The poet Christina Rossetti asked rhetorically "Who has seen the wind?" Look at Ash Houses, a ceramic ensemble by Chris Rupp, and see the wind made visible through the artist's imagination. And why not, on a day when a meteor flashed into earth's atmosphere, briefly visible from the CN Tower in Toronto and felt in two countries. According to NASA scientists, it detonated over the upstate New York city where I live.
These little ceramic houses would fit in among the fairy tale forests of the painter Chaim Soutine. Soutine's signature use of impasto and the resulting compulsive and sinuous rhythms that flowed from his brush created forests of sleepy trees and animated houses that seemed to sway with the wind.
Rupp's Ash Houses is a visual display of the glazes that can be made with burning vegetation. Ash glazes are made from the remains of organic matter, usually burned wood or straw, For millennia they were the source of glazes used by East Asian potters. Ash glazing began around 1500 BCE during the Shang Dynasty in Chinas.
Most ash glazes belong to the lime family of ceramic oxides. Usually the ash was mixed with water or clay and applied to the already fired vessel. The proportions of various chemicals give characteristic colors to a glaze. A high proportion of wood ash results in browns and greens, rice straw which is high in silica produces a creamy white glaze, and a very thick glaze of rice husks containing phosphorous results in opalescent blue.
The Russian born Soutine is usually associated with the School of Paris, a group of artists from other countries who came together in Montparnasse in the years before World War I. Soutine and the others, including Modigliani, were very poor indeed, so poor that when the American collector Albert C. Barnes was shown Soutine's work for the first time and bought sixty Soutine paintings at one go, the artist grabbed the money and ran out into the street where he commandeered a taxi to drive him from Paris to Nice immediately! Then thanks to the patronage of interior designer Madeleine Castaing, Soutine was saved from a life of penury, allowing him to paint without pressure. In the estimation of his felow artists, Chaim Soutine was the first among equals.
Christopher Rupp is a California ceramicist and member of the faculty at Westmont College in Santa Barbara.
Image: Chris Rupp - Ash Houses, 2020, ceramic with ash glazes, courtesy of Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara.