While she may not yet be a pillar of the community, ceramics artist Hester Nelson can at least provide pillars for the community. Born and raised in Washington, Nelson has spent nearly all of her 30 years in Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant, and she's just been commissioned to create a custom ceramic environment in nearby Lamont Park.
"I live in the neighborhood, always have," says Nelson with pride. "The park is at the intersection of Lamont, 17th and Mount Pleasant streets, and when the call for submissions came, I knew I wanted the commission."
The most visible element of the work, scheduled for completion in October, will be two 10-foot columns bridged by a carved trellis of rosewood, forming a gateway into the park. They'll be the tallest of the more than 250 columns Nelson estimates having thrown, carved, fired, painted and installed over the past 10 years, including two on view in Alexandria's King Street Metro station.
Nelson's only time away from Washington was spent studying ceramics at the Kansas Art Institute. "During my senior year I started experimenting with different shapes and started throwing these columns, about five feet tall. They got a lot of attention," Nelson says with a smile and a shrug in her downtown warehouse studio. "I've been doing them ever since. People seem to see something in them they like."
They've liked them well enough for Nelson to make a living with her art, though she admits her private commissions sometimes don't give her a chance to express herself.
"But that's what's great about the Lamont Park project," she says. "I'm really going to stretch."
Nelson's proposal to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for the park was chosen over 100 other entrants and four semifinalists. It includes the gateway, a ceramic tile path snaking from the gate to a stage at the other end of the park, and tiles covering the stage's vertical surfaces. "My artwork is not going to dominate the park," Nelson promises. "I'm hoping to enhance the space and increase the sense of community."
In her studio, Nelson is well into the work, though she has yet to sign a contract with the city. She shrugs off the vagaries of bureaucracy with a smile, then points to the tiles already carved. "I draw from a lot of sources for my patterns," she says, "but I've been influenced by Mayan and Aztec geometries ... with some contemporary Southwestern designs in there too." The round tiles -- manhole-size at 22 inches in diameter and about four inches thick -- are strewn about in various stages of drying, each covered with an intricate design, no two the same.
In a kiln, baking at 2,050 degrees, is a two-foot carved section of pillar that will be painted and glazed before installation. To assemble the hollow pillars on the site, Nelson has devised an intricate system using steel beams and construction foam inside the columns to stabilize them. Glue and clamps will hold the sections together.
The name of Nelson's one-woman outfit is Architectural Ceramics, which she says defines her pretty well. "I've been influenced by Peter King and Marni Jani, both great ceramic artists who work with architects and designers, but I have my own perspective," says Nelson, explaining that growing up in Washington was critical to her sensibilities. "I've been taking photos of the buildings here since I was 14. The keystones, the columns, the doorways. It really is a monumental city."
While Nelson's output includes tiled fireplace fronts, tables, sconces and outdoor planters -- all carved with her singular designs -- she says she's feeling the need to branch out. "I think my work will be taking an organic turn. I've been dreaming of huge seashells that I could make from ceramic. But I'm also fascinated with machinery, cogs and gears," she says. "... I think my columns and my patterns look like something out of the past. They seem ancient somehow. Maybe I have to go into the future now."
The National Endowment for the Arts is accepting applications for its WritersCorps community service program, a partnership with the Associated Writing Programs. Sixty writers will work at inner-city schools and community centers for up to a year. The deadline for applications is Aug. 12. Call 703-993-4301 for more information ... The Greater Reston Art Center has named Diane Arkin its executive director, replacing Judith Forst. Arkin will oversee GRACE's planned programming expansion and its scheduled move to a larger space ... The Korean Artists Association of the Greater Washington Area is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an exhibit at the Studio Gallery through Aug 28. A reception and talk by the featured artists is scheduled for Aug. 19 ... To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria asked area art professors to recommend artists born 20 years ago for its anniversary show. See the works of these young artists through Sept. 4.