It All Adds Up

It All Adds Up

Hilary Pfeifer, ’sWarm (Detail) - 2

Hilary Pfeifer, detail of ’sWarm (2006). Pfeifer made 1,500 one-of-a-kind pieces for the installation, which debuted at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts. Photo: Hilary Pfeifer

Portrait by Robbie McClaran
As a child on Christmas morning, Hilary Pfeifer made a beeline for one present under the tree: a dollhouse, handmade by her architectural engineer dad and hand-painted by her artist mom. One year it was a Swiss chalet with mini cedar shakes; another, a treehouse filled with Stieff plush animals. Her favorite: a haunted house with trap doors, secret passageways, and ghostly windows made from glass photo negatives. “The dollhouse was the one toy we played with all year,” she says. Eventually, she and her brother assembled a whole town, complete with record store, pet store, and hospital. “It was, perhaps, my earliest lesson in the relationship between individual pieces and groupings in sculpture,” Pfeifer says.
 
Delighted by the dollhouses and further inspired by hanging out in her father’s woodshop and with artists involved in her mother’s gallery in Eugene, Oregon, Pfeifer began creating little terrariums and shoebox houses with paper furniture. “Making things just became a way of life,” she says. “All around me were people who made a living playing with ideas and materials.”
 
While taking ceramics classes at the University of Oregon in 1988, Pfeifer fell in love with clay and started a porcelain bead business in 1989, which she ran for 10 years. In 1995, feeling “ready to integrate ideas into craft,” she enrolled in Oregon College of Art and Craft to study wood, later switching to metal for the variety of skills she’d learn and the chance to mix mediums. “I really feel that my experience in many crafts helped me build both my skills and my aesthetic. That’s why I call myself a craft-influenced sculptor,” she says.  
 
For her thesis, Pfeifer planned to sculpt “parts of your personality that are normally invisible, that live within you.” She knew she wanted individual pieces to make up a whole, but she wasn’t sure how to create the pieces. “I kept having this feeling that I wanted to take a piece of wood and sand it on a sander, just holding it and shaping it,” she says. When she followed her hunch, the material seemed transformed. “Though it was wood, when I pulled back, it really looked like clay. Using metalsmithing techniques, I could add anything I wanted – nail heads, parts of spoons, pencil erasers, wolves’ teeth. It felt so right. It felt like I’d found a voice that was truly mine.”
 
For Kharshouf (1999), her thesis installation, Pfeifer crafted more than 500 pieces, each representing an aspect of her personality. “I played and played and played,” says Pfeifer, 46. “I like to work as fast as I can, taking an idea and shaping it quickly. That’s how I can really surprise myself.”
 
At first glance, Pfeifer’s fanciful forms have a light, childlike quality. But her sculptures also play with sophisticated, provocative ideas. In 2003, she made her first of two charming yet moody installations called Cumulate. Floating high on the wall, clusters of little biomorphic forms make up more than a dozen clouds. On a simple level, they conjure the childhood game of cloud-watching. “I liked the idea that people might see very different things in a sculpture, just as they might in a cloud,” she says. But to Pfeifer, ever-changing clouds are also an apt metaphor for shifting, sometimes difficult, emotions. “My work might seem cute, but it can also have an edge,” she says.
 
Often that edge has an environmental component. “Growing up in the Northwest, watching the environment being destroyed by logging, my work often explores nature, plants, and the organic,” Pfeifer says. “But there tends to be a surreal quality to it.” In her 2006 work ’sWarm, love, pollution, and death are all rolled into a quirky installation of hundreds of black and red bug sculptures swooping and looping like a mini roller coaster. The sculpture captures how people searching for mates swarm in bars, gyms, and malls. But it also tells a darker environmental story, about lovebugs mistakenly following pheromone-like smells into deadly fogs of vehicle fumes. 
 
In 2008, Pfeifer continued to explore ideas of sex and environmental destruction in her show “Natural Selection,” which opened at Ogle Gallery in Portland. The exhibition featured a greenhouse with fantastical writhing, mating plants on each shelf, but some plants also took root outside the display, sprouting from random spots in the room. “Our relationship with nature is a comedy of errors,” Pfeifer says. “We think we can control it, which is both horrifying and ridiculous. We can mangle things, but nature always finds a way back.”
 
Lately, Pfeifer has been playing with her food – artistically (her Umami sculptures resemble whimsical wooden sushi) and in her personal life (she’s part of a dinner club where everyone brings a dish inspired by an artist). And she’s been playing with how her sculptures are displayed and sold. In addition to showing at Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco and other galleries, Pfeifer runs a business called Bunny with a Toolbelt, making wooden creatures that festoon wedding cakes and appeared in her two children’s books (Elephabet and Arfabet) and on a deck of playing cards. She even dreams of opening a storefront. “Can you imagine the fun I could have with a rotating window display?” she says.
 
What creative playdates does Pfeifer have lined up? In 2011, she fashioned a wearable plant sculpture (Epiphyte) for a dance performance and would love to riff more on the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. She’s also noodling around with the idea of plants inspired by Edward Lear’s Nonsense Botanies (think Stunnia Dinnerbellia, Washtubbia Circularis, and Shoebootia Utilis). In the meantime, she has a huge log in her backyard ready to be carved into a 7-foot totem pole featuring animals and tools from Oregon’s history, which will grace an extension of the Portland light rail system. “My work is usually additive, so it will be a fun challenge to try something so reductive,” she says.
 
“When I’m done with that, I’ll start playing around with the other ideas I have.”
 
Elizabeth Rusch is a magazine writer and children’s book author in Portland, Oregon.