• Barbara Sorensen: Nature Artist

    One could argue that nature was the first artist – carving astonishing structures into wind-battered limestone, tracing the marks of absent currents in dry riverbeds, drawing traceries of shadows on moonlit fields and filigree patterns on icy windows. Such creations, both ephemeral and enduring, have long served as inspirations for artists of the human variety.

    One such human, Barbara Sorensen, has been working for forty years-first clay, and more recently resin and bronze-to create works that share nature’s process of change, metamorphosis and ebb and flow. A student of ceramic masters like Peter Voulkos, Rudy Autio and Paul Soldner, she draws from the vessel tradition. She makes it her own by fashioning evocative forms that conjure poetic images drawn from nature and human culture. Sorensen’s works evoke a wide range of associations, encompassing landscape forms like dunes, foothills and volcanoes, human artifacts like boats, shields, and dwellings, and human figures, which seem to be both emerging from and merging with the earth from which they spring.

    Sorensen’s origins as a clay sculptor are evident everywhere in her work. For many years she worked exclusively with clay, reveling in its malleability, its responsiveness to human touch and its transformative power. In material terms, the clay presented a connection with the earth, as the material from which life emerges and to which it returns. Conceptually, it offered her a way to explore the idea of vessels as containers of spirit. As a result, her works have an organic vitality, suggesting things that grow and change. More recently she has branched out to other materials, notably resin and bronze, which allow her to maintain her visual vocabulary while going larger, and lighter and permit more interaction between sky and earth.

    This survey of Sorensen’s works reveals a protean imagination that remains based in what she refers to as her “classical” tendencies. These tendencies manifest in a variety of ways – in the evocation of archeological artifacts and archetypal imagery, in her devotion to simple yet multiply associative forms, and in the simple elegance of her compositions. Sorensen cites Brancusi as an important influence and delves, as he did, into the margins between abstraction and representation, landscape and figure, memory and imagination.

    Among the works here are Sorensen’s Goddesses, figural works which seem to be growing out of the earth. They represent a psychic change in Sorensen’s life, emerging from a time when she felt herself changing and becoming empowered as an artist and a person. These sculptures are anything but static. As they twist and stretch, these abstracted, elongated female forms represent an ideal of life as a process of continual transformation.

    Sorensen’s other figural works share this quality. She has also fashioned works she labels Caryatids, Muses and Sirens. Blending the vessel and the female body, these embody a feminine spirit celebrating the generative processes of woman and artist.

    Other works here offer approximations of natural phenomena that Sorensen has encountered while hiking in the landscape. Her Wind sculptures, fashioned from resin, rope and wood, are like tiny funnel clouds that sway and tilt in response to unseen environmental forces. Sorensen notes that they were inspired in part from the lilting movement of cattails. Curiously, as these are among her more recent works and do not employ clay, they bear a striking resemblance to coiled clay pots. Sorensen’s Pools, employing the same materials, are larger and more vortex-like, suggesting whirlpools drawing energy into a deeply recessed center. The shadows they cast on the wall recall ripples of water expanding outward from these disturbances. Dunes offer similar forms, but reversed-the coiling protrusions now suggest the shifting shapes of sand dunes blown here and there by the wind.

    Ledges speak of the way water and wind shape sturdier matter. Fashioned from stoneware inset with metal and stones, these works evoke the striated shapes of eroded stone outcroppings in Zion National Park in Utah, where she likes to hike. Foothills change the scale, presenting grids of stoneware blocks whose undulating surfaces bring to mind the rolling contours of the land formations for which they are named.

    Other works draw on human history and our impressions of human artifacts. The stoneware Boats grew out of the vessel form, this time transformed into solids that suggest inverted mountains. Hung from the ceiling, they cast dancing shadows on the floor. Conceptually, they conjure the idea of travel and movement.

    The round stoneware Shields suggest archeological artifacts whose weathered surfaces have been reshaped by time and the elements. In fact they, along with a concurrent series of monotypes, are inspired by the gently decaying stucco farm houses that Sorensen observed in the Pyrenees. In both these bodies of work, architectural details like crumbling window sashes and sagging roofs, fall away, leaving us with an organic geometry that speaks of memory and change.

    Sorensen’s Dwellings reveal how new materials create new possibilities. These works, also in vessel form, suggest bundles of pure energy expanding funnel-like from a narrow bottom to an expansive top. Created from shaped wire, they operate like three-dimensional drawings in which interior and exterior are indistinguishable. In their open-ness, they present a way to think about the places our bodies and spirits inhabit. They are also distinguished from Sorensen’s other works by their festive colors, a signal, possibly, of a new direction in her work.

    Recently, Sorensen has begun to experiment with the addition of video to her sculptural installations. In part, this is an effort to introduce literal movement into forms that are inspired by a sense of life’s energy and flux. Through the video, Sorensen’s Dunes and Dwellings come alive as they are overlaid with transient images that suggest the shifting currents of water and wind.

