Accolades come to ceramist Linda Lopez, who finds a living spark in ordinary objects.
Covered with dozens of pendulous lobes, the moplike blobs look as if they could slither along an ocean floor or swish across a kitchen floor.
Over the past two years, these biomorphic creations have starred in solo shows and surveys of contemporary ceramics, oozing their way into galleries and museums throughout the United States, from Houston, San Diego, and Santa Fe to Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, DC.
Sometimes the forms stand alone or beside domes sprouting thickets of spaghetti-like strands. Often these clay pieces share space with ink drawings in assemblages displayed not on pedestals but on simple wooden shelves, tables, or plant stands.
Though humble in scale and material, they’re bringing major – and unexpected – acclaim to their creator. “It’s very strange. I’m not sure what’s happening,” says Linda Lopez. Describing herself as “a late bloomer,” the 34-year-old says she was 20 when she took her first art class and 26 when she committed to becoming an artist.
“I just keep making work and putting it out there,” Lopez says of her newfound success. “Maybe it’s persistence.”
Curators and critics often credit her drawing and sculpting skills, her distinctive mix of elegance and roughness, and her ability to create forms that feel both alien and intimate.
Two years ago, in search of underrecognized American artists, Chad Alligood, curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, and its then-president, Don Bacigalupi, visited about 1,000 artist studios during a 100,000-mile road trip. Just 30 minutes from the museum, they discovered Lopez in her studio near the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she is an instructor, and her husband, Mathew McConnell, is an assistant professor of art.
“Many ceramists across the country are exploring the medium as sculpture, as fine art,” Alligood says. “She was unafraid of expressing the domestic quality of everyday ceramic objects … and addressing the long history of their functionality.”
Lopez was among a select group of 102 artists represented in “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now,” which closed in January. Alligood explains the choice: “To be able to find the magic in the everyday is the power in her story.”
And the story of Lopez’s career confirms the transformative power of the everyday.
Born to two immigrants, one Vietnamese and the other Mexican, Linda Nguyen Lopez grew up in Ivanhoe, a farming town in central California, feeling like a typical American kid.
Her mother, Ngot Nguyen, was a cook at a nursing home. Her father, Rosalio Lopez, earned a living picking oranges – while also tending his own garden, where he grew a wide range of crops, including corn, cactus, cherries, nectarines, and strawberries; they also raised chickens, goats, cows, and, for major celebrations, the occasional pig.
Young Linda loved hanging out with friends in her father’s garden after school. Years later, having completed two years at a local community college and wondering what to major in at California State University, Chico, she took an aptitude test. The resulting recommendation – become a farmer – didn’t appeal to her. Because she’d enjoyed an art history course she’d taken, Lopez declared art as her major.
At Chico, earning a B in a ceramics course, instead of the A she expected, goaded her into taking another class. “Technically and conceptually, clay was a challenge,” she says. “That’s how I got hooked.”
By 2006, she had a BFA in ceramics and a BA in art education but was unsure whether to become a teacher or an artist. So she spent a year as a nomad, she says. “I tried to do everything I could to absorb art. I went anywhere I could sleep on somebody’s couch or floor,” she says, recalling visiting her now-remarried mother in Vietnam and dropping in on friends in New England and New York. “I was trying to figure out what the next step was going to be.”
That step turned out to be an MFA in ceramics from the University of Colorado Boulder, appealing because of its interdisciplinary approach.
There she explored other media, honed her drawing skills – and was radically changed by the advice of professor Richard Saxton: Stop playing it safe, he said. Be the quirky, weird person you are.
In a hardware store soon after, Lopez found her imagination captured by dust mops. They made her think of fingers – so she bought latex gloves, cut off the fingers, and filled them with plaster. Deciding they looked too stiff, she got “balloons that clowns use,” filled them with sand, and relished the sense of movement.
Eventually, she says, “thoughts about the relationship between dust and the objects around us evolved.” So did her growing sense of ordinary household objects – mops, buckets, armchairs – as mysterious, living beings with their own histories and feelings.
Although Lopez says her ethnic roots are not a major influence on her work, she credits her upbringing for this vision.
“Because my parents were immigrants and English was their second language, conversation was minimal in my household,” she recalls. When her mother did speak to her in English, “she would animate everything to me. She’d say: ‘Don’t put too much toilet paper in the toilet, or it will choke.’ She’d give characteristics to objects as if they were alive: ‘Don’t eat on the couch, or the crumbs will make the couch sick.’ ”
Making her mother’s verbal mannerisms visual, Lopez vowed, “Let me animate the inanimate.”
Armed with that idiosyncratic mission and her MFA, Lopez spent summer 2010 as a visiting artist in Auckland, New Zealand, with McConnell, then the two moved to Philadelphia. When the University of Arkansas offered McConnell a tenure-track position, she was reluctant to leave Philadelphia’s vibrant arts scene and agreed to move on the condition that he buy her something she missed from her childhood: a goat.
Three years later, Lopez is still goatless. But she revels in the lively and booming arts community in northwest Arkansas, her job teaching ceramics and foundation classes at the university, and the 1977 log house she and McConnell recently bought. It sits on 2 acres of woods, with ample room for a chicken coop and, someday, goats.
For now, she’s delighted with what’s there: a 2,000-square-foot studio with two kilns, where she can work closely with her husband, also a ceramist. They share ideas and support one another’s work – he, for example, builds the wooden structures for her assemblages – but have distinctive styles.
McConnell’s work comes from “a more art-centered approach to making – my work is certainly ‘art about art’ in a way that hers is not,” he says. “It’s as if Linda can rely on a natural set of reflexes, while I have made a study of reflexes.”
Lopez would agree. “I do feel like a California artist deep down. I think there’s a specific approach to making that doesn’t require words … that’s a little bit more intuitive, playful.’’
“I like to start off not knowing and allowing myself to get lost.”
Sebby Wilson Jacobson is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher in Rochester, New York.