Creating the ‘sculptural snapshot’

Sculptor Allison Elia portrays movement, emotion through art

Elia demonstrating her sculpting process at a weekend ceramics workshop in Roswell, at the Roswell Art Center West, 2014.
Installation view of "Within Reach", Earthenware and acrylic paint, 2014 48"x15"x18"
Elia transporting her work for installation in a two person show, "Transitions" in Akron, OH 2014.
Installation view of "Resonate", red stoneware, acrylic paint, 2012 54"x38"x32".
Detail shot of "Heal", red stoneware, oxides and acrylic media, 2012 60"x24"24".

Where most see a block of non-descript clay, sculptor Allison Elia sees infinite possibilities just waiting to emerge through the skills of her tools and her hands.

“There is so much potential in clay,” said Elia, who is wrapping up a two-year residency at the Roswell Art Center West. “I love the power of the presence a finished sculpture has in a gallery, although I’ll admit I’m constantly battling gravity when sculpting in the studio.”

She welcomed the opportunity to come to Roswell to serve as the resident ceramic artist, as well as to teach sculpture classes, despite the fact she knew no one before making the trek down South.

“I felt instantly welcome even without knowing a soul before I made the move,” said Elia. “I have no partner, no children, and not even a fish in a fishbowl to consider when I make a move.  It’s mostly the question of how large a van I’ll need to rent to transport my sculptures and how many will get a seat with a seatbelt!”

She grew up in Ohio and earned her degree in painting and ceramics from the University of Akron, followed by her master’s in ceramics at the University of Massachusetts.

Elia has been an artist for as long as she can remember, beginning with two-dimensional drawings of people and animals, and moving to three-dimensional sculpting in college.

“The animate subjects have always interested me — there can be beauty and energy in a sunrise or still-life,” said Elia. “But not nearly as much emotion or gesture as that of a face or body in motion.”

She had experimented with sculpting on the rare occasion, then took a ceramics class her junior year in college and fell in love with the process.

Elia soon realized that sculpting not only required artistic skills, which she had, but also problem-solving skills, which she acquired.

“My technical skills – the ability to render the figure in three-dimensional form and in proportion – along with the skills necessary to work large-scale in clay did not fully develop until maybe five years after I had started sculpting in clay,” she noted.

But Elia took to the process quickly, creating pieces that found a market among collectors. She remembers the first piece she sold, a two-foot sculpture of Medusa, along with her mixed emotions of parting with it.

“So I was advised by a friend to ridiculously overprice it so it would either not sell ... or if someone actually wanted to pay that much for it, I’d be able to part from it without feeling a loss,” Elia recalls. “That was very good advice.”

Her pieces now include life-size figures, rendered from 200 to 300 pounds of solid clay, with the end result often dictated by where the clay takes her. She starts with a small-scale version of the finished product to keep her focused during the process.

“If I don’t plan it right, the clay will do what it wants to do without my supervision,” she said. “I am often deciding if I should go with the clay’s natural intention or stay with my artistic plan. Every piece brings different choices and I love the challenge, for better or worse.”

Elia also begins most of her sculptures with a drawing, sketched out from the ideas in her mind.

“I draw about as much as I sculpt. And I prefer to use pen when I draw because it forces me to work through my ideas decisively without lagging behind on erasing mistakes,” she said.

Most of Elia’s large-scale ceramic sculptures are of people, primarily women, balanced in powerful, yet precarious poses. She loves creating pieces that appear to defy gravity – the apple floating seemingly just out of the reach of extended fingers – or describe, without words, the emotions of hope, guilt and perseverance.

“I don’t use live models but often reference dance photography, yoga, and underwater photos that I took a few years back with [a friend] in her swimming pool,” Elia said. “My figures are meant to capture unique emotional and psychological experiences in their pose and gesture. I often refer to my work as ‘sculptural snapshots.’”

In her free time, away from her teaching and sculpting, Elia is working on a book about her own perseverance as an artist. At its core is a deep dive into her feelings about the 15 sculptures she made, then destroyed, before they ever made it out of her studio.

Each sculpture takes about a month to create, from start to finish, and Elia estimates she spends anywhere from four to 40 hours a week actively sculpting, and at least 10 hours sketching.

“I’m 31 now but still enjoy pulling an overnight of sculpting if there is a time crunch — though 10 hours in a row is usually when I reach a max of my ability to stay focused,” she noted.

Her finished works, primarily her larger pieces, are located in her permanent studio in Rhode Island, and she’s had two solo shows at the Roswell Art Center West of pieces she has created here. While she’s not the epitome of the “starving artist,” Elia said her goal is to be a successful studio artist where she can drop her anchor permanently and simply create.

“I can live anywhere and be happy,” said Elia, who has been an artist in residence in several states. “Most importantly I want to continue making art in any way shape or form.  I would never take back the decision to pursue a career as an artist, it’s been a wild ride but I treasure every moment.” ■


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