Why This Artist Embraces Failure

Ventura, California-based artist Cheryl Ann Thomas admits she’s often quite disappointed when she opens the kiln. For most ceramic artists, discovering any alteration from how a piece went into the kiln from how it comes out is considered a kiln failure. Thomas, on the other hand, not only invites such failure but has built her entire art practice out of it.

 

When she first began working in porcelain, she approached the creation process with more of the scientific method in mind. She gave herself a strict set of limitations — use only black, white, and grey, use spaghetti-thin coils to build only columns, never throw anything away, only number each piece not title it — and a series of questions like, “How thin and tall can I make a column using the coiling method?” and  “What will the results be?”

 

Over the years, she gradually expanded these limitations to combine two or more columns and re-fire them and, most recently, expand her color palette to include the softest pinks, palest blues, and maroons that fade to graphite. She’s also recently started giving her works titles but tries not to put too much thought into them, instead naming a piece for what it reminds her of in nature or life. The colors in “Aftermath,” for example, reminded her of the ash and burnt wood after the last California wildfire while “Water Vessel” felt like aqueous.

 

Yet despite her rigid creation structure, Thomas’ process is driven by accident or chance and the concept of wabi sabi, accepting the beauty in imperfection. Inherent in the work, for both its material and form, is the concept of fragility. What begins as a column slumps, breaks, folds, and frays. The final works have a husk-like, sloughed-off presence. The pieces stand testament as elegies or relics, speaking to the impermanent nature of existence. Thomas likens reconciling the chance occurrences in her process with her own life, to work with what is given, find beauty and acceptance in what is, to think about how she can find harmony and balance.  Thomas casually says, “It’s just curiosity.” The process becomes the subject matter.

 

Thomas was born in Santa Monica, California and graduated from the Art Center College of Design with a BFA. Before practicing art full time in the late 1990s as a ceramic sculptor, Thomas worked as a grade school teacher. She has exhibited her work in solo and group shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Santa Fe. Numerous collecting institutions hold her work in their permanent collections such as the American Museum of Ceramic Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and Fuller Craft Museum, among others. Her work was featured in Melting Point: Movements in Contemporary Clay at the Craft and Folk Museum which highlighted ceramicists for their experimental manipulations of clay to expand the technical, aesthetic, and metaphoric potential of the medium. Her most recent exhibition was a retrospective at the Santa Paula Art Museum in California.