    Such works reveal that Sorensen’s ultimate subject, growth and change. Movement and energy are the essence of life, characteristics of both the physical world surrounding us and our own interior landscape. Sorensen’s works breathe with this truth; in turn, they convey this truth to us.

    Eleanor Heartney, Art Critic and Author

  • Barbara Sorensen: Sculpture as Environment

    The influence of the monumentality and drama of the Colorado mountains can unquestionably be seen in the work of Barbara Sorensen, a Floridian who spends half the year in Snowmass Village, Colorado. In the wide-open spaces of the West, where the vistas go on for miles, one is as aware of the space between the mountains as of their bulk. Yet in close examination of the mountains, one sees the individuality of each, defined by color, shape, and patterning. “Looking carefully at the mountains,” Sorensen says, “the strata stand out as individual patterns, blueprints that tell the history of the earth.” It is this duality of experience, both microcosmic and macrocosmic, that Sorensen seeks to convey in her work.

    This exhibition, Barbara Sorensen: Sculpture as Environment, created over a period of three years, marks a departure for the artist. Although certainly connected to her earlier work which was defined both by its vessel references and by its relationship to nature, this grouping takes Sorensen’s basic underlying philosophy to its next step in terms of size, scale and repetition of forms. The move was conscious, coming out of a desire to emulate the phenomena of nature and to activate the negative spaces between shapes.

    Perhaps this is most clearly evident in Chalice Forest, 1998-99, an installation of twenty “chalices” on bases. Each chalice exists on its own, an inverted cone, both found in nature and for thousands of years copied by man because of the utility of its perfect shape. For Sorensen, these vessel forms tap into the history of clay and are a continuation of her earlier Princess Leia series. The chalices are richly referential: one thinks of offerings, sacraments or even the Holy Grail. At the same time, the folds of the clay, the variation of the surface playing back and forth between smooth and rough textures, and the subtle changes of color speak more to the landscape than to a man-made form. Grouped together, there is a visual rhythm, almost a staccato effect activated by the play between negative space and positive space.

    A similar effect is achieved by the five wall installations, Grottos, 1998, San Andreas, 1999, Pyramids, 1999, Shields I, 1999, and Shields II, 1999, in which forms taken from nature are repeated in a pattern across the wall. Grottos was inspired by a visit to several caves in Aspen, where rocks were smoothed by ice flows thousands of years ago. Like most of Sorensen’s work, Grottos can be read on several levels, including as a literal translation of nature, as stalactites and stalagmites, as petrified limbs, or even as abstracted human forms. San Andreas, also an elongated form but with horizontal splits, is more a metaphor for the shifting and moving of the Earth’s crust, while the Shields – with their crudely rounded forms and textured surfaces with vague impressions and gouges – bring to mind a prehistoric talisman. Interestingly, it is the Pyramids that are the most realistic, their shape directly related to idealized forms of the mountains, their coloring and stratification coming out of Sorensen’s surroundings in Colorado.

    Sorensen also looks to archeology, architecture, and mythology for inspiration. Graces, 1999, for example, is a flight of fancy inspired by the three daughters of Zeus. Artists ranging from Botticelli to Rubens have seen in the Three Graces metaphors for Bloom, Mirth and Joy. Sorensen plays with the vessel form by inverting the bottom and joining it in the center so that the works can be read both as mirrored vessels and as the female form. Here, the folded clay recalls drapery or flowing cloth, imparting movement and an anthropomorphic quality to the forms. The three gently sway in unison, dancing to an internal rhythm. These also can be read on many levels: as vessels, as dancers (in abstracted form), or as metaphor for femininity and / or movement.

    Probably the most accomplished of Sorensen’s work to date – both in terms of sheer scale and technical mastery – is her large-scale installation Caryatids, 1998 (cover). Inspired by the female columns of the same name at the Acropolis in Athens, these columns are undulating forms that recall the human form and the endless columns of Constantin Brancusi. Their surfaces are rough. Embedded stones in the clay result in an undulating surface texture. Darkened areas that give the impression of negative space are created by an organic material that is worked into the clay and burned out during the firing. At a height of between eight and ten feet, the Caryatids are just over human scale. Together, the eight create an environment that the viewer visually walks through. As Sorensen notes: “It is the space between these totems that gives one the feeling of monumentality, of protectiveness, of being close and in tune with the spirituality of nature.”

    A distinctive attribute of this body of work – apart from the formal qualities previously discussed – is the grainy, rock-like textures and blushes of color Sorensen has been able to achieve through a multifaceted process. Much of it is a continuation of an earlier technique in which she embedded rocks from the riverbeds of Colorado into the clay. The heat of the kiln caused the rocks to explode, imparting not only a textured surface but also tiny flecks of color and reflection. Although she has used it in the past, for this series, Sorensen relied more heavily on a technique called soda firing, in which soda ash, dissolved in boiling water, is compressed and sprayed into a kiln heated to approximately 2,100 Fahrenheit. When the molten soda, which is salt based, hits the surface of the clay, it creates a natural glaze. For example, copper results in green and cobalt in blue. In addition, any stones on the surface will melt in the kiln simulating a volcanic surface. “What makes my method unique,” Sorensen has observed, “is the combination of stones and soda firing that creates a varied and exciting surface.” Sorensen has also made use of paper clay, a clay mix in which paper pulp is added to the medium, giving the final piece both physical lightness and strength.

