Impermanent Beauty: A Senior Art Thesis

Alex Anderson sits perfect postured on a stool, legs crossed so one knee sits over the other and his right foot bobs off the ground.  His black leather shoe is clean of the red dust that covers the floor of his studio space.  His hair in its trademark right triangle has been carefully teased and groomed into sharp diagonal slope.

He purses his lips, then speaks.

“Beauty is the first thing people see.  It draws them into a subject.”

Anderson’s manicured appearance hints at a preoccupation with externality evident in his ceramics.  About two dozen of the artist’s vases, teapots, and abstract sculptures will be displayed in his upcoming show as a part of the annual exhibition of works by studio arts majors.

Though most of his works are based on the functional forms of vases and teapots, all are heavily ornamented or stylized to the extent that they would look out of place in most American homes.

“When making my pieces, I don’t really think about function,” Anderson said.  “The forms are just a medium I like to work with.  Some people have described my pieces as nonfunctional,” he laughed.

Rather than focus on functionality, Anderson uses ceramics as conceptual art.  By depriving previously functional objects of their utility, Anderson creates forms that foreground their relationship to aesthetics, investigating the nature of beauty.

Anderson’s exposure to ceramics came late, but his passion for the craft blossomed quickly. He took a ceramics class in his junior year of high school to fulfill a graduation requirement in the arts.  He soon became enraptured by the process of shaping clay on the potter’s wheel and began investing his time in improving his technique.

“I’d stay in the school’s studio till the security guard kicked me out,” he laughed.

Anderson continued his study at Swarthmore, pursuing a studio arts major along with a major in Chinese.  His language study came in handy when he went abroad to China in the fall of his junior year, studying in Jingdezhen, often referred to as the “city of porcelain” for its century-long history of ceramics production.

“Being there I realized how little I knew,” Anderson said.  “It was a humbling experience.  I saw people making fifty pound bowls in five minutes, when I couldn’t even do that in ten times the time.”

Anderson’s time in China also exposed him to many techniques that would find their way into his work.  He learned how to hand roll clay flowers and expanded his knowledge of spinning techniques to create smoother, more elegant forms.  Working around so many other artists also pushed him to integrate more conceptual angles into his work.

One of his most confrontational works, a jar with a recently dead bird splayed belly-up on its lid, points to the ephemeral beauty of living things.  As shocking as the dead animal is, its body has yet to decay and the bird is still delicate, freshly feathered, and aesthetically pleasant.

The bird, captured in this moment just after its death, evokes another theme important to Anderson’s recent oeuvre — that only the inanimate can be eternally sublime.

On his artist blog, which Anderson sometimes utilizes as a venue for the thoughts that thematically guide his works, he posted the following: “Flowers wilt, trees rot, people wrinkle; yet throughout this process we strive to progress and present our most perfect selves to the world the way a rose continues to bud after it drops a blossom.”

This insight is manifested throughout Anderson’s work.  The flowers he hand sculpts all grow from inorganic vases and bases, pediments that the viewer realizes would long outlive their organic attachments.  But these organic forms are themselves artificial.  These blooms will last decades, but they lose the preciousness, the delicacy of their real-life counterparts.  Only the inanimate beauty can last forever, but it’s not the same as the real thing.

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