Ability vs. Culpability

Grace and self effort fighting (2015), hand built porcelain, cone 6 glaze, 16"x13"x7"

We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

C.S. Lewis

It is easy to find yourself entranced by and enveloped in the work of Kate McDowell. Through intricate pieces of porcelain, humanity slips into a haunting dance with the natural world. Feet grow weeds, rabbits don gas masks, frogs hold fetuses, and lungs inflate with perched canaries. The implications of these intertwined entities are sometimes threatening and always revealing of current ecological concerns.

In MacDowell’s work, a Romantic ideal of our relationship to the natural world conflicts with the reality of our current impact on the environment. Her pieces are in part responses to environmental threats including air pollution, global warming, clear‐cutting, and pesticide misuse; and their consequences to our health and the environment including rapidly diminishing plant and animal species. They also borrow from myth, art history, figures of speech and other cultural touchstones. In some pieces aspects of the human figure stand‐in for us and act out sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous transformations which illustrate our current relationship with the natural world. In others, animals take on anthropomorphic qualities when they are given safety equipment to attempt to protect them from man‐made environmental threats. In each case the union between man and nature is shown to be one of friction and discomfort with the implication that we too are vulnerable to being victimized by our destructive practices. She uses a variety of methods from hand sculpting each piece out of porcelain, often building a solid form and then hollowing it out, to slip casting and assembling multiples. Smaller forms are built petal by petal, branch by branch and allow her the chance to get immersed in close study of the structure of a blossom or a bee. She sees each piece as a captured and preserved specimen, a painstaking record of endangered natural forms and a commentary on our own culpability.

McDowell is evoking a more complex take on the dangers we pose to the world around us—for her work is not solely a critique on the damages humans can cause, but a glimpse into a destruction to which we are also susceptible. Here, an artistic voice is raised against real‐time traumas, and it has the power to both jolt awareness and beckon change.

Canary 3 (2009), hand built porcelain and cone 6 glaze, 13.5″ x 12.5″ x 6″
Canary (2008), hand built porcelain, wooden wall pedestal, compact fluorescent lights, and wiring, 22″ x 22″ x 5″
The God of Change (2011), hand built porcelain and cone 6 glaze, 12″ x 10.5″ x 2″
Last of His Tribe (2012), assemblage of approx. 150 toads, slip‐cast and hand‐built vitreous china, stain, cone 10 glaze, and oil paint, 2″‐long toads, approx. 96″ x 96″ installed
Uprooted (2007), hand built porcelain, 15″ x 13″ x 7″

Clay pigeons (2010), photographs and installation, slip cast and hand carved terracotta, lead shot, fired to cone 04, dimensions variable
David and Goliath (2010), hand built porcelain and cone 6 glaze, 9.5″ x 8.5″ x 3″
First and Last Breath (2010), hand built porcelain, and mixed media, 11″ x 9″ x 12″
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