    The distinguishing characteristic seen throughout Sorensen’s work is a love of the material, a connection to a process of metamorphosis that takes clay from the earth and transforms it through fire. There are no guarantees when an artist works this way; much is left to chance and the natural interaction of materials. As she has observed on many occasions, “I both trust and gamble with the fire.”

    Over the years, Sorensen’s development as an artist has not just been a formal pursuit, is has also been working towards a synergistic relationship with her materials. With each new body of work, she progressively surrenders to the inner life of the clay. The surfaces of the Chalices and Caryatids or the off-axis shapes of the Shields, with their rawness and unevenness, are as much about the essence of clay as they are about a formal shape imposed upon it. One thinks of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an elusive philosophy that celebrates simplicity and natural processes. Clay, because it must be first shaped and fired, embodies the concept of wabi-sabi. The resulting cracks, blushes, glazes, and even the final shape illustrate notions of metamorphosis that the material undergoes through shaping and while in the kiln. One of the most important concepts of wabi-sabi is a connection with the “inner soul” of the material. This connection, it seems, is the unifying force behind the newest body of work by Barbara Sorensen.

    Sue Scott, Independent Curator and Author

  • From the Sacred to the Elemental

    Barbara Sorensen’s work carries many meanings from its materials, forms, to its myriad references. Her works simultaneously refer to the landscape, are metaphors for passing time, and embody ideas, many of which carry ceremonial or elemental implications.
    The human impulse to create three-dimensional objects and images from materials taken from the earth is a primal one-archaeologists have discovered small clay figures of humans and animals that dating to 24,000 BC. These early works, found in present-day Czech Republic and probably used in ritual and ceremony, were formed from clay mixed with animal fat and bone and then fired in rudimentary kilns.

    Like those timeless Czech figures, each piece in Sorensen’s vessels, Chalice and Boats, as well as those in the figural Goddess, Siren, and Muse series, is hand-formed from clay and fired. Like early Neolithic pottery, their surfaces are decorated with patterns incised into the earth from which they are made or, as in a number of Sorensen’s vessels and Shields, by pushing small stones and forms into the clay before firing.

    The similarity to antiquity does not end there; each Sorensen work also holds consecrated, mythic references. For example, the ancient Roman calyx or chalice was a goblet or footed cup intended to hold a ceremonial drink, often made of precious metals with intricate surface decoration. Sorensen’s Chalices and Chalice Forest installation echo the ancient forms.

    Rather than silver and gold, however, Sorensen’s Chalices are formed from clay. Instead of elaborate decorations, her versions bear simpler, crumpled patterns and earth-toned glazes. Yet seen in a group of ten, her monumental Chalice Forest appears as an offering to the gods or large a grouping of massive, abstract heads gazing heavenward.

    Similarly, the rounded forms of Sorensen’s Shields remind the viewer of those carried by medieval soldiers. Like their Dark Ages counterparts, each of Sorensen’s bears a different emblem, like a coats of arms in bas-relief from two-dimensional clay and stone pieces laid onto the shield surface, which is in turn etched with an incised pattern and a subtly colored glaze.

    Some of Sorensen’s works-her Goddesses, Sirens and Muses-draw inspiration from the body of myth and legend the ancient Greeks developed in order to describe the nature of the world and their lives.

    In Greek mythology, the Sirens were daughters of the sea and earth gods; they were dangerous seductresses whose enchanting singing lured sailors to rocky coastlines-there to wreck their ships and drown. The Muses were born when Zeus and the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, slept together for nine consecutive nights. The nine goddesses resulting from their union gave birth to the creation of literature and the arts.

    Sorensen’s immense Sirens and Muses stand on individual pedestals, larger than life. The headless clay figures call to mind Greek sculpture, with each slightly different, an icon to femininity and the human form.

    Another figure from Greek mythology, Pandora, was made from the earth-from clay-to become the first woman. The gods gave her the gifts of beauty and seduction, but the gifts to her were also meant as a punishment to mankind for Prometheus’ theft of fire. Famously, the curious Pandora made her opened a forbidden jar, thus unleashing all the evils and ills of mankind upon the world. Only hope was left enclosed in the jar.

    Sorensen has created Pandora’s Boxes, a series of nine clay chests which stand closed in a square. It is unclear whether they have or have not yet been opened by their mythic namesakes.

    Sorensen’s Foothills and Hanging Boats installation blends contemporary technology with works that represent a deep view of time. Millennia are implied by the slices of clay laid upon the floor like tectonic plates, while rivers, winds, and fire-the forces that helped form the earth’s surface-are projected onto them.

