Earthly Delights – Can You Smell the Rain? by Crista Matteson

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At Shift Gallery through Oct. 1

By Cynthia Hibbard

Crista Matteson’s garden and her love for combining materials with the human form have grown together over the years—literally—into a style of sculpture that is uniquely her own.

It’s distinction and maturity are well represented in her current Shift show, Can You Smell the Rain?

That’s the question Matteson asked herself as she paused one day in the midst of gardening to savor the freshness of rain in the air.  “I was flooded with that warm fuzzy feeling that other people might get from the smell of apple pie,” she said.  “Rain does it for me.”

As she’d been working on ceramic busts from live models at the time, she decided finish them as characters that seemed to spring from the earth, covered with leaves and sprouting twigs and vines and mushrooms and birds—in the form of elaborate headdresses and body ornamentation added to the clay.

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In her signature way, Matteson applied kiln cast glass and bronze elements to complete the narrative flourishes in each piece.  Her aim was to capture “that blissful moment of interacting with nature”—one of her favorite things.

The fantastical nature of Matteson’s pieces call to mind the work of renaissance artist Guiseppe Arcimboldo, who painted witty, surreal portraits of faces composed of fruits, vegetables, animals and trees.

Like Arcimboldo, Matteson weaves a thread of whimsy into the natural elements she relies on to complete her sculptures and tell their stories.   Another series of characters in her show demonstrates this trait.   In the ceramic and glass “Someday When My Hair is Blue,” a starry-eyed girl wears a cone of blue glass hair dotted with flowers and insects.  In “Flying Cap,” a woman’s head wears a cap propelled by blue glass bees wings and rests on the long tendrils of a vine.  They could easily be taken for fairy tale creatures instead of springing, as they did, from Matteson’s imagination and the wilds of her backyard.

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In Matteson’s lush, variegated garden rimmed by fruit trees, she has created a rich, protected world where she raises mason bees to pollinate her fruit trees and chickens to feed her family and to fertilize her soil.  These along with tangles of exotic plants and twigs make their way into her garden-side studio to be cast into glass or bronze or pressed into wax and embedded into clay.

Matteson wanted her garden-grown characters to share a naivety but also a strength and optimism despite the cruelties of the modern life outside the garden gate. “They combine this strength with an instinct to protect the creatures and plants that inhabit their world,” she said.  “Their world mirrors my world.”

In what seems a symbolic gesture of hope, another piece of cast glass hands rising from their forearms—her teenage daughter was the model—sprout leaves from their fingertips.

Matteson entered her world of glass, ceramic and bronze art making after she had children and found that she could no longer keep pace with the production demands of her previous career in manufacturing home accessories.  At first she painted; then she sculpted clay.  Her need to build steel armatures for her clay led her to welding and then to forging, which begat her work in bronze and then glass.  Now there’s no turning back from the joys of her garden and her studio.

“Art and dirt,” she said, “are part of my everyday life.”