Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Mud and Ink

Vis Arts exhibition combines the age-old arts of ceramics and tattooing.

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As old as tattooing is, and inking has been documented as far back as 3,200 B.C., pottery making’s endurance makes tattooing look like yesterday’s new thing. Pottery is among mankind’s oldest inventions, dating as far back as 29,000 B.C.

Despite the difference in longevity, the Visual Arts Center of Richmond decided they two art forms would make a natural pairing. “Of Mud & Blood” brings together an array of objects – bottles, vases, platters and plates, bowls, tumblers, wall hangings, a lamp – as a means of exploring both of these centuries-old crafts in a fresh way.

Random as the combination might seem, the exhibit has its roots in the 2020 National Ceramic Arts Conference that had been scheduled to take place in Richmond in March that year. Before the world closed down and the conference was canceled, Jeff Vick, a pottery instructor who manages the ceramics studio at the Vis Arts Center, came up with an idea. When he learned that one of his pottery students, Katie Davis, was also a tattoo artist at Salvation Tattoo, he suggested that he create a piece for her to decorate.

“My thought was to have clay artists and tattoo artists collaborate and we’d have a small show at the conference,” he recalls. When everything shut down, some pieces had already been completed. According to Vick, “Then our executive director Stefanie Fedor saw what was finished and was intrigued. She saw the potential of the show.”

Once things began opening up again, they decided to expand the original idea to a bigger show, which allowed Vick to coordinate more tattoo and ceramic collaborations. Suddenly his little idea became a full-scale exhibition uniting the two scenes. The striking piece, “Trial by Fire,” brought together clay artist Merenda Cecelia, who created a sculptural shell of the female torso, with tattooist Amy Black, who painted red flowers entwined over the breasts, a magnolia blossom between the ribs and thorny black stems over the belly and hips. Hanging on the gallery wall, it’s an immediate attention-getter.

“This was a blind collaboration,” Vick explains. The 18 clay artists were told only to design whatever they wanted to and once all were completed, the 33 tattoo artists were invited in to view the pieces, with no indication of who had made what. “We asked only that they choose what spoke to them,” she adds.

The tattoo artists then took the pieces home for several months to work on them. Once their artwork was complete, the original clay designers were tasked with glazing the pieces.

“We got no instruction from the tattoo artists, so it was our job to decide how best to glaze them,” Vick says. “It could be clear or not, so that made it lots of fun to think outside the box. It was a complete trust factor for everyone.”

“Blue Heron and Dogwood,” a strikingly large bowl, was thrown by Vick and painted by Davis to dramatic effect. Set against a coral background, the bird’s wings reach around the top of the bowl, not quite touching, with dogwood blossoms scattered about. “I didn’t want to disrupt the image, so I spent time with the unglazed piece just thinking,” Vick recalls. “It’s a busy image and I thought a colored glaze might detract, so I used a neutral glaze to let the design come through.”

With most exhibitions, the art on display is available for sale. That wasn’t going to work for the collaborative pieces in “Of Mud & Blood.” With each piece made by two artists, there was no equitable way to divide the proceeds. The solution became a silent auction that ends Dec. 20 and benefits Health Brigade, MAD RVA and programming at the Visual Arts Center. “That way, the value is determined based on who is buying it,” Vick explains. “It adds to the theme of community because then we can financially support spaces that give back to the community.”

That community aspect is a large part of how the exhibition came together.

“We’re bringing two facets of Richmond together and showing them off to the community,” he says. Clay is an important element of the Visual Art Center’s focus, so the collaborations provided a means of showcasing their instructors. And tattooing, as the national press has repeatedly acknowledged, is integral to Richmond’s identity. “This exhibit truly represents community,” says Vick.

“It’s two major communities working together seamlessly, with the proceeds benefiting those who are dedicated to helping the community.”

Note: Vis Arts is closed Dec. 24 - Jan. 3. “Of Mud & Blood” runs through Jan. 9 at the Visual Arts Center's True F. Luck Gallery, 1812 W. Main St., visarts.org. Masks are required inside the building.