    The installation evokes the red, iron-laden mountains and rocks of southern Utah, where subtly colored layers of clay and rock open up to give us a view that spans thousands of years. Ceramic fired boats like those used to transport ancient people hang above these foothills. With striations and pebbled areas, their surfaces appear rough, like the barks of trees.

    Sorensen recently turned from clay to other materials to create Dwellings, Wind, and Pools, series of environments that manipulate, contain, and extend into space. Made of materials including aluminum, wire, resin, and rope, the works all reference organic shapes formed in real life by the elements.

    Dwellings are metal, free-form armatures in black or primary colors with complex exoskeletons around a spacious, empty core. Their intricately woven bands divide and flow through both the interior and exterior of the works; when placed outside, they seem to sway and dance with the wind.

    Some Dwellings resemble honeycombed cocoons; others repose on the floor like temporarily arrested tumbleweeds. Several hang on the wall and recall sea urchins or jellyfish, their shapes seemingly moving with the current, while others appear like nautilus shells whose outer skin has disappeared leaving only the skeleton behind.

    Made from white resin and wire, the forms in Sorensen’s Wind series spiral out towards the viewer to draw deeply into each one’s darkened center. Resembling tornadoes, each cylindrical cone throws long shadows. Reinforcing the perception of the forms’ active vitality and power, these “twisters” bend and sway like the powerful winds that circle the landscape.

    Dunes populate their flattened landscape like small, jutting hills growing organically from a wide circumferences at their bottom with resin-covered rope and wire mesh infrastructures. Each Dune circles to a pointed summit, as if shaped on the shoreline by wind sweeping through the sand.

    Sorensen’s Pools invert the Wind form, originating with a small circumference at the bottom and then expanding toward its wide, open height. The Pools gape like the open mouths of sea creatures, resembling eddies and whirlpools that suddenly appear like underwater tornadoes.

    From making works from the earth, Sorensen has progressed to making works that recall and embody those atavistic elements that form the earth. Whether working with clay, metal, ropes or resin, the artist continues to create haunting forms that carry multiple allusions and associations and reward extended viewing.

    Barbara Bloemink, Former Curator Museum of Arts and Design

  • Site Specific: Echoes

    Barbara Sorensen originally considered a different career in art and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in art education from the University of Wisconsin. As an undergraduate at UW, she was inspired by her faculty advisor Don Reitz, who was by then a well-known ceramicist. Her interest quickly turned to ceramics and she initiated a new career path as a professional artist. Beginning in 1972, Sorensen began working alongside such renowned ceramic artists as Rudy Autio, Paul Soldner, Peter Voulkos, Don Reitz and eventually Dan Gunderson. This was a formative time for Sorensen, as she began developing her own style by learning from the masters. Since then, she has earned a reputation as a versatile sculptor working in a range of media. Her works have been included in numerous exhibitions around the country and can be found in many museum, corporate and private collections.

    Sorensen was first fascinated by clay for its plasticity. Unlike any other three-dimensional medium, clay has the ability to be molded and reworked so long as it remains damp. Its malleable nature allows ceramic pieces to evolve over time and allows the artist to employ a number of processes, i.e. building, throwing and carving, to create a finished work. What also sets clay apart from other sculptural techniques is its ability to be formed without tools. The act of shaping the clay with her bare hands gives Sorensen the sense of being physically connected to her work.

    Although her background as an artist began with clay, Sorensen now works with an array of material, from aluminum and foam to found objects. Her most recent pieces are inspired by the power of nature. These organic abstractions made of clay or mixed materials mimic the natural undulation of rolling hills and craggy rock formations. Sorensen is interested in how geologic evolution implicitly affects us not only physically, but also psychologically. Her installation titled Speleothem is a recreation of a sublime cavernous environment. With its dark and mysterious environment, inhabited by towering and hanging geologic forms, Sorensen creates an environment within the museum that momentarily suspends our connections with the typical gallery environment.

    A series by Sorensen that does not address the role of nature is her Dwellings. These brightly colored forms resemble webbed cocoons. Sometimes standing, sometimes attached to a wall, and sometimes floating, these abstract sculptures act as three-dimensional drawings that question what is interior and what is exterior. For Sorensen, these are physical and visual depictions of bundles of spiritual energy. They are “dwelling places” for residual energy from the past that we cannot see, but coexist with everyday.

    Adam Justice, Curator Polk Museum of Art

  • The Matriculation of the Vessel

    There is no doubt that the power of the earth is enmeshed in Barbara Sorensen’s works. There is a tactile quality in all her clay pieces that speak of the cragginess and topography of our environment. Even her Pools and Dunes, although made out of different materials, suggest the envelope of the earth: its currents and vortexes. Her aluminum pieces, Dwellings, seem delicate, almost lighter than air, another aspect of the earth. But there is another reference detected in Sorensen’s works when seen in a comprehensive collection. From 1993 until today, there is a sense of a seminal shape, the vessel form, developing. It begins as a bud, a tight fist, and as it slowly matures, grows open to release its mystic power.
    Sorensen may have chosen the vessel form from her own feminine sensitivity or because of its eternal qualities. It was an intuitive choice. Through her artistic odyssey, she has used it as a metaphor for both reality and the spiritual. Early on, her production centered on smaller shapes-Pandora’s Boxes-rough, bulging chests encrusted with jagged gems, only hinting of the treasure of gilt and azure paint inside. This vessel, prickly on the outside and internally rich, seems metaphorically to be a portrait of a nascent artist, a rough exterior ready for criticism hiding the sensitivity inside.

