Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Charlie Cummings


David Tanner

Whatzup Features Writer

Published June 30, 2005

Heads Up! This article is 17 years old.

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

Clinton Street.

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

creating.

He wasn’t really kvetching as much as making a

statement about the price he’s 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

“Domino!”

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

pleasing.

“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

interactions.”

Will success spoil Cummings? He doesn’t appear

to be running out of ideas or energy even in

sweltering conditions.

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