EAST DUMMERSTON >> Ahren Ahrenholz, sculptor and potter who lives in East Dummerston, has won first prize in sculpture (3D) at the Cambridge Art Association's 15th National Prize Show for his piece, "X" Number 3, created in 2011.
Juror was Paul C. Ha, currently director of the List Visual Arts Center, the contemporary art museum at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. Approximately 400 people submitted work, and 60 pieces were selected for the show.
As evident on Ahrenholz's web site, ahrenahrenholz.com, he uses everyday objects in many of his sculptures and transforms them into something new.
"My process with sculpture is wide-open," he said. "I have no message. I do not want to assault your senses. I want to seduce them. The end product is not as important as the process, the questioning."
A significant influence on his sculpture, he said, is the African boli sculptures because of their wrapping and surface qualities.
"They are often animal-based and were made as deity worship by the priest cult, especially in Chad and Mali," he said. "The core material is wrapped in rags and then coated with all kinds of other materials: vegetable matter, blood, excrement, urine, alcoholic beverages. These dry to a crusty, cracked surface."
Instead of those substances, Ahrenholz uses white paint on many of his sculptures.
"There's a difference between looking and seeing," he said. "My pieces are white on purpose. The white heightens the sense of shadow and texture. It introduces a lot of air and transparency in the piece. It totally transforms how the piece absorbs and reflects light. The white makes you spend time with the piece."
While Ahrenholz eschews the idea of an "artist's statement" because he believes people should look at the work rather than at the words, he does say on his website, "I construct objects. It is a process of arranging materials: an inquiry into the elements of visual language. The materials used are of no iconic significance beyond their properties of line, mass, density, texture, color and the way they reflect and absorb light. Each object poses questions: What are the visual elements that define it? What exists in perception beyond literal meaning? What is the essence of iconic vs. symbolic form? The objects presented are artifacts of this inquiry."
Ahrenholz heard about the CAA show indirectly.
"I showed at that gallery in the past, maybe eight or 10 years ago," he said. "In January a friend told me by chance about the show. Getting in is a crapshoot. It depends on who the juror is.
"Curators in the U.S. have a tremendous amount of power," he continued. "I have artist friends who are getting master's degrees in sculpture and painting just so they are exposed to the next generation of curators and critics. Bard College is a good example."
Almost all galleries today, Ahrenholz said, are "decorator galleries, really appealing to a group who buy things to match their drapes."
A bigger question than who buys art today, he said, is "Who makes art today?" With many more practitioners than in the past, some strive to appeal to the market, making nicely crafted pieces that are a cookie-cutter notion of what sculpture should look like.
"Only one or two percent of the practitioners are really adding to the vocabulary," he said. "If you criticize people's work, they think you don't like them. That can corrupt a culture. They don't realize you only discuss with people you care about."
As a potter, Ahrenholz has been deeply influenced by what he calls the three major ceramists of the Arts and Crafts movement, who were committed to using only locally sourced materials, both clay and glazes: Bernard Leach (1887-1979); Hamada Shoji (1894-1978), a Japanese potter who worked with Leach; and Michael Cardew (1901-1983), who apprenticed with Leach before establishing his own pottery studio in Cornwall, England. Ahrenholz apprenticed with Cardew in 1971-72.
The role of pottery has been lost, Ahrenholz said. People no longer have a real grasp of how plates and pots are made. In early America, agrarian peasants produced a commodity that society needed. Pottery was among the top three occupations: clergy, schoolteachers, and potters. When potters opened their kilns, a crowd gathered. Crocks were a necessity.
"Today people eat off things they've inherited or that they bought at Crate and Barrel," he said, "or they drink from cardboard cups and eat off Styrofoam plates.
"I stress the function of the pottery," he continued. "I feel strongly about culinary and domestic rituals, the growing, preparing, cooking, and consuming. The pots are subservient to the food. Decoration competes with the food."
In the tradition of his potting mentor, Ahrenholz makes his own glazes from local materials, roasting and grinding ashes and minerals, noting, "even the water you're using affects the glazes. In Cornwall, we set out rain barrels."
He is building a new kiln and hopes to be firing by the summer.
The National Prize Show exhibit will be on view from May 19 to June 23 at both CAA's galleries in Cambridge, Mass: Kathryn Schultz Gallery,25 Lowell St., and University Place Gallery, 124 Mt. Auburn St. The opening reception will take place at both galleries on Friday from 6 to 8 p.m.
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.