Sky Clayworks

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Sky Clayworks

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CL888035 Blue Sky Gingerbread Candle House

Leaning into the light: The figurative work of Melisa Cadell.


by Barry Lopez, the author offers the following insight: "How is
one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness
not only in ones culture but within oneself? There are simply no answers
to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out,
making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light."

Slowly but surely, over the past 10 years, figurative clay sculptor
Melisa Cadell has found a way to lean into light. The result is a more
mature body of work, ironically darker than ever before. It would be
hard to miss the change from her sonorous, smooth ceramic figures of the
past to her current work, featuring silenced figures with violated
surfaces. "Both bodies of work came from the same place, but the
figures keep getting darker as I get older. My earlier figures held the
gesture of singing, but didn't have ears. Now they have ears, but
their mouths are closed," says Cadell.

The artist lives in a supportive, small community in western North
Carolina where she and her husband raise their two children and
volunteer for the local Fire Department. Most days, life is manageable
and full of small joys. But the relatively new responsibility of
parenthood has also exposed Cadell to the polar opposite of this joy. If
Lopez's credo is right, then the path of a moral and compassionate
existence starts with recognition of these extremes. Experiencing pure
joy on one end of the psychospiritual spectrum permitted Cadell to
conjure the strength of its opposite. Though wisdom comes slowly in
Lopez's cosmology, it only comes through living an examined life
where we embrace our fears as gregariously as we embrace our finest



As a teenager, Cadell did just that when she traveled with her
church to rural communities in Belize, Central America and St. Kitts,
Virgin Islands doing mission work. On these excursions, it was
impossible for her to ignore the dichotomies of life circumstances and
cultures stationed alongside one another. "I was so young that this
experience really stuck with me. So many of the women had to work so
hard each day just to survive. My life was so easy and theirs was so
hard. Still, they were happy," she says.

Their happiness stayed with her as she tried to comprehend her own
place and path in the world. Cadell realized she was fortunate, but she
couldn't make moral sense of why some communities have more than
what they need and others can barely survive. At a time when places are
overcome by natural disasters, entire populations curtailed by genocide,
cultures silenced by headstrong politicians and warfare, Cadell is at a
loss to understand her own good fortune. "As I hold my son or
daughter in my arms, what used to be pride is now humility and strength
is now weakness. I started thinking about what might happen to my
children if I ever found myself in a position where I couldn't
provide for them. There are so many people who have to face that,"
says Cadell. "The only way I can justify my work is to keep careful
records of such individuals and their courage to stand in the face of
fear." Over time, this has become one lens through which the artist
views her experiences.


After the birth of her first child in 2003, Cadell started creating
smaller figures (one to three feet tall) and once-firing all of her work
in an electric kiln. She applies slip and a crawling underglaze directly
to the greenware, then adds wax and sometimes an additional glaze that
is wiped off. The result is figures that bear bubbling and cracking skin
with varied tones, dips and divots as though their stories were burning
out of them. The Women of Courage was directly inspired by a story
Cadell heard about survivors of rape in Zimbabwe who were punished for
speaking out. One woman featured in the story, represented by the
central figure in this triptych, decided to speak out for the many and
in doing so sacrificed her own safety.

Using torn clay construction, Cadell builds up the figures,
manipulating each piece to quickly get an overall sense of the form. She
then focuses on specific areas of the figure, working to decipher the
story of the figure as a whole. This process conceptually mirrors the
artist's intent, as the act of tearing evokes the hardships of
persecution, poverty and injustice, while the careful articulation of
facial expressions and surface textures render each piece unique and
individual. "Things come to me in story first. The images and
stories blend together and 1 don't censor them. I fear I would lose
my humanity if 1 closed my eyes to this. Once I get the head on, that
sets the tone. A face can pretty well tell a story and the expressions
always come quickly to me. Adding all of the other layers is a process
and that brings the meaning into completeness."


She Finds Herself to be Coming Undone incorporates mesh fibreglass
fill and carbon steal staples into a figure that appears arguably in
recovery or falling apart. Cadell leaves this interpretation up to the
viewer. "The title of this piece makes it about several different
things. It's more universal than specific," says Cadell.
"The imagery is all across the board with this piece and I think
that's what keeps me interested. I really like the fact that
different people approach the piece in different ways. People often come
to me with their stories after they see my work and no story is exactly
the same."

As these stories come together, Cadell finds further inspiration
for new work, though she is never quite certain to which extremes a
piece will take her. Now more than ever, her work is indicative of this
long, unanswered question and the moral responsibility she carries,
seeking light even in the darkest places.


Melisa Cadell is represented by Crimson Laurel Gallery and Red Sky
Gallery. Her latest exhibition is represented by Mudfire Clayworks and
Gallery, April-June 2009. For more information, visit

Katey Schultz writes from her home in Bakersville, NC and
specializes in essays about the creative process. Her work has been
published in Ceramics Monthly, Metalsmith, Contemporary Impressions,
Surface Design Journal, Southern Arts Journal, and more. 'to learn
more, visit:

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