    As Sorensen progressed, this tight fist of a box started to open and grow, just like the artist. Across Florida in one-person exhibitions, the evolution of the shape altered, becoming a Chalice. This bulging, open-ended vessel wasn’t meant for beverages, but rather symbolized that which nourishes the spirit. As she matured as an artist, she allowed for the Chalice form to elongate, stretch and matriculate into a Goddess, a vessel of a very different kind. It is interesting that a Pandora’s Box, named for a woman made from earth and a large jar that when opened unleashed many terrible things on mankind: ills, toils, sickness-and Hope-would eventually, in Sorensen’s hands, become a Goddess.

    Sorensen, with her growing confidence and energy, allowed the vessel form to evolve into Boats and Ledges, symbols of survival and safety. As usual, the surfaces of these veritable life rafts looks corrugated and anything but buoyant, but there is more here than meets the eye. Throughout her career she has enjoyed the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-sabi. This Eastern concept is rooted in transience, spontaneity, and suggestion of the natural process. Sorensen specifically chooses materials and processes that allow for changes during the firing. This abandon, rather than rigid control, imbues her work with visual intensity.

    The culmination of Sorensen’s work could be her new series, Dwellings. The vessel shape is still inherent, but in a brand new form. These airy, colorful installations can climb over a wall or seem to tumble across the ground. Instead of clay or bronze, this powder-coated aluminum seems lighter than air and capable of weathering a nor’easter’s blast. Notice how the vessel has opened wide with no containing walls, rendering it open to interpretation on many levels. Sorensen also knows the possibilities of letting light and shadow expand sculpture. These Dwellings take on a moving panorama depending on the time and weather of the day. With these installations, the Wabi-sabi comes from the variety each day brings to the sculpture.

    Barbara Sorensen understands something many artists seem to forget. All cultures have objects of ceremony, ritual, celebration and spiritual power. Sometimes our society and our artists seem to be losing these powerful traditions. Sorensen has allowed her spiritual instincts and her humanism to inform her inherent object, the vessel, to demand a response from the viewer. We, the viewers, are reminded of many things: popular culture, mythology, religion and power. Art is a form of communication, and in all times, art should offer some sustenance. Barbara Sorensen has given us symbolic imagery for an aesthetic feast.

    Jan Clanton, Associate Curator Orlando Museum of Art

  • Thoughts: Don Reitz

    It is always a pleasure to watch a student of yours continue to excel over the years in an experimental way; pushing the envelope, exaggerating shapes, combining dissimilar forms, and using color and texture in an aggressive manner to create objects of significance. When these forms are put in their proper context, be it in a living space or an outdoor environment, they do not become answers about art, the viewer goes away asking a question. This, to me, is what art is about. Not telling the whole story, but giving you clues which you can assimilate in your own way.

    I remember one afternoon at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Barbara was working with clay forms that were trying desperately to be exaggerated and outgrow the confines she had imposed on them. “Barbara,” I said, “Why the hell don’t you just let them grow?” And I’ll be damned if she didn’t. I applaud her willingness to take chances and not to become complacent with the ordinary. The new forms are setting standards again for the next series. Keep pushing the limits.

    Don Reitz, American Ceramic Legend, Artist

  • Thoughts: Paul Soldner

    From the intimacy of the early Princess Leia forms to the more recent human-sized Pinnacles, Barbara has not only played with scale, but her combination of non-functional forms with geological references have left her work embedded with metaphor. Although layered with meaning, there’s a clarity in her work that is both fresh and vibrant.

    Paul Soldner, American Ceramic Legend, Artist, Founder of American Raku

  • Thoughts: Rudy Autio

    Barbara Sorensen continues to surprise us with her formidable ambition and talent for articulating large and looming forms of paper clay in ceramics. To me it’s an impressive sky-full of shapes! They seem balanced ambiguously, challenging gravity in defiance of an uneasy truce with nature.

    She then turns to other inventions that are lacy, enveloping you, embroidering the walls and surrounding space. She also shows opposites, like sturdy juggernauts of heroic pavement stones extruding upwards and inhabiting the ground level as you walk around them. They seemingly spring from nature also and seem part of it.

    Some of her sculptural explorations have a hint of the figure, which I really like. They are understated and mysterious as she continues her search in expanding her knowledge of expressive ceramics. She builds on her inventive history of clay, developing new amazing forms, textures, space, and volume relationships. My admiration grows with her tenacious and significant development in the clay medium.

