Q&A With Cheryl Tall

Q&A With Cheryl Tall

Ceramicist and painter Cheryl Tall invites us to explore a colorful world full of personality with her solo exhibition at Sparks, titled Dramatis Personae. A befitting example of our 2023 shows centered around the theme of “Imagination”, Dramatis Personae, or “Cast of Characters”, showcases Tall’s signature whimsical style in both ceramic and two dimensional painting. Recurring motifs, like fish with human faces, or griffins the size of lapdogs, hint at connections linking the work together with untold lore. The artist gives us a peek into mythos of her work as well as her process for building her eye-catching ceramic sculptures.

Sparks: Tell us about the characters in your pieces. Do you imagine them before you get started working?

Tall: Since childhood, I have created imaginary characters and stories and worlds…perhaps influenced by my dad, who worked at Disney for 20 years.

I have several themes and characters that I continue to work with: relationships, architecture, dualism. The idea of home, etc. A frequent thread in my work explores relationships between couples. This involved working with themes of dualism, polarity, pairs, twins, couples and Gemini. {Below…} are three recurring characters in my art:

Punchinello– Word for chick or rooster. Represented the voice of the common people, lively and spirited. He is a social chameleon who says, “I am the Prince of Everything”. Always on the side of the current winner, which he decides after they have won. 

Colombine– Harlequin’s girlfriend, carries love messages from one cast member to another, clever, pretty, romantic, wears beautiful costumes. 

Harlequin– Astute and cunning. Black and white clothes, peaked hat, senses a spirit in everything. Black and white checkered outfit.

Cheryl Tall – Sudden Eclipse

Sparks: Can you explain your process for creating each of your sculptures?

Tall: I am inspired by mythology, ancient Greek art, medieval art, German expressionism, and the Janus figures in Roman art. I like to play with the idea of dualism, of how something can be one thing and it can also be another thing at the same time. Dualism, such as sisters, sibling, couples, or two sides of the same person. One side wants to go to the Bahamas and the other side wants to stay home and tend the garden.

My usual art media is clay.  The use of this material has a symbolic aspect as well as a pleasurable aspect for me. It fits in with my theme of transformation, by changing in form from mud to stone to shard.

I enjoy its simplicity; made from the earth, easily formed with the hands, and hardened by fire.  Historically, it has been used since prehistoric times both for form and function – goddesses and pots.   

I also work with other media, such as sticks, wood, rusted metal, torn paper – to create mysterious objects which contain references to another culture, artifacts that allude to a previous purpose.  In working on these pieces, I maintain references to my clay work by an emphasis on texture, muted colors and unfinished or broken places.

I like to include an element of surprise to include an unexpected section or idea in the sculpture.  I also would like to evoke an atmosphere of mystery, something unfinished or out of sync, something for the viewer to figure out or to bring to the artwork.  And then, the sculpture should have a tension between its parts, an impression of motion or gravity or attack.

One way I have found to initiate spontaneity in my sculpture is to approach it from another direction, such as building up-side down and then righting it, or taking a piece from one sculpture to be the start of the next. As Renoir related, “When I have arranged a bouquet for the purpose of painting it, I always start with the side I did not plan”. 

I utilize rough dry textures in my work, because they are more stone-like, more similar to peeling paint or worn and eroded surfaces.  My colors are muted, reminiscent of vegetable dyes and faded tapestries.  I use low-fire slips, terra sigillatas and glazes which I make myself.

The sculptures are slab and coil built, made in hollow sections and united by a fitted flange.  They range in size from 20x 8x 8 to 60 x 20 x 20.  The pieces are electric fired, sometimes requiring multiple firings to achieve the proper colors.

Cheryl Tall – Simonetta (Detail)

Sparks: What is the most important advice you would want to share with young, aspiring artists?

Tall: Follow your dreams! I have been a teacher at College, and now teach private ceramic classes. I have students who come in and say “I really like this, but I don’t have any talent, I don’t know how to draw. 

I have them work with clay. You don’t need to draw to work with clay. The students will make wonderful things, and then they get more faith in themselves, take more art classes, go to museums, and end up being artists!

Several of my students have gone on to open up their own studios and become professional artists!

Cheryl Tall – Dream of Flying