“Balance: an exhibition of contemporary ceramics by Terri Kern”

September 22nd, 2013  |  Published in *, September 2013  |  1 Comment

“Balance: an exhibition of contemporary ceramics by Terri Kern”

By Sara Pearce

Birds face off against one another at either end of a ladder-like seesaw, perch on the edges of nests, are trapped mid-flight by ladder rungs, and barely touch down atop stacks of ladders, branches and books. There is a sense of urgency – places to go, things to do, ideas to express – in “Balance,” Terri Kern’s solo ceramic exhibition at downtown’s Humler & Nolan.

Kern has spent the past year creating a new body of ceramics that reference her past work while clearly departing from it. She’s still telling stories via familiar images – trees, animals, nests, leaves – but the colors are toned down, the finishes less glossy, the carving deeper, and the work is more sculptural, less connected to utilitarian ceramics.

Kern won one of seven 2013 Cincinnati Arts Ambassador Fellowships, and this seems to have pushed her in this new direction. It gave her a bit of a financial cushion, allowed time for experimentation, and required a presence in the community. She took the role to heart.

She held monthly open studios at which she discussed her process, and invited all who came to help craft tiny ceramic books. She took that show on the road to community groups. The result, “Share,” greets visitors as they enter the exhibit. It is a wide, verdigris-colored nest overflowing with hundreds of miniature books whose covers are carved or stamped with images of people, names, initials, and abstract patterns. The attention to detail is staggering. Pages are differentiated, and on many, traditional book bindings can be seen along the spine.

Books are a repeated motif in the exhibit, along with birds, nests, ladders, snakes, trees, leaves, pencils, and paper. Each is attached a meaning that gives form to Kern’s search for a balance between her artistic, personal and communal lives, which she says has become more important to her in recent years.

The theme carries through the exhibit in many ways. Most obvious is the physical act of balance, which plays out quite noticeably in the precariously perched birds of the largest pieces. One looks as though it is about to slide down a ladder onto a pile of seeds, another appears ready to skim off the top of its branchy pedestal, and yet another has a tight grip on a book atop a mound of haphazardly stacked books.

A series of skinny ladders hang on one wall. For Kern, ladders symbolize “doubt and the struggle to grow,” not just the balancing act of either carrying or standing on one. Sheafs of paper, pencils, bowls, and books sit on their rungs, and dangle from them – sometimes making it all but impossible for anyone who dared to climb to do so. The ladders reappear dangling from a tail, as seesaws, and embedded in pedestals.

In “Lesson,” a small bird sits at the end of a gently curving ladder, intently reading a book. More books are lined up ahead of it between rungs, creating a path to enlightenment. Look closely, and you’ll notice that the bird’s sinuously curving tail is a snake – a symbol of forgiveness in Kern’s lexicon. It keeps the bird – and the piece – grounded.

Kern’s work has always been laborious as she hand builds or throws each element herself, then uses as many as 20 layers of glaze – allowing each to dry before the next is applied – and turns to a number of firings to finish the pieces. In the past, she has drawn lightly on the surface and allowed the multiple glazes to provide an element of texture.

Now, she is sculpting. Nests are deeply incised with branches that twist over and under one another, flowing grass and undulating snakes. Birds have leaves, branches, snakes, paper – and in the case of the black bird of “Balance,” an open window – carved into or cut through their bodies. Layers of ladders, branches and books are cut into the cloche-like pedestals.

As I said at the start, the exhibit is a departure from Kern’s past, but not a complete one, and that’s both good and bad. “Guard” and “Toward” neatly marry past and present. Each has a fully-sculpted nest with a bird perched on it hung in front of a flat tile illustrated with a tree. But off to the side, a display case holds small vessels whose motifs repeat those of the larger pieces, but whose bright colors and traditional forms make them feel like an afterthought. They are a distraction in an exhibition so rich in detail.

In fact, there is so much going on that the space can get a little claustrophobic. The exhibition is set up in the entrance area of Humler & Nolan, auctioneers of art pottery and art glass. Empty display cases – and one filled with pottery – intrude on it. Just on the edge of sight is an area where tables brim with pottery for an upcoming auction. Yes, it gives visitors a chance to compare and contrast, but it draws the spotlight away from Kern – and she deserves all the wattage.

“Balance: an exhibition of contemporary ceramics by Terri Kern,” Humler & Nolan, 225 E. Sixth St., 4th floor, downtown, Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-381-2041, HYPERLINK “http://www.humlernolan.com” www.humlernolan.com 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. Through Oct. 4.


Sara Pearce is a Cincinnati-based collage artist and owner of Paper With a Past. Her past careers include journalist, librarian and chef.


  1. jan brown checco says:

    September 23rd, 2013at 8:12 pm(#)

    Thanks, Sara, nicely observed. I agree with what you are saying about the distraction of works in the gallery that are not in sync with the new work, including things that are of the Humler and Nolan collection. I am agog at Terri’s surfaces, at the lyricism of her forms and how they intersect sometimes with such grace that we hardly see that there is a diversity of objects here. That the support from the Cincinnati Art Ambassador Fellowship program allowed Terri to make these investigation and beautiful new work is significant. We are still hoping that City Council will restore the funding for 2014 so that we can support seven more artists in quest of the extraordinary.