    Rudy Autio, American Ceramic Legend, Artist

  • Topographies: Barbara Sorensen

    During the decades since Barbara Sorensen first felt clay’s quintessentially satisfying tactile and expressive potential as – literally – the Earth, there have been many changes in her field. The old barriers between “fine arts” and “crafts,” already challenged by the emerging American Craft Movement, had been further eroded by the modernist principles of pioneers such as Peter Voulkos and his emphasis on primal expression and process. Clay, increasingly viewed since the mid-twentieth century as simply an additional medium for creating vanguard sculpture, was in the process of taking its rightful place in art’s pantheon.
    So when Sorensen, planning for a career in art education program, walked into the University of Wisconsin’s Madison pottery studios that day in the mid-1960s, she also entered an ongoing revolution with Don Reitz at its helm. From that day on, clay – earth itself – was her ideal medium, the artist says. “Everything drew me to it: the touching; the feeling; the making something from absolutely nothing. I loved the tactile quality of the clay, the pushing and pulling of the earth; I loved physically moving the clay and building it; I fell in love with clay.”

    “It just clicked for me, and I’ve never looked back,” says Sorensen. That early connection was reinforced and powerfully recharged after studies at post-graduate workshops and a move to Florida. Sorensen began working at Stetson University with ceramics professor Dan Gunderson, the noted artist and curator of the current exhibition. She launched a new level in her work.

    The collaboration between the two potters, which began on a mentor/protégé basis, was particularly fortuitous: Like her, Gunderson had studied with Reitz in Madison at that pivotal moment for the medium. While their styles differed, both potters shared their approach to the medium and, crucial to the development of Sorensen’s mature work, their attitudes and expectations harmonized. Sorensen’s first solo exhibition in Florida, at Stetson University’s gallery, showed the results of her independent exploration in Stetson’s studios; it also led to work with other key mentors, among them Voulkos, Rudy Autio and Paul Soldner, during workshops at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

    Those workshops were intense – and intensely influential. “Paul and Pete were burning the midnight oil in studios next to mine,” Sorensen recalls. “We had weeks of work, critiquing, going out for meals and firing kilns on those beautiful fall days and nights that only Aspen has. I remember a lot of sharing of ideas, of new and important turning points in my work: epiphanies and new directions.”

    Soldner’s encouragement was chief among these new ideas and epiphanies. The older artist, who in the mid-1950s had begun his ceramics studies as Voulkos’s first student at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, had established Anderson Ranch in 1968 as a center for creativity and artistic growth. That’s where she found her voice as an artist, Sorensen says. “Paul was always there. He told me to give myself permission to experiment, to grow. He empowered me to develop in my own way, on my own path.”

    Surrounded by the broader shifting views of clay and immersed in the constant flow and exchange of ideas, techniques and concerns with clay’s masters, Sorenson remained true to her initial response to the medium. At the same time, she found ways to strengthen that response as she mastered and rapidly expanded on seminal, ground-breaking new forms like her Purse and Pandora series.

    Monumental in scale despite their moderate sizes, those vessels were nascent Dwellings, inviting viewers to step close and peer inside, to experience directly their richly varied surface tones and textures, their swelling forms and the folds and cavities that invite exploration. The gilded interiors of the Pandoras, in contrast with pitted, tactile exteriors that alternatively seem to challenge or demand the viewer’s touch, hint at atavistic mysteries, at primal, universal messages and meanings, at an eternal interplay between craggy, inchoate Earth and the sort of burnished, jeweled ornamentation that elicits a sense of antique, half-forgotten civilizations.

    Still, emphatically, they remain of the Earth: Clay, the fundamental material of the earliest cultures and, paradoxically, a medium that is utterly modern, bears in Sorensen’s work gouges, fingerprints and other marks that are at once intentional and random, fierce and subtle, two-dimensional and sculptural. Earth itself took on recognizable form in the Purses and Pandora caskets, allowing Sorensen to smooth its surface in one series while enhancing its roughness in the other. Closely related, with their suggestions of the figure merged with and into the Earth’s contours and tactile elements, they embody the essence of new work that retained the vessel form or, alternatively, moved into a new format, the relief-like Shield series.

    Massive and weighty, singly or in heraldic clusters, the Shields appear encrusted and eroded, as if from centuries in some long-forgotten tomb. They appear to be losing their original designs as the earth reabsorbs them, returning them to their fundamental materials. Colors are mottled, peeling, fading in “Shield de Pyrenees,” and an overall rusty sheen is broken by the marks of the artist’s fingers imprinted on bands and circles that seem in the process of being eaten away by the crackled, pitted gray remnant that borders the lower portions of the piece. Underlining the links between the Shield’s role as both absolutely earthly and highly symbolic is the way Sorensen slashes the form into two halves, as if split by human or natural forces in some epic battle.

