I always enjoy meeting an artist as I’m introduced to their work, it gives a little bit more context to the work and it’s just nice to see the personality behind the art. I bring this up because that’s exactly how I met today’s interview, Darla Jackson. It was at a recent event at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, shout out to that awesome space, when I was drawn to a table of these brilliant animal sculptures. A soft black color that gently reflected the light to reveal the intricacy of the sculpture, her pieces were mesmerizing and certain qualities made the medium a bit of a mystery. This was yet another advantage of meeting the artist on the spot, as I immediately had answers to all of my questions. I found out that the originals were solid ceramic, I emphasize solid because that’s atypical for ceramic, and that the pieces were coated in graphite. These two factors that added an uncommon weight, texture, and feel to the sculptures allowed them to exist as an ambiguous material which, to me, highlighted the work itself. Sometimes in art, especially sculpture, I find that a lot of people’s judgements are based on how the artist manipulated a certain material but when that material is unclear, it adds mystery to the piece and highlights the details in a different way.
Needless to say, once I got that introduction to Jackson’s work I was hooked. I did a deep dive into her body of work and it only added to my fascination. There’s so many facets that make her work exciting: the process of her small sculptures, her relief panels, the coating process of certain works, the mold making/casting of others, there’s just so much that she does! But I’d kick myself if I didn’t mention the massive, SOLID ceramic animal sculptures that she’s done. It is absolutely mind blowing the detail and care that is put into these massive pieces that are sculpted way outside of the traditional fashion. Jackson’s sculpting interests me not only because it’s rad, but also because she knowingly ignores “the rules” of the mediums she uses, so I was thrilled to get to chat with her about her process, styles, and so much more! She gave a great interview that tells more about the work than I ever could, enjoy!
1. I always open with background, so what got you into art? Any schooling? Big Inspirations? What shaped you into the artist that you are today?
I’ve been interested in art as long as I can remember and pursued it while in high school. I ended up at Moore College of Art because I thought I wanted to be a graphic designer. I realized very quickly that it wasn’t a good fit for me, and moved over to the Fine Arts. Sculpture was exciting to me because of all the possibilities (wood, metal, clay, etc) and I tried it all for a while. I love metal working but it was clay sculpture that won my heart. Working with clay felt like making a direct impression of what I was feeling. I was able to form it in a way that felt like the best fit for what I was trying to say and that feeling carried throughout my career.
2. Diving right into your ceramics, tell me about your beginnings in the medium. What drew you towards ceramics? How did you get into the detailed work that you do in ceramics? (Nerdy question) Are you a fancy ceramic tool user or do you just kind of use your hands and whatever you like to work in those details?
Just to clarify, I love clay for its ability to hold an impression, however I do not consider myself a ceramicist. Ceramicists seem, to me, to know the boundless secrets and science of clay and kiln firing. I am a mold maker. What this means is I use the clay as a means to an end. I sculpt my piece in clay, keeping it wet the entire time, until I am finished. Once I’m done I will then make a mold…usually a rubber mold out of silicone or polyurethane rubber with a plaster mother mold (aka the “shell” that keeps the rubber in place). The original clay piece is destroyed and I then use the molds to cast plaster or Hydrocal versions of the piece. This allows me to work in multiples and have small editions of works. But to answer your question about working the clay, I feel like the clay, being so easy to manipulate, is the best way to express my ideas. I can work large or small and I understand how to move the clay in a way that will show things from the smallest details to larger forms. I start with my hands always, getting down the basic shape. Then I begin working with tools. I work primarily with wooden and steel tools but I will use whatever I need to get the texture or forms that I want. And I LOVE process. I am a nut for process, whether it's sculpture process or mold making and casting process. I love experimenting with a variety of materials and techniques.
3. Your work is heavily driven by anatomy, both human and non-human, so what drew you towards this particular imagery? How has your use of these images developed over time?
I am someone who is fairly empathetic. I imagine how people and animals feel, so I've always felt connected to representational artwork. The ideas and emotions I’m trying to convey are best shown through recognizable forms. And while in my own work I am more concerned with getting a realistic feel through accurate size and proportion, I don’t live and die by anatomy. I use anatomy as a guide to make the piece feel right. In the beginning I followed anatomy books so closely in some work and it felt stiff and awkward to me. In other work, I wouldn’t follow it at all and it got too round and weird overall. I’ve learned to use it as a guide but to use my eye to find the forms I want to convey. I teach figure and animal sculpture classes at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Stockton University and Fleisher Art Memorial and love teaching anatomy and proportion.
4. Further, what inspires the imagery for each piece? What is your process like from there? Are you a big planner in your sculpting or do you just organically morph and shape everything into what you want it to be?
