Afriware Books was elated to add the works of Afro-Latino ceramic artist Christine LaRue to our selection in 2018. We had great plans to add more items and have showings, but all that was put on hold when the pandemic hit. Find out how an Afro-Latino Clay Artist in Chicago evolved her craft to get through it.
Interview with a Black Clay Artist
Nommo: When did you discover your passion for clay?
LaRue: I discovered clay at the age of 10 at Hull House's Art & Music Camp. Getting one's hand on one of the most basic malleable ancient art forms was magic and has remained so all my life. I have pursued finding my way in clay ever since. All things clay - including epoxy clay, metal clay, paper clay and polymer clay to me are such imaginative mediums; I have worked in all of them. I have even done exhibitions that included all of those forms in one clay sculpture.
Nommo: That's impressive. I didn't realize how diverse the clay universe was. Is that one of your jewelry pieces pictured above around your neck? What type of clay is that?
LaRue: Yes, that pendant around my neck is fine silver clay. It is a certified organic recycled clay body that has microns of fine silver in it in a clay compound. It shapes and forms like ceramic clay. I fire these pendants either in a jewelry kiln or with a good grade hand torch (like what's used for topping off creme brulée) iron top of a regular gas stove.. Once fired, the clay material burns out as the metal is sintered. I like the fine silver because people have less reactions to pure silver as opposed to sterling silver which has nickel and other metals in it. Metal clay comes in fine silver, sterling silver, 14K gold (real gold!) and pure copper. You can see copper works of mine in the jewelry case at AfriWare bookstore.
Nommo: How were you able to develop your craft? Don't you need a high powered oven or kiln to cure your work? It seems this make it a challenge for budding artists on a tight budget.
LaRue: I discovered clay at the age of 10 at Hull House's Art & Music Camp. Getting one's hand on one of the most basic malleable ancient art forms was magic and has remained so all my life. I have pursued finding my way in clay ever since. The public high school I attended, Nicholas Senn High in Chicago had a great art department - including a kiln to fire ceramics. Later at the University of Denver where I attended and earned a B.A. in Latin American Studies, we had a gas kiln, a wood fire kiln and Raku kiln (Japanese quick fire kiln). I learned clay mixing, throwing production style, on a potter's wheel, glaze calculation and kiln building. My interest in Latin American Studies gave me a foundation and appreciation of how African American slaves in Mexico, South America and Caribbean influenced the arts there since Egyptian times. The Egyptians and Songhai kingdoms traded with the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs by ship travel. The famous Olmec heads are direct representation of the Olmecs paying hommage to their African trade relationships. Egyptian DNA studies of the stomach remains yielded cocaine and chocolate - substances only available in Mexico and South America during the earliest of the Egyptian dynasties. Those cultural ties between Native Americans and African kingdoms existed for centuries though that knowledge has been hidden by European conquests and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Americas.
In ceramics, kilns are expensive pieces of equipment, so having a community Art Center like Hyde Park Art Center - famous for their ceramic department is a great organization for a budding ceramic artist. All the clay, tools, instruction one can hope for. Prior to working in Hyde Park, I worked and taught at a clay studio for over 30 years on the North side of Chicago called Creative Clay Things.
As I worked I became interested in other forms of clay. All things clay - including epoxy clay, metal clay, paper clay and polymer clay. Those clay bodies are inexpensive, can be fired in a regular home oven or a food grade hand torch. I have even done exhibitions that included all of those forms in one clay sculpture. Those exhibitions included Black Creativity Juried Art Exhibition at the Museum of Science & Industry, Hyde Park Art Center (various shows), Dixon Elementary School Cultural Connections African Bazaar, DuSable Museum, 5th Floor Galley at University of Illinois, Chicago campus and Beverly Art Center and Beverly Neighborhood Walk.
An opportunity arose to join an organization offering artistic study for up & coming artists with mentorship assistance at Chicago's Hyde Park Art Center. I took the cue even though it was a late in life move. The Center Program pushed artists to develop their artistic voices through in their chosen mediums. Mentors (mentors were long established artists and art gallery owners) assisted artists in techniques for building a consistent body of artwork. After a full 6 months of study in the creative process, artwork was assessed for a grand gallery showing at the Hyde Park Art Center's 75th Anniversary. My art and clay sculptures were based on African, Mayan, Olmec and Creole cultures. One mentor challenged me to do a porcelain sculpture of my own face combining all of those cultures I brought to bear. I did, and after a packed gallery showing, it was the first of my works to sell. You can see the designs on my merchandise on AfriWare's website.
Nommo: The faces of your work are so distinct. Where do you get your inspiration from?
In the early 1990's I lived in Mexico for almost a month. While there, I traveled around learning about ceramics. I studied Olmec & Mayan ceramics and sculpture from Mexico. I also learned about Nazca & Mohican ceramics from Northern & Southern Peru. Those cultures are famous for their masks and intricate designs in jade, stone and clay. I saw linkages in styles with African Ife culture in ancient Nigeria. My glazing and line design are influenced by Japanese glazing techniques (porcelain clay plus celadon glazes) and Noh masks and face painting used in traditional Kabuki theater. All these masks in these cultures carry similar themes depicting non-Caucasian faces. The intricacies of tightly lined designs around faces are really visible in Olmec and Mayan hieroglyphics. This is where my own spatial/lines designs are influenced from.
The beauty and strength of the African American/Latino American face is not something we see held in high esteem in our daily art/cultural lives. The exquisite designs and histories of the cultures I mention are food for my own artistic expression - with a little dash of my own Creole/Cuban background for spice and historical point of view.
COVID 19 Art Therapy
Nommo: How was your clay artistic expression impacted by COVID19?
LaRue: Art doesn't stand still in an artist's mind for long. The Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in February 2020. My community ceramic studio closely briefly to follow CDC rules, and I was stuck without my usual art expression. My father passed away in the first wave of the pandemic. Social isolation brought out my dormant drawing skills that I had not fostered since I was a teenager (40+ years ago). I started drawing my own designs from the ceramic porcelain vases I had made. The drawing(s) on my merchandise on AfriWare's website is born of a pandemic infused social isolated soul, searching for another outlet of art. My love of texture, African, Mayan, Olmec and Creole art culture came into play in my line designs of masks. How rarely do we in the African American community see household items with our faces, our designs based on our expansive culture in our homes? Not often with daily used items. So here we are. Larue's Hand in Clay through another art form besides clay! Lines designs, portrait mask art using micropens and art markers became my art therapy.
Nommo: I LOVE it! From artist's face, to clay pottery, to drawing, to laptop cover. That's quite a journey.
LaRue: Hopefully many of us will dig down deep and rediscover crafts, hobbies, talents that our social isolation will foster. Just as I did, I hope your journey uncovers some new gems within yourself that needed some quiet time to germinate like newly planted seeds.
Follow Christine LaRue on social media:
Her next show will be at Mahogany Art Gallery
To check out her other merch on our site click on Larue's Hand in Clay Category.