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Barbara Sorensen: Nature Artist

One could argue that nature was the first artist – carving astonishing structures into wind-battered limestone, tracing the marks of absent currents in dry riverbeds, drawing traceries of shadows on moonlit fields and filigree patterns on icy windows. Such creations, both ephemeral and enduring, have long served as inspirations for artists of the human variety.

One such human, Barbara Sorensen, has been working for forty years-first clay, and more recently resin and bronze-to create works that share nature’s process of change, metamorphosis and ebb and flow. A student of ceramic masters like Peter Voulkos, Rudy Autio and Paul Soldner, she draws from the vessel tradition. She makes it her own by fashioning evocative forms that conjure poetic images drawn from nature and human culture. Sorensen’s works evoke a wide range of associations, encompassing landscape forms like dunes, foothills and volcanoes, human artifacts like boats, shields, and dwellings, and human figures, which seem to be both emerging from and merging with the earth from which they spring.

Sorensen’s origins as a clay sculptor are evident everywhere in her work. For many years she worked exclusively with clay, reveling in its malleability, its responsiveness to human touch and its transformative power. In material terms, the clay presented a connection with the earth, as the material from which life emerges and to which it returns. Conceptually, it offered her a way to explore the idea of vessels as containers of spirit. As a result, her works have an organic vitality, suggesting things that grow and change. More recently she has branched out to other materials, notably resin and bronze, which allow her to maintain her visual vocabulary while going larger, and lighter and permit more interaction between sky and earth.

This survey of Sorensen’s works reveals a protean imagination that remains based in what she refers to as her “classical” tendencies. These tendencies manifest in a variety of ways – in the evocation of archeological artifacts and archetypal imagery, in her devotion to simple yet multiply associative forms, and in the simple elegance of her compositions. Sorensen cites Brancusi as an important influence and delves, as he did, into the margins between abstraction and representation, landscape and figure, memory and imagination.

Among the works here are Sorensen’s Goddesses, figural works which seem to be growing out of the earth. They represent a psychic change in Sorensen’s life, emerging from a time when she felt herself changing and becoming empowered as an artist and a person. These sculptures are anything but static. As they twist and stretch, these abstracted, elongated female forms represent an ideal of life as a process of continual transformation.

Sorensen’s other figural works share this quality. She has also fashioned works she labels Caryatids, Muses and Sirens. Blending the vessel and the female body, these embody a feminine spirit celebrating the generative processes of woman and artist.

Other works here offer approximations of natural phenomena that Sorensen has encountered while hiking in the landscape. Her Wind sculptures, fashioned from resin, rope and wood, are like tiny funnel clouds that sway and tilt in response to unseen environmental forces. Sorensen notes that they were inspired in part from the lilting movement of cattails. Curiously, as these are among her more recent works and do not employ clay, they bear a striking resemblance to coiled clay pots. Sorensen’s Pools, employing the same materials, are larger and more vortex-like, suggesting whirlpools drawing energy into a deeply recessed center. The shadows they cast on the wall recall ripples of water expanding outward from these disturbances. Dunes offer similar forms, but reversed-the coiling protrusions now suggest the shifting shapes of sand dunes blown here and there by the wind.

Ledges speak of the way water and wind shape sturdier matter. Fashioned from stoneware inset with metal and stones, these works evoke the striated shapes of eroded stone outcroppings in Zion National Park in Utah, where she likes to hike. Foothills change the scale, presenting grids of stoneware blocks whose undulating surfaces bring to mind the rolling contours of the land formations for which they are named.

Other works draw on human history and our impressions of human artifacts. The stoneware Boats grew out of the vessel form, this time transformed into solids that suggest inverted mountains. Hung from the ceiling, they cast dancing shadows on the floor. Conceptually, they conjure the idea of travel and movement.

The round stoneware Shields suggest archeological artifacts whose weathered surfaces have been reshaped by time and the elements. In fact they, along with a concurrent series of monotypes, are inspired by the gently decaying stucco farm houses that Sorensen observed in the Pyrenees. In both these bodies of work, architectural details like crumbling window sashes and sagging roofs, fall away, leaving us with an organic geometry that speaks of memory and change.

Sorensen’s Dwellings reveal how new materials create new possibilities. These works, also in vessel form, suggest bundles of pure energy expanding funnel-like from a narrow bottom to an expansive top. Created from shaped wire, they operate like three-dimensional drawings in which interior and exterior are indistinguishable. In their open-ness, they present a way to think about the places our bodies and spirits inhabit. They are also distinguished from Sorensen’s other works by their festive colors, a signal, possibly, of a new direction in her work.

Recently, Sorensen has begun to experiment with the addition of video to her sculptural installations. In part, this is an effort to introduce literal movement into forms that are inspired by a sense of life’s energy and flux. Through the video, Sorensen’s Dunes and Dwellings come alive as they are overlaid with transient images that suggest the shifting currents of water and wind.

Such works reveal that Sorensen’s ultimate subject, growth and change. Movement and energy are the essence of life, characteristics of both the physical world surrounding us and our own interior landscape. Sorensen’s works breathe with this truth; in turn, they convey this truth to us.

Eleanor Heartney, Art Critic and Author