Layer Upon Layer

Layer Upon Layer

Deborah Rogers The Yellow in Your World Will Consume My Blue

The Yellow in Your World Will Consume My Blue ... There Is Restfulness in the Color Green (detail). Photo: Rick Griffen

Given the title messages in Silence, anyone meeting Deborah G. Rogers might think the sculpture was about her deafness. The narrative piece is structured like a stage, with a girl in a yellow dress at the center. That recurring figure represents the artist, in a favorite buttercup-colored frock her mother, also deaf, made for her when she was little.

The girl wears a bunny hat (“my thinking cap,” says Rogers) and is playing the violin “to silent music,” she says. The violin is shaped like an animal with no head. To tap into your instincts “you have to lose your head,” she explains. “You have to let go.” Vines are taking over the stage, symbolizing “how you branch out to everything and connect to life.”

Rogers’ hearing began to decline in her teens. At 58, she has no hearing in her left ear, 8 percent in her right. But Messages is not about that. “It has to do with paying attention to your intuitive ‘third eye,’ ” she says.

The work is sophisticated and painstakingly rendered with a distinctive drawing style – a marriage of her long-ago work as both a pen-and-ink realist and a children’s book illustrator. She added a penchant for “anything old,” from antiques to aged faces, which led her to develop a patina that makes her work look both retro and otherworldly.

Yet the self-taught artist, who lives in Norfolk, Virginia, has made these pieces with a humble, inexpensive material used mostly by schoolchildren: air-dry clay.

The reasons she chose it lead back to her childhood. She has felt compelled to make art since she was 5 years old – though she can’t explain why. “It’s how I was born. It’s how I see myself. It claims you.” She went professional with her ink drawings (paired with comically ironic phrases) at age 15, selling at shopping center shows to make extra money. In the late 1980s, she lost interest in the ink drawings and, as a children’s book illustrator, grew tired of conveying other people’s ideas. She had plenty of her own and “did not want to be told what to do.”

She felt a strong urge to work in three dimensions and looked to the air-dry clay she had used in middle school. She invented her processes, letting the material teach her. Today, she uses the same basic method she started with a quarter-century ago: Hatch an idea, come up with a title or phrase, then illustrate the concept in clay.

David Trophia, co-owner of Crimson Laurel Gallery in western North Carolina, which is Rogers’ main gallery, stresses the rarity of her chosen material. Out of Crimson Laurel’s 175 ceramists, Rogers is the only one working with air-dry, he says. “This is the first time I’ve seen it used like this. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone doing it as well.”

Collectors seem to agree: She sells nearly everything she makes within months. Rogers says her typical price range is $800 to $2,500, with some smaller pieces going for $450 to $750.

Compared with fired clay, air-dry is difficult to work with – harder on the hands and not as pliable. Rogers discovered that only three years ago, when she opened an account on Facebook (now a main sales venue) and befriended other ceramists, who shared technical information with her.

But she wouldn’t change now. “I love the process I have created. I like the way the surface feels and behaves.”

She uses Marblex clay for the main sections and another brand, La Doll, for parts that require more detail, such as arms, hands, and leaves. Her pieces often incorporate slots, drawers, and lids containing surprise components, from dead bees to poetry, that are integral to the story line. Once the form dries, she coats it in gesso, then adds layers of wash, using acrylic paints, inks, and dye. Then she draws on it with colored pencils. In sealing the piece with water-based, walnut-tinted varnish and finger-applied wax, she creates the vintage look she’s after.

Her studio, in a detached garage behind her charming Cape Cod, is packed with retro toys, dolls, and gadgets that inspire the look of her work. Thousands of little objects she might use are tucked in drawers labeled for stamps, screws, nails, hinges, jar lids. Even her dead father’s dentures await a use, she notes mischievously. “It would be a nice surprise in one of those boxes, wouldn’t it?”

Rogers doesn’t think she’s drawn to art because she’s deaf, nor is her deafness the subject of her art. That condition, however, has helped make her a sharp observer of human folly – often her theme – and allows her to “be more in tune with what I do,” she says. “I have an acute ability to focus.”

In her work she addresses subjects as wide-ranging as marital friction and childhood bee stings. Some works point the finger at society, such as her pig-headed coin bank that airs her grievances against greed.

She feels her opinions deeply. “I have to say it and get it off my chest,” she says, which makes her work therapeutic as well as entrancing. “A lot of pieces are that way: I’m going to have my say, and nobody’s going to stop me.”

Each piece spins a yarn, and most are as richly layered as Messages in Silence. She says she could boil down most of her life lessons to this: “That the world is larger than you.” She couldn’t say how she learned that for herself, but she would like others to absorb that notion through her work.

“We all have the same lessons,” she says. “Every single piece I make will make sense to anybody at some point in their life. If they haven’t been there yet, they will be.”

Crimson Laural Gallery is currently exhibiting "Seven Deadly Sins: Ceramics by Deborah Rogers" online, with works for purchase. You can also watch a video of her Seven Deadly Sins collection. 

Teresa Annas lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where she has been a staff arts writer for the Virginian-Pilot since 1986.