My imagery usually begins one of two ways… I will either see an image of an animal in a certain pose and it will inspire an idea based on the body language they are displaying, or, more frequently, I get an idea for a piece based on an emotion or idea and search out reference images that fit the idea I have for the piece. I sketch the idea and research images. Sometimes I will make a maquette but I generally like to get right to sculpting. If I am working on a larger piece I will draw it to scale to get proportions right before I begin the clay. I tend to work very intuitively, with a lot of staring at the piece and seeing what it needs. Sometimes I’ll change the pose if it doesn’t feel right but usually the work ends up pretty close to the original sketch.
5. You've got two different sides to your ceramic work, the free standing sculpture and the relief carving type of sculpture. What are the big narrative, or conceptual differences and similarities in these two styles of work? How do the processes of creation differ?
I work more easily in the realm of three-dimensional or free standing work. I feel like things that exist in our space are more likely to elicit realistic reactions or emotions. That being said, working in relief makes ideas that would be a logistical nightmare as a free standing sculpture possible (i.e. the piece I did that is two skeletons in embrace). I like to move back and forth between the two forms, however most of my work in free standing. I love the physicality it has and I think that adds a depth and a connection with the viewer by existing in their space.
6. When we met, you mentioned that you don't typically fire your ceramic work. What pushed you away from firing? Does this mean all of your work is solid all the way through? Do you find working without firing makes the ceramic process easier or more difficult? Do you think the delicacy of unfired clay adds to your work in any way?
Early in my sculpture career I learned mold making and did very little firing work because the few pieces I did fire blew up. I learned later that it was because the person firing the pieces was putting them in the kiln super wet…big mistake. Despite knowing that I am still apprehensive to fire anything. However, I just did a whole series of 31 dead birds where each of the pieces is a one of a kind original that is to be fired. So fingers crossed.
7. You also mentioned that you coat your ceramic pieces to give them texture and a different feel, can you give a little more detail on what you coat your works in? And what this adds/how this changes the pieces?
I finish all my pieces with a raw graphite powder rub, which takes them from a flat black to something where all the reflected light (off the shine of the graphite) shows off the details really beautifully. The finished look is something like cast iron. The unfortunate side effect is that the graphite can transfer to your hands. This doesn’t hurt the piece, however it can get on your skin and clothes…normally this would not be a big deal but I once had my work as part of a wedding photo shoot and the bride nearly ended up covered in graphite.
8. You also cast and make replicas of your works, what is this process like for you? When a piece is cast, does the ceramic original and multiple casts exist separately? Or is the original just a means of making a few casts?
For me the process starts with making that clay original. It’s important to my process that the clay doesn’t dry out because while it's wet, the clay is nonporous. Once the original is finished, I start the mold making process where the piece is prepped to be coated in rubber. I use primarily silicone rubber and paint the layers on one at a time, building up a thickness. Once the rubber is finished, I make a plaster mother mold, which keeps the rubber in place. I then take the whole mold apart, usually destroying the original, and clean up and prep the mold for casting. I usually cast in Hydrocal but have often cast in resins and expanding foams, as well as wax for bronze. Usually I make an edition, meaning I will only cast so many of the sculptures before the mold is retired.
9. You've got some massive pieces, is pushing the scale of ceramic a big part of your work? Does the weight of these pieces become a hindrance to the final product? Are these pieces made to be cast or do you use the clay original? Or does it vary?
I love working large. I find that it's often easier for me to work at this scale in terms of how I work with the clay. The funny thing is often, though not always, the large pieces are quite light in terms of their weight. This is because I sculpt the clay original and then make a rubber mold. This allows me to cast the piece in lighter materials, such as polyurethane resin, but still have the option to cast it in something like bronze if a client wanted a more durable material. I also cast large pieces in Hydrocal, an industrial strength gypsum product. My partner Paul Romano and I made a life-size lioness sculpture that we cast in Hydrocal at the end of 2019. It is heavy and takes 6 people to move it comfortably, so yes this can definitely limit how often we can move it or show it.
As to the clay originals, they are destroyed in the mold making process, so the clay is always a means to an end. Sometimes I save fragments of the original, but rarely does it go any further than just being another weird thing I have around the studio!
10. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find your work? Any shows/events coming up? Anything you'd like to share and anywhere people can find you, fire away!
As to shows, I am currently in a show “Assemblage” at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Paul (@workhardened) and I are getting work ready for upcoming shows at Paradigm Gallery in February and Arch Enemy Arts in April.
I’ll be releasing some dates soon for sculpting and moldmaking workshops that I’m offering this year, as well as a few other things in the works for the rest of 2020, so stay tuned!