Earth, Wind, & Fire

Christopher: "Things happen in the fire"
Michael Dvorak

Mahtomedi is an inspired location for an artist's home studio. The small city of 7,300 on the shores of White Bear Lake has a placid air to it and isn't burdened with the infestation of fiberglass Charlie Browns that afflicts the capital city a few minutes down the road. If you aren't paying close attention, you'll get lost in Mahtomedi among lanes named for the ubiquitous trees--Maple Street, Hardwood Lane, Laurel Road. In fact, the view from 52-year-old ceramist/sculptor Kate Christopher's studio window is filled with flaming tree branches that overhang a lily-pad-covered body of water.

"I am very happy to be here," says Christopher from her studio one sunny fall afternoon. "I call this my Monet pond."

A former vocational-education teacher, Christopher has found success making art in Mahtomedi. In August she won first prize in the sculpture category at the Minnesota State Fair. Her small, two-foot-high humanoid figures are idealized and bald-headed, rudimentary in gestures and stance. Their torsos blend into a round column of clay and their arms are glued to their sides. The colors are the most striking thing about the pieces: smoky ochers and umbers, bloody reds, and faint chemical greens and blues splashed onto the ivory clay beneath.

In her studio next to the kitchen of her house, dappled light comes up from the pond water. The plywood floor of the room is covered with a drippy crust of dried clay. On tables, sheets of plastic cover half-sculpted clay slabs. There are piles of clay-covered tools of plastic and wood. An outdoor kiln sits at the bottom of a small rise, 30 yards from the house and a few feet from the reedy shore of the pond. Christopher pulls a plastic sheet off a female form that she calls "a depressed angel." She works her hands on various parts of the figure's body in an absentminded way. As a rule, Christopher hand-builds her pieces, adding clay heads, arms, and the like to a round hollow slab of clay and shaping the whole with her fingers and various tools. "I'm just trying to find her in this block of clay," she says.

It doesn't take a religious scholar to know that clay plays a role in many stories of creation. Adam was shaped from clay, as was the golem of Jewish lore. In Plains Indian myth, Old Man made First Man from a lump of clay. Certainly, among the oldest extant artworks are clay figurines found at archaeological sites. There is an element of mysticism to clay, and to the notion that someone can create a bright and colorful form from a shapeless lump using the alchemy of earth, fire, and air.

"One reason I like firing the outside kiln," says Christopher, "is it gives my figures the sense that they've lived through something. When I fire it, I often wonder: Will they live? What will they be?"

Christopher goes on to describe the process of creation: In the loose-brick kiln fitted with two propane burners, she places her clay forms in a bed of sawdust, dried organic matter, shredded magazine pages, and other items. As these burn, they leave carbon and other chemical colors on the clay. Christopher starts her firing at around 4:30 a.m. so as not to disturb her neighbors with the flames and dense smoke that shoot from the cracks in the bricks. We go to look at the kiln, and the scene is one of burned-out destruction on a small scale. Ashes and soot, charred animal bones, and discolored copper tubing fill the bottom of the card-table-size square of bricks.

"Things happen in the fire that are way beyond your control," Christopher says with a secret smile.

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