When Through 11/4
Where Dubhe Carreno, 1841 S. Halsted
Thomas Schmidt’s cracked, unglazed ceramic works at Dubhe Carreno suggest fragmentation and randomness. Schmidt directs the cracking to some degree, selectively applying pressure to hardened clay, but the details are out of his control; still, he manages to give emotional nuance to the results of his chance operations. He’s hung four rectangular slabs on the walls like paintings, giving them a humorous implied importance belied by their chaotic patterns. Blocks 3 and 4 of his “Tension and Rest Series” are clay cubes whose geometric imperfections–the faces are concave–are echoed by multiple cracks. Eight intriguingly irregular ceramic sculptures on pedestals are impossible to reduce to comprehensible objects. The rough interior of Channel, which resembles a broken squarish bowl, evokes bark. The two spiky lumps in A Held Moment suggest bleached bone fragments but also cracked mud and rock faces. These works began as cubes like the ones in the “Tension and Rest Series,” but Schmidt used a propane torch to accentuate hairline cracks, then split the cubes into pieces, some of which he later carved and sanded.
“I was captivated by textures as a kid,” Schmidt says. “I would often pick up bark and just study it, fascinated by the way it felt in my hands.” For most of his childhood, he and his family lived in Edmonton, Alberta, and made trips to the Canadian Rockies (where Schmidt now returns nearly every year for a week or two of hiking). When he was 11 the family moved to Morton Grove, which he describes as a bland Chicago suburb that had a “pretty sweet dollar store and a library.” Bored, he took up music, experimenting with alternative guitar tunings. By the time he started college at Loyola he was in a three-person band, Green Echo, that made use of feedback, with its “heavily textured screeching, grinding noises,” Schmidt says. “But we weren’t going for complete screeching–we were seeking structure and beauty too.” Trips to the Art Institute with some of his Loyola friends sparked an interest in art, and he began taking art courses at Loyola. One of the first was a ceramics class, where he fell in love with the texture of clay and the immediate results it gave him, reminding him of the way small changes in position affect the sound of feedback. “What intrigued me about feedback is the way it evokes the human voice, a call or a scream. It’s important to me to have some human connection. I began distorting my pots to give them human contours.”
In fall 1999 Schmidt’s best friend, one of his bandmates, died of a drug overdose. For a few weeks, Schmidt says, “I cut myself off from the world. I had to deal with this intense trauma because of how close he was to me and how creatively interconnected we were.” In 2000 he helped form a new band, Stallmate, but he stopped making music two years ago. A year after his friend’s death Schmidt cast his own head and torso, making them the centerpiece of a work that also included cut-open clay vessels and the shattered remains of clay he’d hit with a hammer; some people thought the piece evoked an ancient burial site. He says (Im)permanence is “too literal for my taste today, because it leaves less room for viewer interpretation, but it helped me deal with the loss of my friend.” Near the end of college he started breaking panels that were too big to fit in the kiln, then glazed the fragments individually and assembled them into wall panels. Inspired by Ruth Duckworth’s “quiet and pure” pieces in unglazed porcelain, he began using that medium himself; he now works as her studio assistant. The human aspect of his textured surfaces remains important: “When you see these textures you’re getting a sense of how this material has traveled and what it’s been through. The work is also about thought processes and memory.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Leslie Schwartz.