June 30, 2005
Attired in a pair of baggy khaki shorts, a
burnt orange t-shirt and cross trainers,
32-year-old clay artist Charlie Cummings recently
sat calm, cool and collected, ensconced before a
computer in the minimally air-conditioned office
of his Clay Studio and Gallery complex on South
At mid-afternoon the outside temperature was
stuck in the 90s with a corresponding level of
humidity, giving everything the sticky quality of
a soggy Post-It note.
Reminded that he should be at home with such
oven-heated conditions - he is after all a
potter/sculptor who spends considerable time
around very hot kilns and ovens - Cummings
related an incident from 1999 in Berea, Kentucky
when he conducted an outdoor workshop.
"The temperature was 116. I think it's still the
record there," he recalled, "and I was wearing a
heavy, heat-resistant apron with gloves working
before this wood fueled oven."
Cummings doesn't do the "If you want to talk
about 'hot' thing." This articulate,
self-effacing artist instead despairs of the
amount of time he's forced to spend in the office
keeping his website (www.claylink.com) current,
printing mailing labels, fielding phone calls and
dealing with an interviewer, tasks that keep him
away from his nearby studio and his passion for
He wasn't really kvetching as much as making a
statement about the price hes paying for the
success and recognition he's experienced in the
past four years at his studio, where he offers
classes, access, apprenticeships and residencies,
and the notoriety of his gallery exhibitions, in
addition to the acclaim he's garnered from the
sales of his own work.
Taken together these distinctly different
activities propel Cummings in disparate
directions. His gallery has become a regional, if
not national, hub for the display of the works of
many of the country's best-known ceramicists. The
current show featuring Erin Furimsky and Tyler
Lotz closes at the end of the month and will be
followed by a solo show, the 32nd at the gallery,
by Petra Kralickova, "Intimation of Remembrance,"
which is scheduled to open July 9. Following that
solo show will be the 21-member group invited to
participate in the "Teapot Invitational" for a
three-week run beginning September 10.
The volume of business with a West Coast
postcard printer has earned him a "preferred"
status and discounts. His familiarity and
personal relationships with many of the artists
in his stable helped him garner an invitation to
curate a show at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art,
"Contemporary Functional Ceramics: Transcending
Utilitarian Concerns," which will open August 20
and continue through the end of October in the
museum's main gallery.
The museum exhibition includes a panel
discussion, with Cummings as a moderator, on the
subject of "craft versus art." Such appearances
are not unusual for the artist who makes several
each year, the most recent in Baltimore, where he
delivered a workshop on entrepreneurialism.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, the field of
ceramics - functional, sculptural or whatever -
is typically driven by academics," he explained.
"College graduates, if they stick with what they
know, end up in the most accessible market for
their skills, and that traditionally is in an
academic setting. They gravitate to places where
they have access to facilities, ovens, spaces,
etc., and that's where they stay."
What Cummings has been able to develop - the
combination of teaching classes, offering
exhibits in his gallery and the ability to pursue
his own artistic interests simultaneously - is
largely a rarity in his world of clay.
Cummings' sculptural pieces, as opposed to his
functional pottery, are distinct in style as well
as in technique. The formula is not simple.
"Making multiples of a form allows me to explore
variations of a theme and build relationships
between individual pieces," writes Cummings. "I
modify photographic images, which I then use to
make plastic stencils. I use the stencils to
apply slip images to the forms. The surface is
then dry-brushed to bring out the textures and
lines created when the first layer of slip is
applied. The images become subtle textures on the
surface of the form."
"I choose images that have many levels of
meaning, both historically and personally. Images
that represent isolation, connectedness,
transformation, ephemerality [sic],
predestination, choice and opposition are used to
convey the things that drive individuals and the
way they interact with others."
The artist's choice of icons and symbols are
familiar: butterflies, skull and crossbones,
playing card suits, chess pieces and dominoes.
"I ask my viewers to bring something to the
table," he explained. "I need to them buy into
the images and then work to make connections with
sometimes some disparate images. Butterflies
conjure ideas of freedom, lightness, etc. My
series of elongated, stretched forms represent
for me the human form."
The domino series can be particularly revealing
of the artist's interests and reoccurs in several
themed works and in his installations. Wherever
the origins of dominoes began, it is generally
agreed upon that they were extracted from dice.
Used as a game of chance and skill or in
divination rituals, they remain universal icons.
No zeros are represented in Eastern sets, but
they are included in the Western version, which
is based on a cycle of 28. An amusing anecdote
tells the story that the game was popular with
Catholic monks (translated from the Latin, domino
can mean either 'Oh Lord' or 'I am the Lord.')
who kept vows of silence. When, however, one was
declared a winner, he would be allowed to exclaim
Cummings plays with his dominoes in unique ways
but always within the rules of his own making. He
substitutes the plain markings or dots with
subtle and repetitive images like the skull and
crossbones, butterflies and his patented
elongated bowling pins. When arranged as in a
game or other constructions, these over-sized
pieces (the large ones can weigh up to 50 pounds)
join in patterns that are both challenging and
"This body of work is an expression of my
curiosity about the inner life of others,"
Cummings elaborated. "On the surface and at our
core we are all the same, but somewhere in
between we find potential for infinite
variations. This work captures the vague sense of
familiarity and foreignness inherent in our
Will success spoil Cummings? He doesn't appear
to be running out of ideas or energy even in
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