The Spiritual Power of the Functional: A Conversation with Artist Rebecca Blevins
Nashville-based ceramicist Rebecca Blevins was working on one of the largest pieces she’s attempted to date, propelling past the threshold of her comfort zone, driven by curiosity. What would happen if she heaved 25 pounds of clay onto a pottery wheel and fashioned it into a massive bowl before firing it? she wondered. The resulting creation measured nearly three feet high and was intended to serve as the base for an even larger sculptural feat—until it unceremoniously exploded in the kiln.
“I pushed it too fast,” Blevins says, with a rueful laugh. “There are always setbacks in ceramics. Things break and explode. You’re tripping over something or smashing it on accident, and you need to make multiples of whatever you’re working on. I’ve definitely broken more pieces than I’ve completed.”
They who select clay must somehow accept the probability that a high percentage of what they make will fail. Leaning in, and failing forward in a way that’s unfamiliar is the best scenario one can hope for. Applied broadly, the metaphor symbolizes the life of a working artist almost too perfectly: They who live for what has previously been left untreaded.
Which makes it all the more special when examining one of Blevins’ pieces: Perfectly smooth, hollowed-out vessels alongside more experimental works, such as plates and pots repeatedly patterned with an illustration of a girl’s face, outlined in black. Delicate clay chain links are also a motif to which she often returns, frequently incorporating them into bowls and vessels. Deeply regal, they sit on top of carefully made ceramic pedestals, harnessing the spiritual power that may live in a simple utilitarian object.
“It’s hard for me to try and make something that isn’t functional in some way. Even if it’s just a tiny dish you can use to burn incense, or even some of the taller vessels,” she says. “I love the idea of creating something that’s part of a daily ritual. Like a morning cup of coffee. It’s my small way of being part of someone else’s life.”
When Blevins was just beginning her career in the arts, she began by studying photography and art history at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, not far from the small town in Illinois where she spent much of her childhood. Before that, her family had settled in Elizabethton, Tennessee, which was actually home to one of Blevins’ first exposures to professional artistry: The town hosts an annual spring craft fair and art festival, which she attended growing up. She still often does.
An old soul at heart, in school Blevins was discouraged by the inescapable shift from analog to digital photography, which removed the ritualistic, tactile process of developing film by hand. “I felt like the real practice of actually doing it was taken away,” she says. “So I naturally drifted towards ceramics, as something that would take up that missing space.”
Blevins graduated with a degree in art history, and her commitment to life as a professional artist in the time since has deepened alongside her partner, Brett Douglas Hunter, who has been a working artist for more than 20 years. “Being with him, there’s no other option apart from being creative and supporting yourself with your own work. He’s definitely been the most influential person on me,” says Blevins, as she discusses Hunter’s large, whimsical cement sculptures.
She recalls helping him paint some of the works that appear in a recent collection, made up of medium to large-scale pieces modeled after animals, folklore and the human figure. At once vibrant, colorful and bawdy, one piece even looks like piles of colorful turds with fanciful expressions—which is corroborated by the title of the piece: “Turds.” Without directly mentioning it, Hunter’s pieces seem to say that the contemporary art world, often hyper-academic, could do a lot worse than a few colorful excrements on display.
One of his most provocative sculptures yet is a giant, concrete turquoise-colored chair with an erect penis right in the center, which Blevins also assisted with—and they had a blast doing it. “That’s another reason I’m drawn to work on a larger scale,” says Blevins. “I see how much fun it is for him.” They plan to fill their yard with Hunter’s buoyant, spirited pieces.
In 2017, Blevins posted a photo of herself on social media from the Women’s March in Nashville, during which she held a cardboard sign that read “Fucked with no orgasm again,” all in capital letters. It feels like a linguistic incarnation of one of Hunter’s sculptures. “Women so often don’t expect their own sexual fulfillment, which spills out into other areas of our lives. That’s what that sign is really about,” she says.
It’s reflective of the kind of art and mentality she desires to perpetuate: a celebration of the human spirit, regardless of the traits of the body carrying it. “More than anything, I try to be around people who are supportive of one another. To me, that’s the most important thing: Be supportive, even if you don’t know or understand what they’re going through.”
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.