CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Down to earth: Kars-Marshall's organic ceramics

When I traveled in India, I was struck by the potters sitting on street corners, crouched all day at their wheels creating beautiful water jug after beautiful water jug designed purely for function and sold for a paltry few rupees. I used to wonder if the buyers ever stopped to admire the vessels' expert craftsmanship and exquisite forms before putting them to work in the kitchen.

Indian housewives would probably laugh at my fascination with what to them is an everyday, throwaway item, but ceramics artist Cri Kars-Marshall apparently shares my aesthetic appreciation. In her current McGuffey Art Center exhibition, "Morphing Forms: Ceramic Vessels and Other Shapes," Kars-Marshall displays her own version of a traditional water jug as a way of honoring the women and children around the world for whom hauling water is a way of life.

Whether she's creating functional objects or abstract sculpture, Kars-Marshall thinks deeply about all aspects of her work, ranging from the kinds of materials she chooses to the environmental impact of her process. She achieves the distinctive smoky mottling on the tactilely inviting surfaces of her curved pieces not through glazing but rather by firing them in a sawdust-filled garbage can. As a result, her forms have an organic feeling like shell, bone, or beautifully eroded rock.

"Exploring," "experimenting," and "venturing" recur throughout Kars-Marshall's artist's statement, and her open-ended approach energizes the current wide-ranging exhibition. Although some pieces are less successful than others (her wire-mesh wall sculptures are more miss than hit), Kars-Marshall is particularly strong when she incorporates other materials into her ceramic objects. For instance, on the lid of "Vessel #66," she crosses green twigs, threading their ends through suede loops attached to the body of the pot.

One of the most effective pieces in the show is the abstract "Wall Hanging #16." Here an airy ceramic form, its smooth surface reminiscent of an antler or a bone, dangles from a copper dowel spanning a rough-edged copper sheet curving out from the wall. The contrast between the oxidized patina of the copper and the ceramic's smoky markings, as well as the composed tension between all the elements, works to sustain visual interest. 

After enjoying Kars-Marshall's "Morphing Forms," be sure to check out the annual McGuffey "New Members Show" in the hall galleries. Photographer Ron Evans' evocative silver gelatin prints and Eric Caldwell's innovative stained-glass sculptural pieces are among the highlights.

Cri Kars-Marshall's exhibition, "Morphing Form: Ceramic Vessels and Other Shapes," and the McGuffey "New Members Show" are on view through January 27 at the McGuffey Art Center. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.