Fresh ceramics and prints
Shy Rabbit exhibits thought-provoking ‘Paper & Clay 2’

Bradley “Carney,” terra cotta clay, glaze, wire and ceramic decals by Kansas artist Ben Ahlvers.

by Jules Masterjohn

Currently showing at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts in Pagosa Springs is an exhibit not to be missed. Paper & Clay 2 presents work by 15 artists from nearby and faraway, assembled together in an exhibition spotlighting contrasting materials and varying artistic approaches. As unusual as it is to find a contemporary art space nestled in the tall pines of a light industrial district in Pagosa Springs, so too is it surprising to find this quality of art on display in our geographically isolated region. Leave it to Shy Rabbit to bring fresh and innovative ceramic and print works together for a captivating display.

The theme that weds Paper & Clay 2 is perhaps the reason for the show’s excellence. Gallery owners Denise and D. Michael Coffee set out to acknowledge “the role that art educators and mentors play in the shaping of generations of artists.” To this end, the exhibit showcases the work by ceramic artists who have studied at Ohio University in Athens with internationally known ceramic artist Brad Schwieger. That’s the “clay” part of the exhibit – and it’s thought-provoking and fun.

“Paper” refers to the reductive ink prints (on paper) created by three artists who have studyied this unique printmaking method with D. Michael, a printmaker (and ceramicist) who developed the process. This is the second year that the Coffees have focused their efforts on bringing high-quality ceramic art and prints together for this event, showing emerging artists chosen by influential teachers in each medium.

The inherent material differences between paper and clay set the tone for the viewing experience. Paper is fragile. The decision to hang the prints bare, without frames, was a practical one and serves to amplify the delicate nature of the paper as well as the directness of the monoprint process. Fired clay, on the other hand, is durable. The glazes and surface textures on many of the works, however, offer a different impression.

Joe Davis has applied textures to his ceramic sculptures that are so fragile that it’s hard to believe that they are, well, hard. His amorphously shaped forms, crafted through a slip-casting process, reinforce this softness. Their fetish finishes in designer colors, like Pepto Bismol pink, lemon yellow and avocado, add another layer of oddness to them. Davis’ sculptures allude to physiology and anatomy with their bulbous, phallic and lobed forms, titled “Pumper,” “Bulb Boll” and “Blue Sqwyrt.” They seem to be equally informed by the unconscious mind, sourced purely from the imagination. They are strange, curious and playful objects.

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is the ceramic sculpture of Steve Schaeffer. His minimalist work is inspired by the landscape and simply titled “Warm Fire” and “Cold.” These elemental forms combine round and smooth with rough and earthy. This juxtaposition of form and surface implies a harmony of opposing forces. The elegant, elongated orbs that nest within their heavy bases seem to simultaneously ascend and rest, reinforcing the balancing of opposites. In his artist statement Schaeffer offers some insight into his choices: “The forms define space, and their weight is connected to the landscape they are inspired by. My work is about the spatial relationships I’ve experienced in nature and, in turn, the work has become a voice for those landscapes.”

While Schaeffer’s interest lies in the natural world, Ben Ahlvers is preoccupied with human nature. The sculptures are odd portraits, or heads, which is an appropriate choice for his psychological expressions. “Carney” is a funk art-inspired ceramic bust of a cigarette-smokin,’ beer-drinkin,’ hot-rod-lovin,’ 5-o’clock-shadow-wearin’ guy who is surrounded by a ring of missile-like darts. Ahlvers is interested in a sort of twisted whimsy. He writes of his work, “The good, the bad and the ugly … get exposed. Sarcasm, humor, fear, honesty, dishonesty, nostalgia are layered in the pieces.” As a father of three boys, he finds family life to be the major source of inspiration for his art.

Children and family relationships are the inspiration, too, for Juanita Ainsley’s vibrantly colored reductive-ink and mixed-media prints. A child psychologist by profession, Ainsley creates images that are sophisticatedly naïve and possess an aesthetic ease that is grounded in a child-like perspective. The compositions are busy with layers of images of animals, pottery, people and patterns that are compartmentalized into their separate areas on the paper. Ainsley continues her stream of consciousness process by drawing with ink, chalk, oil pastel, charcoal, pencil and, of course, crayon, adding more imagery and color to the print.

Underneath the playful elements of her work, discomfort can be sensed. Perhaps Ainsley is pointing to a world in which children feel boxed in and overwhelmed, a place not of their making. Perhaps she is addressing the powerless and innocent aspect in each of us. Either way, her solution to use creativity and the power of personal expression to create a world she wants to live in is admirable and inspiring.

Take the drive to Pagosa to see this show – I’m bettin’ it’ll be worth the trip!

Paper & Clay 2 is on display through Aug. 1 at Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts, 333 Bastille Drive in Pagosa Springs. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday or by appointment. Call (970) 731-2766 for directions or visit



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