    Just as masterful in its blend of past nobility, now in fragments that even in a state of advanced decay still retain the artist’s physical touch, the human presence, and the inexorable effects of time and nature on all the works of mankind – literally, a personal, affecting statement of art’s ability to endure – are works that retain the vessel form. Seemingly far from the sleek, swelling Purse, the forms that emerge as a Goddess or Chalice draw on that prototype as the traditional vessel and then push it to and just beyond its earth-bound limits. The mystical overtones evoked by the sculptures’ names are intentional, as is Sorenson process of building the monumental, spiraling vessels from thick, embossed, pitted slabs, leaving the traces of her actions in their patchy skin and giving them a precarious, balletic balance.

    The Chalices, inverted cones or mountains that also embody notions of such catastrophic climatic events as whirlwinds and tornados, are visceral celebrations of clay’s potential given full expression. Like three-dimensional topographical maps or sections of sod pleated over immense eons by the agonizing clash of tectonic plates and forced up into mountains – only to be eroded again – the Chalices at first glance seem far removed from their namesake, the sacramental cup that inspired Crusades and holy wars. Their sheer size and earthen walls, embedded with exploded pebbles and slathered with chalky, peeling slips, appear primordial, sui generis; what makes them sacred and ties them to Sorensen’s elegant, elastic aesthetic is their balletic poise and, in an unexpected and uplifting grace note, the barely visible gold-leafed interiors that are so different from their gritty, grainy surfaces.

    Just so do Sorensen’s Goddesses, like the related Caryatids, Muses and Sirens, embody seemingly contradictory elements while ultimately melding them into a coherent and satisfying synthesis. The forms are variations on the classic container, repeated in hourglass columns made up of stacked, mouth-to-mouth chalices in the more abstract Caryatid series and in the attenuated Siren series, where wraith-like female figures appear on the verge of whirling into thin air, spun into slender, wiry goddesses, bound by their own rippling robes. The Goddesses, however, are far more substantial, like Chalices that develop most fully the artist’s sense of the vessel as a metaphor for the human body which cradles the spirit. Like the open, broad-bellied Purse and the closed, footed Pandora, Sorensen’s Goddess is a primal generative deity.

    Made of and from the Earth itself, she – alone or with other, similar deities – seems to still be in the process of becoming, to be shaping herself out of the flesh of her Mother. As such, she is a modernist cousin of Michelangelo’s Bound Slave, who symbolizes the soul struggling to escape its mortal prison. Instead of marble carved in the approach codified by Beaux-Arts tradition, however, Sorensen wrestles with her material, the plebian and ubiquitous clay from which the gods shaped man. But, in her hands, the result is just as stunning: The figure, fragmentary but recognizable, strains against the bindings that both envelope and embody it. Goddess, Siren, Muse all appear to be either taking on human shape or experiencing the disintegration of their human forms.

    Either way, it is not the form that matters but the spirit it contains and which, with its earthly bindings marked by the artist’s emphatically human touch, it releases. In a subtle nod to the pivotal Chalice form, Sorensen’s mythical nudes reach upward or outward, their arms truncated or absent, as if they themselves are merely extensive, highly evolved Chalices reaching toward the sky in celebration. Michelangelo left his Bound Slave forever fighting his marble cage; Sorensen’s deities are in the process of becoming, mutating, organically transcending their physical prisons. They twist and turn, spiral and reach heavenward, joyously; in a sense, whether the more recent of the Goddesses are dancing, posing, writhing, what is most engaging emotionally is an almost inexpressible sense that they are, essentially, husks for a departed, or soon-to-be fully dematerialized human spirit.

    Sorensen expresses the same ethos in Dunes and Foothills, series that succeed in erasing the line between art and life that so absorbed Robert Rauschenberg when he created his “Erased de Kooning Drawing” in 1953. The young artist’s iconoclastic gesture, obliterating the work of a modern master whom he greatly admired, made a number of points. Chief among them was that his actions created a work of art imposed on a now invisible iconic image – minimal, yet open to accidental effects of pentimenti on the laboriously erased drawing or of fleeting effects of light and shadow on the newly white sheet. Thus the art is not the object but the concept. Both eloquent and open to interpretation, pieces like Foothills, thick blocks of clay incised as if by rivers and geological pressures and embedded with pebbles, and the more ethereal, wall-hung mixed-media Dunes, capture two very different views of nature.

    The Foothills, either in single slabs that appear to have been lifted intact from the Earth or installations that may include as many as 20 blocks set on the floor just far enough apart to call attention to their individual elements, express a vertiginous duality. At once close and so compelling visually that its blocks invite physical contact, Foothills simultaneously appears to create an aerial landscape seen from such a great distance that small details like the cracks, canyons and fissures made by melting, exploding pebbles blur into insignificance. Constructed from white resin on cones of coiled rope, Sorensen’s wall-mounted Dunes also express aspects of her central theme: the Earth, in its varying forms. Ghostly and insubstantial, each Dune is an inverted Chalice form that has been reduced to a skeleton, inviting dramatic shadows and defying the tactile qualities implicit in Sorensen’s clay forms.

