making pots that are cartoons and cartoons that are pots.”

Wisconsin native William Brouillard’s large red earthenware with majolica glazing fired to CO4 oxidation is far more than the sum of those parts. His attention to detail on both sides of his platters reveals intense playfulness and multilayered meaning in his Steam-Punk Buddha and the Wizard of Oz-inspired Myth of Technology. Spend time engaging in the stories he tells on these colorful and thought-provoking pieces.

Blue and white large platter with a mechanical steam-punk rendering of a Buddha head in silver and blue. Photo by Amy Penne,

William Brouillard, Steam-Punk Buddha (back), 2018. Red earthenware with majolica glazing. © William Brouillard. Photo by Amy Penne.

All of the artists in this exhibit, including those already mentioned and Rickie Barnett, Joe Bova, Lynne Hobaica, Kirk Lyttle, Tilla Rodemann, and Rimas VisGirda come with beautiful stories and work, captured in the exhibition catalog designed by Parkland’s talented treasure, Gabrielle Rodmaker, on sale in the Giertz Gallery. Berti’s curatorial essay notes that some of the “sculptors and vessel makers in the exhibition include animated figures painted or drawn on the surface of flat or three-dimensional forms, while others create purely sculptural forms. All make expressive use of the clay medium together with rich glaze or finished ceramic surfaces to give their work resonance.” One of those smaller expressive pieces, Rimas Visgirda’s Seriously Blonde, invites the viewer to get up close and personal with this porcelain with impurities, hand-rolled tile, wax inlay drawing, glaze, decals, overglazes, lusters, gold luster, tile on board. All 15 x 10 inches of Visgirda’s imaginative tile bursts forth with his emphasis on “the culture I live in, the machine age, the urban environment, the media…and fad and fashion.”

I know I say this in nearly every exhibit I’m privileged to cover for Smile Politely, but the artistic talent and ingenuity in Champaign-Urbana provide this community with bountiful creativity and connection. Chris Berti concurred and added that there is a pronounced sense of “stylization…humor and sophistication and emotion” in each and every piece in the show. The talent in this community is likewise a rich combination of playful design mixed with more serious foundational work. 

The Living World in Clay: 2021 State of the Art Ceramics Biennial
Curated by Chris Berti
The Giertz Gallery at Parkland College
2400 W Bradley Ave., Chamapign
October 25th through February 5th, 2022
Gallery Hours: M-W, 10 .am.-5 p.m.; Th, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat, noon-2 p.m.

Top photo of Vulnerabilities (front and back), Janis Mars Wunderlich, 2017. Mulit-fired ceramic.  © Janis Mars Wunderlich, by Amy Penne.

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