Ceramics and wood are two vastly different materials and artistic mediums, but the Virginia-based sculptor Chris White uses clay's highly malleable properties to mimic the texture of tree grain. White's trompe l'oeil technique also involves painting the clay surface in a hyperrealistic style, which accentuates the clay's three-dimensional qualities, giving it shadows, highlights, and variations in color.
A great example of White's artistry is his recent sculpture of woman's nude torso, which features a sort of surreal naturalism that removes everything above the woman's jaw. Perched upon it is a blue bird, possibly a dove. It's clearly fine art, but White's style also recalls the fantastical beings in Guillermo del Toro's movies. The sculptures aren't meant to merely dazzle eyes, either. White draws parallels between humanity and nature, highlighting the beauty and fragility of life on Earth.
"While much of my work looks like driftwood, it is actually inspired by the ancient bristlecone pines of the Great Basin area in California," White tells Creators. "This particular species of pine tree grows in some of the harshest conditions in the United States, at altitudes ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. They are the longest living non-clonal trees in the world, in some cases living for over 5,000 years."
"The fluidity, color and forms of the wood in addition to its ability to live in such unforgiving conditions is, for me, a testament to the beauty and perseverance of nature," he adds. "These same qualities can be found in humanity."
White, who teaches figure modeling in the Sculpture + Extended Media department at Virginia Commonwealth University, initially began exploring the aesthetic of wood during my undergrad studies at Indiana University. There, he became interested in the physical and visual qualities of aged and decaying wood.
It was also at IU where White began working predominantly with clay, which he likes because of its unique ability to mimic many textures and forms. Soft and malleable during the sculpting process, clay comes out hard as a rock after enduring 2,000 degrees fahrenheit inside a kiln. Yet, it is also incredibly fragile, which also appeals to White.
"I find that process of combining earth and fire to make something soft into something rigid but delicate analogous to life itself," he says. "Another reason I use wood texture so often is the connections between humans and nature. I find tree bark a beautiful parallel to skin, and roots a parallel to veins and neurons. We can see a tree's anatomy echoed in our own bodies."
To make this hyperrealistic sculptures, White beings by rolling out slabs of clay. After modeling the form of the wood, he carves the clay with a number of tools (some made especially for his practice) to simulate the flow of the wood grain. Some marks are subtle, others are more aggressive so as to give the work depth.
Gradually, the clays begins to dry and harden. As this process unfolds, White uses brushes of varying stiffness to create the wood grain's finer textures. When the clay reaches one of the final stages of drying, known as "leather-hard," White uses a craft knife and dental tools to refine the flow and small details like splintered edges, cracks and chipping. He then uses water-based paints to give the sculpture its final color and look.
"These paints suck right into the textures I've already laid down, and with layers upon layers of different tones, I can achieve a hyperrealistic effect," says White. "I also incorporate materials such as metal leafing, charcoal, wax and resin to replicate additional effects to further heighten the sense of realism."
On average, White spends up to six weeks working on a single piece. He is aware of how much effort he puts into simulating growth and decay, and evoking ideas of impermanence and systems in flux. For White, the artistic process seems to be a constant reminder of these life processes.
"I am interested in making work that reflects how we treat nature as human beings, and try to bring an environmental message to my viewer," says White. "We have a reciprocal impact on our environment, and we live in an age where we can shelter ourselves and even forget how important nature is to our survival."
White recently showed some of his ceramic sculptures in a solo show titled Human:Nature last September. He is also in the early stages of a collaborative project with his partner, Marta Finkelstein, that will find the two bringing his sculptures to life through experimental clay animations.