There are pivotal moments in your life when you know “everything will change”. A settling of the mind occurs, a I Love Mud, natural materials to make contemporary artmoment of clarity. Instinctively, you know this is the direction to go. No hesitation. GO!

I have had such a moment recently. Most of my creative energy and time has been funneled in the past three years to raising two young boys. Though at times exhausting me mentally and physically to the point of breaking, the challenge has made me stronger and allowed me to examine my life and the direction I wish to take my art.

I have always been a builder. From constructing small mud villages and tree houses as a child to various shelters and structures as an adolescent to choosing sculpture as my fine art emphasis in college, creating environments and building with my hands has always brought me joy.

After graduating art school, I had no garage or studio to create large pieces anymore. So, until I had that space I pursued large-scale charcoal drawings with much success. And though charcoal is a fabulous medium, it is not my passion. There has always been this great longing within me to build again. But with what? Metal? No, I found it too cold and distant. Wood? I love working with wood but want a more sustainable material. Clay? Hmm…. I love the feel of clay and the ability to rework details but I’m not very interested in the firing and glazing. So, what then? And more importantly, how do I create artwork that creates social dialogue and introspection (key reasons why I share what I create)?

Enter cob into my life. No, nothing to do with corn. Cob is a mixture of subsoil, straw, and water. Traditionally used in buildings in cultures around the world, it is also a fabulous artistic medium, allowing for various colors, textures, and thickness. The best part is: no special tools or kilns needed! It uses materials that are easy to find and harvest yourself, inexpensive, and user-friendly. If you make a mistake, no problem! Incredible reworkability!

In addition, this material represents so many things, socially and environmentally. Oh, the possibilities! But, can these humble materials be used to make contemporary art? Yes indeed. Here are just a few of the artists and designers I’ve found who are making a statement with mud.

Nora Naranjo Morse

“Always Becoming Sculptures”, Photo by Ernest Amoroso

USA-base artist Naranjo Morse works in several mediums including organic materials. Her ephemeral installation, “Always Becoming” made of clays, packed earth, wood, and stone can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Naranjo Morse’s niece, Athen Steen (see Canelo Project), collaborated on the installation.

In 2015, Naranjo Morse created a phase II for “Always Becoming”. The original has weathered beautifully since 2007. She describes the changes witnessed, “…the sculptures of “Always Becoming” were built by a crew made up of indigenous families from the Southwestern United States and Mexico. The materials were simple, dirt and straw, sand and wood. The artistic concept embraced culture, environment, and family. It’s been eight years since these ephemeral sculptures were constructed on the Smithsonian Mall and over the years “Always Becoming” has weathered the often harsh seasons of the East coast with incredible resolve. Every spring Mason Bees burrow into the surface of the sculptures, birds nest in cozy areas of the forms as each piece gently dissolves back into the ground from where they started”.

Canelo Project

Native Confluences collaboration, Athena Steen and Nora Naranjo Morse
“Native Confluences” collaborative installation, image Canelo Project

Artists/natural builders Athena and Bill Steen, are based in Arizona, USA. Last month with my family in tow, I had the opportunity to visit the Canelo Project property where the Steens conduct workshops on straw bale building and earth plasters. Seeing these beautiful structures in person, feeling their warmth and substance under my hand, changed my life.

I had been interested in sustainability, permaculture, and natural building for some time now and had read every book our library had on these subjects. But this was my first in-person experience and I was moved deeply. My moment of clarity. This was the sculptural medium I had been searching for!

In addition to the project “Always Becoming,” the Canelo Project collaborated with Athena’s aunt Nora Naranjo-Morse on another museum project, this time in Tempe, AZ at the Ceramic Research Center at ASU.

The exhibition took part in three stages; Nora was responsible for one of them and another group called “Post Commodity” the other.   The Canelo Project did the third.  The exhibition, entitled Native Confluences: Sustaining Cultures, was an interesting process in that each group contributed to what had been done by the others. Peter Held, curator of the Ceramic Research, described the exhibition as “An experimental process in combining individual artists into a group platform with them working more as community. Consequently, no one group could claim ownership of the work.”


WORKSHOP installation, Building Community, listening wall
Copyright © 2015 WORKSHOP, “Building Community” exhibition

Based in the UK, is a non-profit collective of architects and engineers. From their website, The ambition of the studio is to use the design and construction process as a tool for positive social change, and to create beautiful buildings that are modest, practical and meaningful. We value the dialogue generated by the work, and produce books and exhibitions alongside the buildings in order to open the conversation to a wider audience”.

Their “Building Community” exhibition, held in partnership with the British Council in Delhi, was especially interesting. Examples of earthen plasters and building materials were displayed alongside structures of clay, bamboo, wood, and rope. The lines were clean and contemporary, textures inviting and pleasing to the eye.

Demonstrating the importance of community and providing social gathering areas to buildings, WORKSHOP included several  benches into the design. Especially interesting was the whimsical “listening window”, where ceramic pots had been embedded into the walls. You can place your ear against the mouth of the pot, amplifying sound. I remember trying this trick to eavesdrop as a child, pressing a glass to the wall.

Andy Goldsworthy

Breakwater by Andy Goldsworthy
Copyright © Andy Goldsworthy, “Breakwater” pressed earth stone installation.

UK-based ephemeral artist, Goldsworthy works natural materials into captivating displays. His “Alderney Stones” are a series of pressed earth mixture (essentially cob) formed into these massive boulders. He then documents the stones as the effects of time and weather play out.

Goldsworthy is one of my favorite artists; if you don’t know his work, check him out. Worth watching is the documentary “Rivers and Tides”. In it, he uses fragile materials, ice, leaves, twigs, to create moments of reflection and beauty.

Director Thomas Riedelsheimer worked with Andy Goldsworthy for over a year to shoot the film. There is a profound sense of breathless discovery and uncertainty in Goldsworthy’s work, in contrast to the stability of conventional sculpture.



Abey Smallcombe

abey smallcombe cob sculptures
Copyright © Abey Smallcombe, sculptures “Folly” and “Spiral/Bench”.

UK-based artist collaborative made up of Jackie Abey and Jill Smallcombe. “Our craft is working with cob, earth plasters and other natural beautiful, sustainable materials”. 

Jacki Abey and Jill Smallcombe teamed up in 2000. Jackie has trained at Taunton Art School and is a painter while Jill has a degree in sculpture from Bath Academy and works as an interior designer, teacher, and sculptor.

The sculptures and structures that this creative team build are quite stunning. The lines undulate sensually, making you want to get close, touch it, explore every curve.

Lisa Kaplan

Leaders cob sculpture by Lisa Kaplan
Copyright © Lisa Kaplan, “Who Will Be Our Leaders?”.

USA-based artist, Kaplan spent her formative years growing up in Israel. I find her figurative works powerful and slightly haunting. She says in her artist’s statement, “Earth clay is a primordial medium has been used by peoples and cultures past and present to make things of both beauty and utility. The material immediately taps into to our common humanity, our interconnectedness to one another and to the myriad organisms, natural resources and elements shared on Planet Earth.”

And so, I will harness this new inspiration and begin creating and experimenting. I will keep posting on my successes and failures! May you be inspired as well! I’m off to play in the mud…
What about you? Have you dabbled in earthen materials for creativity? Did any of the artists mentioned above inspire you?

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