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POP Merit Award 2014: Clay Foster
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 Clay Foster with Lucinda, who turns out perfect eggs.

Professional Outreach Program's 2014 Excellence Award

The Professional Outreach Program gives biennial merit awards to individuals selected by the committee who have shown exceptional development in their careers as artists, and whose artworks have directly influenced or had a significant impact on other artists within the field of woodturning. Clay Foster is this year's worthy recipient because of his exemplary, consistent, and significant contributions over many years, not only with respect to his art but also as a teacher.

With a calm, confident voice, Clay Foster's work echoes centuries of indigenous makers. The simplicity of line and form belies thoughtful craftsmanship underlying the making, beckoning viewers to experience with pleasure. "My work has what I call casual execu­tion," Clay says. "That doesn't mean it's carelessly made, but that there is a collaboration between the scars and flaws of a piece of wood and the relaxed execution of a practiced hand. I believe there is a place for the imper­fections that serve as a metaphor for the reality of life and the greater truth of the flaw."

The originality of Clay Foster's work is due to myriad influences, including ancient architecture, utilitarian objects from Africa, and the weathering of surfaces. With diverse content seamlessly integrated, these influences manifest in a variety of ways. Narrow View, a recent sculp­ture, is informed by Saskatchewan grain silos, Bhutanese temples, and rock art calendars, yet offers a singular experience, inviting the viewer's interpretation.

While many artists squeeze as much meaning as possible into their work and gladly share the depth of their ideas, Clay is not so forthcom­ing. In fact, he prefers the viewer find relationships and meaning in his work, and if some amount of mystery remains then all the better.

"The Baule people of Africa believe too much clarity can hinder some kinds of enlightened understand­ing," Clay says when asked about the content of his work. "My art combines elements and sources to capture the essence of things that are old, things that last, and things that endure. Ancient voices speak to our hearts in modern times; these are the things that give us comfort and courage. I'm inspired by temples and towers that point to a higher plane; religious objects that have an aura of sacredness; a tool handle polished smooth by genera­tions of makers' hands. The distinc­tion blurs and their story becomes our story."

Life and art merged
Clay Foster was born in 1954 in Austin, Texas, to parents supportive of his desire to understand how things were made: "One of my earliest toys was a board that my father started nails in, and I would hammer them home." For his fifth birthday, he was given his own handsaw. While his father looked after his initial experience with woodworking, his mother taught him how to use a sewing machine and embroider. This early and expansive approach to materials and processes, and the ensuing desire to create, led him to art school, where he studied weaving and fabric design.

 Temple Bowl Series, 2008, Wood, stone, wire, tile grout, 54" x 18" (137cm x 46cm)
"Patterns have always caught my attention," he says of this early inter­est in fiber art. "I learned a lot in the three years I was in school, but quit before I got a degree. I needed to make things more than I wanted a diploma." With a restless curiosity about the world, he has continued his study of art as an autodidact.

His interest in ancient architecture, primitive household objects, and weathered natural objects is inte­grated with his embrace of daily life.

"Making art, building furniture, pre­paring dinner, brewing beer, build­ing a structure and raising chick­ens-it's all just life, not somehow separate." A chest that features a portal and reliquary began with a place to sit and put on shoes. Art is born out of daily life.

Professional career
Clay's career as a woodturner began 25 years ago when he first encoun­tered the work of Dale Nish and Bob Stocksdale. He was intrigued by the potential of wood as an artistic medium, the idea that a piece of tree could become a work of art. "I didn't realize how seductive that would be until it was too late," he says.

Clay's work first came to the attention of a wider audience with his turned natural edge bowls that measured up to three feet in diam­eter. Even at that large scale, they possessed a quiet beauty. The voids he incorporated into vessels acti­vated Clay's interest in exploring the concept of windows into interior spaces and portals into trees, which became an essential aspect of his Painted Cave series. "The window reveals a replica of rock painting on the interior wall of the vessel,'' he says.
Aspects of Clay's life became part of this series after he participated in a project mapping and describing Anasazi ruins in Utah where broken bits of pottery were one of the main diagnostic tools for dating sites. Within Painted Cave vessels he placed sand and pieces of broken turnings.

Ancient Native American pottery forms and decorations are a source of inspiration for many craftspeople today, but the rock art is an even more fascinating mystery. While in Utah, Clay explains, "When the shadows of the evening begin to steal across the cliffs and the wind in the canyon trees becomes a gentle whisper, the veil between the past and present is lifted. The images painted and pecked on the rocks come to life and ancient voices from days gone by break their silent vigil to speak softly to us stories saved on stone."

The Painted Cave series led to the Effigy series, an exploration of how far the vessel can be pushed t assume human appearances: "I began to ponder why vessels have such a universal appeal throughout time and place. I came to the conclusion that one reason is because vessels are such a wonderful metaphor for our human bodies."

African art influence
The influence of African art is some­times obvious and other times a subtle element. "Objects from Africa seem to have a spirit that is most accessible,'' he explains. "The reli­gious objects have an aura of sacred­ness, and the functional household items glow with a patina of lifelong, loving use."
Fine line Vessel, 1996, Wood, lithographic ink, paint, 11' x 11' dia (28cm x 28cm)
As the viewer's attention shifts from place to place on the surface of the vessel, different arrangements of the pattern's elements emerge and recede into focus. Clay says of this body of work, "This kaleidoscopic shifting of awareness corresponds to how we interpret events in our lives, develop­ing different understandings of their importance because of the changing perspectives of time and accumu­lated experiences."
His Fine Line Vessel from 1996 com­bines a form inspired by the baskets of Zulu women with the patterns from Acoma pueblo pottery. The visual paths around the vessel repre­sent the rhythms and cycles of life, as well as perspective: "Just as the Earth is tilted on its axis and as the days of the seasons get longer and shorter, the pattern changes shape and size as it navigates the vessel at an angle. A single line on the vessel is arbitrary and without context. When it is combined with other lines to create a pattern, rhythm and order emerge."

Current work
Today, Clay incorporates various elements that are balanced to create a whole. He spends relatively little time turning a bowl compared to the hours spent texturing, decorat­ing, and combining it with other components. A turned vessel, inten­tionally displayed, creates meaning and significance.
 Precious Metal, 2012, Sheet metal, brass rivets, 3' x 10' (&m x 25cm)

Clay's Connection series, inspired by Mayan temples, represents a cul­mination of a lifetime of images, shapes, textures, and materials."Almost 30 years ago, I visited the Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala. The pyramid shape of two temples at opposite ends of a courtyard domi­nated all the other structures. Their presence embodied the essence of structures that last, materials that hold up, and designs that endure. The memory of their forms is something I put in my pocket years ago, and it is a design element for almost everything I make."

Despite having created an impressive body of work over the last quarter century, Clay continues to pursue an ideal that only nature can provide for. He is still searching for the perfect piece of wood and perfect stone to make a piece he had a dream about six years ago: "Somewhere out there is a rock that has been waiting 60 million years to become a piece of art. Somewhere out there is a tree that grew just to become a piece of sculpture. I am just here to bring them together.

 Art and life merge on the kitchen wall in Clay and Jennifer's home.
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