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The Matriculation of the Vessel

There is no doubt that the power of the earth is enmeshed in Barbara Sorensen’s works. There is a tactile quality in all her clay pieces that speak of the cragginess and topography of our environment. Even her Pools and Dunes, although made out of different materials, suggest the envelope of the earth: its currents and vortexes. Her aluminum pieces, Dwellings, seem delicate, almost lighter than air, another aspect of the earth. But there is another reference detected in Sorensen’s works when seen in a comprehensive collection. From 1993 until today, there is a sense of a seminal shape, the vessel form, developing. It begins as a bud, a tight fist, and as it slowly matures, grows open to release its mystic power.

Sorensen may have chosen the vessel form from her own feminine sensitivity or because of its eternal qualities. It was an intuitive choice. Through her artistic odyssey, she has used it as a metaphor for both reality and the spiritual. Early on, her production centered on smaller shapes-Pandora’s Boxes-rough, bulging chests encrusted with jagged gems, only hinting of the treasure of gilt and azure paint inside. This vessel, prickly on the outside and internally rich, seems metaphorically to be a portrait of a nascent artist, a rough exterior ready for criticism hiding the sensitivity inside.

As Sorensen progressed, this tight fist of a box started to open and grow, just like the artist. Across Florida in one-person exhibitions, the evolution of the shape altered, becoming a Chalice. This bulging, open-ended vessel wasn’t meant for beverages, but rather symbolized that which nourishes the spirit. As she matured as an artist, she allowed for the Chalice form to elongate, stretch and matriculate into a Goddess, a vessel of a very different kind. It is interesting that a Pandora’s Box, named for a woman made from earth and a large jar that when opened unleashed many terrible things on mankind: ills, toils, sickness-and Hope-would eventually, in Sorensen’s hands, become a Goddess.

Sorensen, with her growing confidence and energy, allowed the vessel form to evolve into Boats and Ledges, symbols of survival and safety. As usual, the surfaces of these veritable life rafts looks corrugated and anything but buoyant, but there is more here than meets the eye. Throughout her career she has enjoyed the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi. This Eastern concept is rooted in transience, spontaneity, and suggestion of the natural process. Sorensen specifically chooses materials and processes that allow for changes during the firing. This abandon, rather than rigid control, imbues her work with visual intensity.

The culmination of Sorensen’s work could be her new series, Dwellings. The vessel shape is still inherent, but in a brand new form. These airy, colorful installations can climb over a wall or seem to tumble across the ground. Instead of clay or bronze, this powder-coated aluminum seems lighter than air and capable of weathering a nor’easter’s blast. Notice how the vessel has opened wide with no containing walls, rendering it open to interpretation on many levels. Sorensen also knows the possibilities of letting light and shadow expand sculpture. These Dwellings take on a moving panorama depending on the time and weather of the day. With these installations, the Wabi-sabi comes from the variety each day brings to the sculpture.

Barbara Sorensen understands something many artists seem to forget. All cultures have objects of ceremony, ritual, celebration and spiritual power. Sometimes our society and our artists seem to be losing these powerful traditions. Sorensen has allowed her spiritual instincts and her humanism to inform her inherent object, the vessel, to demand a response from the viewer. We, the viewers, are reminded of many things: popular culture, mythology, religion and power. Art is a form of communication, and in all times, art should offer some sustenance. Barbara Sorensen has given us symbolic imagery for an aesthetic feast.

Jan Clanton, Associate Curator Orlando Museum of Art