Barbara Sorensen may be only an inch over 5 feet tall, but she's held her own among major figures of the male-dominated studio ceramics movement. In fact, several became mentors, including groundbreakers Don Reitz and the late Rudy Autio, Paul Soldner and Peter Voulkos.
Ms. Sorensen will give a free public talk at 6 p.m. Thursday at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in conjunction with an exhibition of her work, "Topographies." A reception will follow.
The sculptor spoke about her career Monday as she rode in a cab from Pittsburgh International Airport to the North Side. She had flown in from Wisconsin where a solo exhibition, "Barbara Sorensen: Elemental," opened the day before at the Racine Art Museum. This particularly pleased the Racine native, who was given her first major retrospective last year by the Orlando Museum of Art, near her adopted home of Winter Park, Fla.
"Both of my hometowns are acknowledging my work," she said.
Ms. Sorensen, 67, earned an art education degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she studied with Mr. Reitz. She taught high school for two years before "taking time off" to raise her two daughters, KDKA-TV news anchor Kristine Sorensen and Robyn Scott of Basalt, Colo.
When they left home, she returned to clay through classes in Florida and at the venerable Anderson Ranch Arts Center near her second studio in Snowmass Village, Colo. She recalled "a poignant moment" at Anderson Ranch, where her studio was adjacent to that of Mr. Voulkos, a seminal ceramist who turned pots into sculptural statements by piercing and distorting them.
"I was sitting there throwing my little bowls and Peter walked in. He never said anything, but he picked up one of my bowls and closed the top, making it nonfunctional. I never made a functional piece again. It was one of those moments like an epiphany."
Through the years she and Mr. Reitz became friends. "About 18 or 20 years ago, he was hanging out in my studio. I had several sculptures on shelves that were 1 or 2 feet tall and he asked, 'What do you want to do?' "
When she told him her ambitions, he said " 'Then you just have to do it.' He didn't tell me how. He just gave me permission to do it."
It was the seed of the 8- to 10-foot high "goddesses" series, evocative fragmented figural works hand-built around armatures, and other monumentally sized works.
"I was fortunate to have some great mentors who taught me to trust myself and find myself as an artist," she said.
Ms. Sorensen began as a ceramist, eventually pushing scale and technical limits with works such as the 4-foot wide "Boats" exhibited at Manchester, which have a post-firing weight of 50 pounds.
"I'm only 5-foot-1 and I wanted to make 5-foot tall pots, which I couldn't do on the wheel, so I learned the slab method. The sculpture got so big that I wanted to make it for outside display and began casting the clay pieces in bronze.
"Through the years, the material did not adapt to what I wanted to say and I turned to resins and then aluminum to get the size and scale I wanted," she said.
Her brightly colored, wiry aluminum "Dwellings" are 12 to 15 feet high and very durable in any climate, she said. The voluminous open aluminum sculptures seem oppositional to the clay forms but they share the notion of "vessel," whether referencing functional object or fleshy confine of the human spirit.
"You begin on the wheel making a vessel. That runs through, even in my big work, consciously or unconsciously."
More intrinsic is the idea of land. "My work is really about the landscape and the environment. I hike a lot and am very athletic. I've hiked in New Zealand, Australia, the Spanish Pyrenees. The more I saw, the more I came into my own voice."
When she layers slabs of clay, she thinks of geological processes like metamorphosis and the overlapping planes of plate tectonics. "My clay work is not only made of the earth but the subject itself is the making of the earth."
She's influenced by the sea, water and sand dunes in Florida, where she spends approximately half the year, and by the mountains and rivers of Colorado during the other months.
The multi-media installation "Foothills," at Manchester, comprises 16 altered parallelograms, "like geologic slices." Their inspiration was the rolling hills one sees looking out the window of an airplane approaching a mountain range. Composer Stella Sung wrote the score and David Hiser created the video which animate the form in a changing wash of sound and color.
"The ceramics mimics the topography," she said. "The images projected upon it are of the four elements that make up the earth -- air, earth, fire, water. Running water, fire from the kiln, wind blowing, clouds rolling ..."
In addition to "Foothills," the Manchester exhibition includes three "Boats" and selections from Ms. Sorensen's "Shield de Pyrenees" and "Pandora" series. There are no monumental works, but she will talk about and show images of those during her PowerPoint presentation Thursday. The lecture will close with a 10-minute video created specifically for Manchester that is "an animated version of where my ideas come from."
Some of her talk will be motivational because it is at Manchester, where she will conduct a youth workshop, and because she began as an art educator. She will discuss realizing goals. "When you get an idea, you have to figure out how you're going to make it happen." And she'll talk about growth and change, which a New York critic decreed her "ultimate subject."
Many of her mentors have taught and lectured at Manchester and she sees her appearance as in a way coming full circle. "I'm honored to be here."
"Topographies" continues through March 15 at 1815 Metropolitan St., North Side. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Admission is free. Information: 412-322-1773 or www.mcgyouthandarts.org.
AAP jurying news
The Associated Artists of Pittsburgh spring new member screening will be held Feb. 17 at 201 N. Braddock Ave.,Point Breeze (11 a.m.-2 p.m. drop off; 4-6 p.m. pick up). However, applications for video, installation and other large-scale works must be submitted by 4 p.m. Friday to the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Jurors are center curator Adam Welch and independent curator Casey Lee Droege.
Jurying for the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh 102nd Annual Exhibition will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 3 at Bakery Square, 6425 Penn Ave. East End. However, applications for video, installation and other large-scale works must be submitted by 4 p.m. Feb. 25 to the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The juror is David Norr, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland.
Submissions to both events is open to artists age 18 or over working in any medium and living within a 150-mile radius of Pittsburgh. Applications and information at www.aapgh.org.
Convention center art tour
The monthly Pittsburgh Office of Public Art walking tour will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. Feb. 22 and focus on art in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. The guided tour, which is free and open to the public, will begin in the convention center lobby.
A highlight will be the convention center debut of a seven-painting series, "At the Foot of the Falls," by Spanish artist Felix de la Concha. The subject is Fallingwater, the home that architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Kaufmann family in the Laurel Highlands. Mr. de la Concha, who lived in Pittsburgh from 1997 to 2000, returned in 2005 and 2006 to paint the iconic home in all seasons from the vantage point of the falls beneath it. The oil paintings are 833/4 inches tall by 371/2 inches wide. Mr. de la Concha carried the large canvases through snow, bushes and rocky elevation to pursue his work.
The series has previously been exhibited at Fallingwater and at Concept Art Gallery, Regent Square. Sam Berkovitz, Concept gallerist, will talk about the works during the tour.
The paintings are a gift from the Colcom Foundation to the Sports & Exhibition Authority. "'At the Foot of the Falls' is the first artwork to be added to the collection outside the initial [acquisition] program," according to Angelica Ciranni, authority sustainability coordinator. The Colcom grant was $170,900 and funds the purchase, installation and maintenance of the artwork.
The paintings are located on the second floor concourse outside of Hall B, near Thaddeus Mosley's "Three Rivers Bench," another work on the tour. Mr. de la Concha's "The Last Supper," an allegorical work comprising 13 tall panels depicting utility poles, was part of the original artwork purchase for the new convention center. It is permanently installed in the East Lobby on the first floor. Information: http://pittsburghartscouncil.org.mobilehome - artarchitecture
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.