Clay's Forgiveness

Derek Weisberg’s expressive sculptures

Sometimes playing with mashed potatoes can lead to a great career. At least that’s what sculptor Derek Weisberg will tell you.

Playing with food soon turned to playing with clay, which eventually became the sole focus of Weisberg’s art work. Although his allegiance is to clay, Weisberg admits that he’ll use other materials that might be better suited to express some of his ideas. However, clay is his primary medium and he says, “I love the immediacy of the material. There are very few other materials where the artist can interact with directly; painters use brushes and wood; stone carvers use chisels; drawers have pencils or charcoal. With clay there is (or can be) no separation between the hand and the material and I love that.”

But there’s more to it. Weisberg explains the nature of clay: it can be altered and shaped because of its flexibility, but also its forgiveness; it can be pushed, pulled, added, subtracted. It can be used as a solid or a liquid. Weisberg adds, “I also like the ‘alchemy’ or transformation aspect of the material, as it goes from clay to ceramic. The mysteries and surprises that can happen when you put the work in the kiln is very appealing to me.”

This enthusiasm of working with clay has produced a series of sculptured characters that carry life’s heavy burdens; their weary facial expressions convey dissatisfaction, despondency or grief within their lives, which evoke powerful emotions for both the artist and his audience. “I want to create a deep and moving viewing experience that is felt and has an immediate and a human resonance,” he says.

Yet Weisberg believes that the range and the complexity of emotions he conveys via his work goes beyond gloominess and desperation. “I often think about vulnerability and dysfunction, as I feel humans are, and try to hide both of these things. Two very common phrases come to mind ‘we are only human’ and ‘nobody is perfect, when I think of humans and their vulnerability and dysfunctions. Also I feel like the world we live in is pretty dysfunctional, and so my figures become personifications or allegories of the state of the world which we are living in.”  

Longing or desire is another emotion he depicts often. “I think most humans, are always longing, desiring things, experiences, relationships.  I feel like life in general, and especially for myself being an artist, I am in a permanent state of longing—a never ending quest—to make the best sculpture I can, to understand more about myself and life, to search for truth.”  

He uses his own personal experiences as a tool for self-reflection, which becomes a spiritual, psychological or emotional catalyst for the viewer. “As each viewer experiences my work and has a reaction they will (hopefully) feel something. If that feeling is sadness then my work can become the thing that helps identify that sadness or a problem. That realization is the most important aspect--it is the starting point of change. Happy emotions are easy, but they can be easily digested and passed over. I depict more pessimistic emotions. They are challenging and when we challenge ourselves we learn, we grow, we evolve, we survive, we live.”

These sentiments are his muse and are recorded in a sketchbook, which also serves as a diary. The sketches are accompanied by notations that ultimately lead to a sculpture. “I like having the drawings as very rough ideas, it keeps me from being a prisoner to them.”  From his drawings several composites or even a photograph, Weisberg begins sculpting. At times he works in front of a mirror, using himself as a model when he encounters an anatomical problem or aspect.  

The sculptures Weisberg assembles are coil built pieces that are completely hollow and he works from the ground up. “I work very generally at first. Because clay has a weight and mass and I am always fighting gravity. I can only build vertically so high before I have to let the clay firm up a bit. This can take a day or so, and then I go in and detail the piece adding and subtracting, refining the form to my desired image.  If I need to build the piece higher, I repeat those steps.”

Once he finishes the building, he often glazes or colors the sculpture, using numerous washes of underglazes, and mason stains that resembles water colors, and then he fires the piece.  “I try to get away with a once fire (firing the piece one time instead of firing, then applying glaze, and then firing again), but often the piece needs additional color or touchups and such and so I apply more pigment and will re-fire the piece.”  The firing will be repeated as often as necessary until Weisberg is satisfied with the result. But he adds that he uses other material other than the traditional ceramic ones like acrylic, oil, spray paint, wax, tar, or whatever is needed to complete a finish.  

Weisberg’s current project, "Porcelain Promises,” centers around a new attraction—porcelain. “I love how finicky and difficult porcelain is to hand build and sculpt with; it presents nice and fun challenges. In its finickiness, the clay can crack easily,  and I have been playing with these cracks.” For his sculptures the cracks serve as a metaphor of the human experience. They represent the visual evidence of the numerous incidents that occur in a lifetime. “The cracks appear just as when we break our skin, we end up with scars, physical representations of that experience.”

To learn more about Derek Weisberg, please visit www.derekweisberg.com.

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