Art

From the Functional to Found, an Artist Couple’s Experiments in Clay

Whereas Virginia Rose Torrence embeds fruit rinds into her mosaics, Henry James Haver Crissman sells functional pottery.

“Untitled” by Virginia Rose Torrence (all images by Ali Lapetina unless otherwise noted)

DETROIT — When two artists are married it’s tempting to draw connections between their work and assume they are in conversation with one another. And although the artists, experimental ceramicists Virginia Rose Torrence and Henry James Haver Crissman, have been together long enough to serve as primary interlocutors — and to finish each other’s sentences — they have radically different practices, interests, and artistic priorities. These differences are showcased in side-by-side presentations at Trinosophes, a hybrid art, café, and performance space that is in itself a bit of an art experiment by owners Rebecca Mazzei and Joel Peterson.

Virignia Rose Torrence’s mosaics are constructed entirely from found objects, principally the content of several bins of hoarded ceramic shards saved over the course of three decades by an adjunct ceramics professor at Marygrove College, where Crissman just finished his term as a professor (due to the closure of the undergraduate program).

“I’ve been working there all summer,” said Torrence, “because it’s a really beautiful space and because the whole upstairs was abandoned, and we got to do whatever we wanted. I was on a walk and I all of a sudden just realized that that was amazing free material.” The resulting body of work playfully reframes elements of classic portraiture and Dutch still life painting, drawing together figurative and abstract compositions that level the hierarchy between fine art and literal trash, including fruit rinds and bottle shards found on the couple’s weekly walks at the nearby Belle Isle Park.

“Untitled” by Virignia Rose Torrence (detail) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“I’m encapsulating all those materials under one skin of plastic — and that’s a really satisfying action, to stop the decay of something, and try to unify them and bring them all into the same space,” said Torrence. The image of a once-living fruit incorporated into a tile mosaic is jarring and, just as the symbology of Dutch still life presented notions of desire and memento mori, these ceramics subtly struggle with the ultimate futility of art to stop time, try as it might.

Meal service at Trinosophes on wares by Henry James Haver Crissman

Our conversation took place on the café side of Trinosophes, where the entire food service is served in vessels made by Crissman. This “show,” titled Please, represents Crissman’s own struggle with his identity as a potter, and art as commodity.

“I was teaching adjunct, and in terms of my own income, it was not enough,” said Crissman. “And the idea that I could use my art to supplement my income or to be my income, which is historically what a potter does — makes something which is very specifically a commodity, that is intended to be bought and sold — I was really asking myself this question: Is there some way I can feel justified and fulfilled creatively by making and selling pottery?”

Crissman’s sales gallery, where visitors are required to fill out an information sheet, make a drawing of their pot, and price their own selections.

Crissman’s solution draws upon the legacy of influential American studio potter and professor Warren MacKenzie, who was known to sell his pottery at low prices from a 24-hour unmanned sales gallery.

One of Crissman’s ceramic works in use (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“In an attempt to try and find some way that I would feel justified or creatively fulfilled in the act of making and selling pottery, I’ve tried to build this utopian system for distributing it,” said Crissman, “where you can use it and you can pay whatever you’d like for it. I think supporting a kind of conscious, basic, and necessary consumption is something that I want to do, but I also want to make a connection.” Crissman seeks to facilitate this connection by requiring purchasers of his pots to fill out their own order forms, which includes room for feedback and a space to draw their selection. He also has incorporated his phone number into every pot included in Please, in case anyone wants to talk things through.

Crissman’s sales gallery

While Torrence and Crissman make very different work, in the end they do share some common ground. They have both returned to Detroit like prodigal children, to put down roots and reconnect with their community.

“We sort of had this idea that if we were going to graduate school, that afterwards we would go somewhere that was not Detroit,” said Crissman, “because if we came back to Detroit—”

“We were probably never going to leave,” finished Torrence.

Virginia Rose Torrence continues at Trinosophes through January 14. Please by Henry James Haver Crissman continues through February.

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