Curve-vase-ious: Ross bends clay and opens mouths

The passion of an 18-year-old is a force of nature. At that age, everything feels urgent, and new discoveries prompt fervent devotion. I felt that way about Georgia O’Keefe. I could not get enough of her sensuous approach to painting, and I devoured everything related to her. I even posted Alfred Stieglitz’s evocative photographs of her hands on the door of my dorm room.

So, my inner 18-year-old swooned when I learned O’Keefe inspired the 14 ceramic vases in Nancy Ross’s exhibition, “Growth,” now on view at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Responding to O’Keefe’s flower paintings, 10 of the vessels are variations on lilies and tulips; the remaining four offer colors and shapes reminiscent of O’Keefe’s abstracts and desert landscapes.

What O’Keefe effects in two dimensions, Ross creates in three: curving organic shapes that have an erotic sensibility, although nothing is overtly sexual. The almond-shaped columns of Ross’s lilies stretch upward, flaring and widening at the top where the mouths spread open. Along the vases’ twin spines and at the tips of their bases, Ross introduces subtle bends and twists.

For her tulips, Ross combines thrown pottery with slab-building technique, modeling bulbous shapes on the wheel and then adding cut pieces to form gracefully curving petals. Sinuous lines sculpted into the clay add further dimension to the basic forms, while two lips curl away from each other at the mouth of each vessels. The wonder of these particular pieces is that despite all the steps in Ross’s process—especially the fusing of the petals—the results look like organic wholes.

This lyrical unity is due in part to Ross’s skill in glazing. On the exteriors of her lilies, she plays with variations of matte turquoise, allowing green to come through along the spines. Ross shifts to a glossy copper, however, near the mouths and then moves into pale lavender, which she also uses, flecked with other colors, on the shiny interiors.

For her tulips, Ross opts for matte teal both inside and out, sometimes varying the shade on individual petals or at their tips. On two vases, “Bloom” and “Tulip Opening,” she leaves the biscuit-colored clay of the basic vessel unglazed just inside the leaf-like petals. Ross often cultivates the drips and natural flow of her glazes to add drama to the sculptural impact her work. 

Organic and sensual, Ross’s hand-shaped vases beautifully convey the passionate spirit of O’Keefe.
Nancy Ross’s exhibition, “Growth,” is on view through January 25 at Piedmont Virginia Community College in the South Gallery of the V. Earl Dickinson Building. 501 College Drive.