Native art showcased at Prehistoric Museum

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Posted Thursday, November 16, 2006 - 12:00am

Ancient Paths is the work of two talented artists exhibited on the second floor of the CEU Prehistoric Museum. Iris Howe has pottery and clay sculptures on display while Arlene Connolly has framed wall art along with some prehistoric horse sculptures on display. All of the pieces are available for viewing in the museum until Dec. 30 and available for purchase.

Showing her sculptures and pottery Howe is a familiar face at CEU's pottery lab. Her pieces include canisters, bowls, jugs, tiles, and sculptures of Native American figures that were modeled after pictographs. These sculptures are three-dimensional representations of two dimensional rock art drawings. Her earthen-ware dishes and canisters are decorated with human figures and animals modeled from the many Native American art panels found in the San Rafael Swell and other local places.

Thirty years ago as a newlywed with small children living in Escanaba, Mich., Howe started taking art classes as a way of staying out of trouble, she says with a laugh. But the first time she threw clay, she was hooked. She finally found her medium. So she took as many pottery classes as she could, and eventually started teaching pottery.

Some of her pieces are made from clay she found in Cane Creek. There are whimsical pieces like her Freemont Man Bank made from native clay and sporting big cork-filled mouths. Her candle holders called Pueblo Lights are circular in shape and look like the profile of a Native American ruin city like Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon with window holes along the rim to allow light from the candle to shine through.

As we sit down for a quick pottery primer in CEU's pottery lab, Howe is in her element and I notice the desert has been kind to her. Her dark eyes and perfect complexion are framed by silver hair and silver earrings. She is perfectly comfortable in her blue jeans and loafers. Her blue and white vertically striped apron is dusty with the stray dry clay of many a bowl or mug. Her long slender clay stained fingers looked like they were meant to mold and manipulate her chosen medium.

Throwing, she explains, is spinning clay on a turntable and shaping it with your hands and tools. When the clay is in the desired shape, it is placed on a shelf and dried. Drying is a crucial time in the process. If the object, say a bowl, dries to quickly there is a good chance it will crack. So the pieces are placed in plastic bags so they won't dry too quickly. This step can take a week or longer.

When the bowl is thoroughly dried, it is put in the bisque kiln for its initial firing. Then it's dipped in glaze and fired in a large kiln at a higher temperature than the initial firing in the bisque kiln. She got the biggest kick showing me how they get rid of bowls that have cracked in the drying process. With no warning, she raises the bowl over her head and slams it down on a table breaking it into little pieces. There she says, enjoying my startled expression, now those pieces can be recycled.

One of her pieces is a large clay canteen. It's complete with a hemp twine carrying strap. Effective weathering makes it look like it was just recovered from an ancient ruin.

She has on display and for sale functional bowls, plates, canisters and hot plates that would look good in any kitchen or on any table. These one-of-a-kind pieces are glazed in earthy browns and rust colored reds and would get conversations started for years.

Her Globe Pots, done in white clay and splashed with magentas, browns and black, are pleasing to the eye in their soft orb peach-like roundness.

Her extruded, altered earthenware sculptures: "Keeper of Flight," "Goat Guide," "Ancient Citizen" and the nearly three-feet tall "Clever Hunter," are the ones she created three dimensionally from two dimensional, real rock art drawings. These anthropomorphic figures are at the same time playful and cartoon like with big feet, abbreviated hands and casual postures as well as rich in detail and giving the viewer the feeling that if Native Americans had created sculpture, this is what they would look like.

Connolly, a Detroit, Mich. native came to Utah in the '80s and brought a unique art form to the exhibit. Imagine a rock-cutting tool that could slice a one-eighth-inch thick wafer of stone from a canyon wall that contains petroglyphs and then put that slice of stone with its art intact into a frame and voila! That's what Connolly's pieces look like, but they are actually made of paper.

She has spent a considerable amount of time observing, photographing and studying petroglyph panels in the area, as well as panels in France and other parts of the world. An earnest and open person, Connolly not only observes the panels themselves, she also hikes and studies the canyons they are in. She looks for clues in the drawings that indicate features of the canyon or surrounding area. This is evident in the explanation that accompanies each piece.

She has visited archival libraries at the University of Utah and the Northern Arizona Library to find photos of Native American art that are under water in Lake Powell. She then recreates it giving us a chance to see artwork that may never see the light of day again.

In ways Connolly's art petroglyphs look better than real petroglyphs. In her pieces, the colors are vivid and rich creating lot of contrast between the figures and the surrounding rock. And since she has reproduced only the art itself and not the bullet holes and other defacements, the pieces have a wonderfully clean feel to them. There is no distortion or missing information. Like a lot of good art, these pieces look simple at first blush, the clean lines and vibrant colors are immediately apparent. Should you linger a little longer, more and more detail becomes apparent with many of the larger pieces remaining interesting for a long time.

The patient viewer will be rewarded with details and subtleties. When viewed from across the room, some of the pieces project a completely different image than if viewed up close. It's as if the ancient artist (and maybe the new artist as well) wants you to get close enough to see the grain of the rock and the texture of the tapped out figures, but to also sit in a chair and look at them from across the room for a completely different experience.

One of the nice things about the two artist's work displayed in a museum, is that you can see dozens of panels and ancient art figures in a warm, comfortable environment regardless of the weather or your level of fitness. These artists bring the art of the ancients to you.

Their artwork is worth your time and attention. With the days getting shorter and colder and gas prices being what they are, going to the museum and enjoying the many reproductions of Native American art and sculpture will satiate the desire to pack up the car and head to the Swell.

Ancient Paths is available for viewing in the CEU Prehistoric Museum, Monday-Saturdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through December 30. Admission to the museum is $4 for adults, $2 for kids and $10 for a family.

Also keep an eye out for the CEU student pottery on sale at the CEU Holiday Festival Scholarship Fund raiser on Dec. 1-2 in the Jennifer Leavitt Student Center.

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