By Gina Malone
In describing the process she uses to create her sculptural porcelain, Deneece Harrell chooses words that suggest how anthropomorphic clay becomes, and how visceral as well. She talks about the “skin-like quality” of the porcelain. Her works have “bodies.” In fact, she says, “the vessel is described as having a foot, shoulder, neck, lip—human characteristics invoking questions of relationships both personal and interpersonal.”
Her work is driven, she says, by questioning, searching and wrestling with ideas of identity, worth and purpose. “My quest to find a medium, process and techniques which would be the foundation of the synthesis of an exploration of ideas led me to using porcelain clay,” she says. Through the years, research and experimentation have helped her discover a composite formula that closely replicates kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, among other elements, so that the breakage and repair are part of the beauty. “Gold leaf is applied in torn and fragmented pieces to the interior and outpouring features of the vessel,” says Harrell, “speaking of process, unfinished, ongoing revelation of worth, joy, beauty in reflecting value to the work around us.”
She often begins a piece with fragments of thoughts in mind until she visualizes a form, holds it “in the imagination of my hands” and can then capture it with a quick sketch. When she works with the clay, subtle changes happen, opening up further avenues of reflection. “All sorts of things can finish a piece,” she says. “Visual satisfaction and unity of thought, as in the end of a paragraph, is the most accurate analogy.”
Harrell grew up in Lakeland, Florida, where nature and creativity filled her days. “My parents provided a lot of unstructured time for play, imagination and games,” she says. During her studies in design and architecture at the University of Florida, she took her first ceramics class.
“My interest at the time focused on figurative work, head, expression, aging, vessels, textural relationship and learning to make glazes,” she says. “I continued to study sculpture and photography along with interior design.” After graduation she began a career in corporate interior design, later working with residential design and painting. When, later, she began teaching visual art in public schools, she felt as if she had gone back to school herself, she says, “Creating a 3D-heavy ceramic program in middle school provided the opportunity to work almost daily and to broaden my technical skills with clay and art promotion,” says Harrell.
She now lives and works in the North Carolina mountains where, as a child, she visited her grandparents. “I am drawn to the layering and splitting forms of stone outcroppings, the interwoven veining in tree branches and leaves, the bright and undulating surface of the water as it flows over the rocks—all of which finds its echo in my work,” she says. Surrounding herself with a rich art community that includes the Southern Highland Craft Guild was another motivating factor for making WNC home.
Among the regional galleries that carry her work is The Gallery at Flat Rock, where owner Suzanne Camarata was instantly attracted to Harrell’s work for its expression of the Japanese religion Shintoism. “To me, the white in her pieces reflects the daily practice of purification of mind, body and soul, while at the same time it represents acceptance of one’s own imperfections in all its manifestations,” Camarata says. “This practice is a constant cleansing, not with a goal of perfection but in cultivating balance and wellbeing.”
Harrell’s work will also be exhibited November 11–13 at the 46th Annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, in Pennsylvania.
“My voice is found in visual expression,” she says. “It is the language of the heart.”
Find Deneece Harrell’s work at The Gallery at Flat Rock, in Flat Rock; at The Bascom, in Highlands; and at Allenstand Interiors at the Folk Art Center, in Asheville. To learn more, visit DeneeceHarrell.com, or find her on Facebook and Instagram at Deneece Harrell, and on YouTube at Deneece Harrell Sculptural Porcelain.