Baking life

October 31, 2013

Wayne Higby’s “Pictorial Lake” (Steve Myers)

The jagged lines and earthy hues of Wayne Higby’s ceramic vessels echo the Colorado canyons and valleys where he grew up.

To Higby, 70, they’re more than pretty pottery. He calls them “mind-scapes”: works that invite viewers to ponder the physical and metaphysical worlds as they study the pieces.

There’s plenty to ponder at the Renwick Gallery. The branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates Higby’s creations in “Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby,” a collection of more than 60 pieces, models, photos and drawings.

Early in his career, Higby became obsessed with the bowl form, studying it over time “like a musician might investigate a certain piece by Chopin,” he says. Higby’s work has since evolved from raku earthenware — pieces pulled from the kiln red-hot and rapidly cooled — to architectural installations, represented in the show by photos and models.

The exhibit’s centerpiece is 2012’s “Infinitas,” an 8-foot square of red tiles glazed with drops of mother-of-pearl and hanging on cables. It’s designed to conjure images of a waterfall, as a “meditation on impermanence,” Higby says.

“It’s like a bucket of glitter has spilled,” he says. “It takes me into the magical aspects of landscapes and landscape phenomena.”

While he’s still teaching, at Alfred University in New York state, and making art, seeing his life’s work on display felt like looking at something assembled after he’d died, Higby says.

“That was a strange experience,” he says. “But also a happy suffering.”

Pictorial Lake
Higby’s raku-fired, landscape-inspired boxes — like this one — and bowls were his signature form in the 1970s and ’80s, says curator Peter Held. They typically feature white, earthen and vibrantly colored glazes.

EarthCloud
This architectural piece, which exhibition curator Peter Held calls Higby’s “tour de force,” took about 10 years to complete and spans two buildings at Alfred University, where Higby teaches. The exhibition features large photographs of the permanent installation, which is made up of 12,000 hand-cut porcelain bricks and tiles.

Renwick Gallery, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; through Dec. 8, free; 202-633-7970. (Farragut West)

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