    Related wall works, the rope-and-resin Wind and Pool installations, literally turn the Dune concept on its head. These Chalices, with loosely closed mouths open to the elements and to the viewer, could hold nothing. Pushing the lacy qualities still further, in her Wind series Sorensen allows the open columns, cones and basket shapes to bend, sway and dance as if blown about by an invisible wind. There is greater freedom in the coiled rope pieces with their open walls; nonetheless, the sense of natural forces, present or long past – a constant in Sorensen’s work – animates the Dune and related series. It also pushes toward the most recent body of work, the dematerialized and even more interactive Dwellings.

    Yet they also draw on the seminal Boat series of vessels that embody the classic concerns of transformation, of spiritual transcendence. Like Goddesses, Boats draw on the most ancient sources to express the most enduring human concerns: “Who are we? Where do we come from? And where are we going?” in Gauguin’s words.

    The Boats – elongated mandorla-inflected forms pedestal-mounted or suspended in groups against gallery walls in installations that invite the interplay of light and shadow – symbolize a journey between the opposites as life and death, physical presence and spirit, masculine and feminine. Their forms are massive, as encrusted and marked by the artist’s manipulation of her essential material as any Chalice; the use of a vessel form, classically female, and the paradoxical sense of lightness that is given in the installed suspension of each Boat, however, paves the way for a deeper, more reflective exploration.

    For Sorensen, most overtly in the Boat series, the creative goal is to forge the inner and outer forms – the spiritual “sacred center,” private and personal, and the toughened outer core with its scars and thickened skin – into a balanced vessel that can transcend the mortal, that can make life’s sometimes perilous, sometimes smooth journey. The direction taken by the Boat is uncertain, however stout and firm its surface or how sensitive its core; unlike the related but static Ledges series, the Boat can move backward or forward, casting shadows or moving into the light.

    The Ledges, massive half-vessels that jut from gallery walls like hollow, unstable natural formations, express a sense of precariousness that goes beyond that of the Boats, yet at the same time offer handholds, projections which a climber might grasp to pull up a steep slope. They retain the vessel shape, and ironically suggest that they continue into the gallery wall – whether only one deeply scored, rippled ridge is mounted on the gallery wall or a grouping, only a small part of the structure’s resistant stone is visible, and the Ledge will remain solid.

    Ironically, that same sense of security and permanence pervades Sorensen’s recent series, the enameled metal Dwellings. Lacy, almost completely minimal or eroded versions of her earlier series, the sculptures that rest on gallery floors, hang alone or in multiples on walls or revolve on pedestals in shiny reds, yellows, blues or black, represent a major leap forward for Sorensen, rather than a departure. Like her other series, most inspired by features of the landscape, the metal sculptures sprang from the artist’s experience. While traveling, she was open to influences from a wide variety of sources – in this case, primitive fishing nets. Their shape, a tubular design woven into an elongated sack, moved her vessel forms forward in a surprising way; the net retained the essential concept, reducing it to its simplest elements while expanding its potential.

    Gone are the earthen walls and the tensions between thickly folded walls and the eroded, encrusted bands that underlay the Shields’ geometric ornament or the sleek golden polish inside the rough Chalice. The artist’s touch remains, in miniature, at each welded joint between slender, hollow metal tubes. However, the Dwellings are, in a very literal sense, more reflective than Sorensen’s earlier iterations of her central aesthetic: Those slender tubes capture every passing shadow, changing in response to an approaching viewer and even, in natural light, to the passing of time as their shadows lengthen and contract in response to nature’s rhythms. Each has an opening, an inviting portal that draws the eye into the Dwellings’ interior – or, as there are no longer walls, no more intensely worked earthy enveloping walls – into an implied space that is open to the world.

    Dwellings, remarkably, restate Sorensen’s major themes in a lighter, livelier and more playful fashion, as do her equally elegant and assured new works on paper. Her monotypes and encaustics suggest spiritual versions of Foothills, abstractions of monumental earth forms. Rather than the muscular, tactile qualities that make her Chalices, Goddesses, Boats and other clay sculptures so hard to resist physically, so lusciously textured and toned, Dwellings and the new works on paper invite an equally immediate response, but one that is more spiritual, more centered in the intellect and thus more abstract. That should come as no surprise in the oeuvre of an artist as focused, disciplined and mediumistic as Sorensen. From the day she walked into Reitz’s Madison studio, she has worked to balance the basics of art and life and to erase in a personal but thoroughly modern approach the line that divides them.

    Watching this mature artist at the very top of her talents and field grow and evolve will be compelling – Sorensen is open to fresh approaches, new materials and the most inspiring and subtle influences. Her work consistently has sprung from her central concern for the Earth, its endless variations and permutations, her abiding respect for its materials, generative and eroding forms and its immense forces, past and present and future. She has moved forward continually, to express herself in new ways, to state and restate her core beliefs, and even to even turn them upside down; a modernist with a strong sense of the whole panorama of art, she has grown increasing free in the ways she sees, evaluates, formulates and, instinctively, makes her art. In her most recent body of work, Sorensen sharpened her focus, paring all extraneous material away and reaching, provocatively, toward a personal, and highly resonant, abstraction.

    Laura Stewart, Writer and Art Historian