From Gifted Hands: Profiling the Sculptural World of Carol Fleming
From her recent work displayed in gallery shows at the Houska Gallery and Art Saint Louis to commissioned installations for a wide range of clients, Carol Fleming believes in going big or going home.
One of St. Louis’ most prolific sculpture arts, Fleming arrived in town at age 2 1/2 from Shreveport, Louisiana. Enrolling at Central Institute for the Deaf and later John Burroughs School, she quickly developed a talent for artistic expression. After majoring in art from Earlham College, she attended graduate school and received a master of fine arts degree from Ohio University.
After graduation, Fleming returned to St. Louis where, for more than 30 years, she has explored the relationships between, nature, space, colors and textures in her sculptures and the surroundings in which they are placed.
Working from Studio Terra Nova, an 800-square-foot space in Ladue, Fleming has crafted both commissioned and site-specific works that are vibrant representations of her ongoing creativity and maturation. Her lifelong passion for working with clay has led to the installation of impressive works for a variety of spaces from St. Louis to Boulder, Colorado, to Portola Valley, California. Her sculptures have enhanced the grounds of Maritz, Magellan Health Care, the Daum Museum, North Central Michigan College and the Clayton MetroLink station (shown below).
Selected as one of 59 regional artists for Art Saint Louis’ “Heaven and Earth” exhibition (on view through Feb. 12), Fleming has developed a reputation for fearlessly crafting large-scale works—columns, acorns, arches, spheres and most recently teardrops—that evoke contemplation, reflection and awe. Her boundless energy, reverence for the natural world and inventive flair for conceptual design have enabled her to define her own style of contemporary sculpture.
Guided: St. Louis interviewed Fleming about her artistic vision, creative process and determination to make viewers think of sculpture in fresh ways.
Guided: What made you decide to be an artist?
I had a lifelong love for clay. During my senior year at John Burroughs School, I was choosing between a career as a landscape architect or as a clay artist. After a month of interning in landscape architecture and doing field work, I became convinced that I am an artist. I felt a calling to be an artist.
Guided: Describe your creative process.
For me, inspiration comes from a variety of sources. But mainly, I am drawn to architectural structures like large bridges and the organic forms of nature, like tiny acorns. Then I create a small sculpture to rehearse ideas before finally making the large sculptures. I roll out clay into slabs for architectural projects and roll out coils of clay for round projects. Texture is pressed into the clay surface. The stoneware needs to dry over two weeks or more, and then I apply hand-mixed glazes. After that, the down-draft gas-kiln firing process takes four days to reach 2220 degrees Fahrenheit and then cool down slowly.
Guided: What symbolism is represented in your work?
Working at Studio Terra Nova, I have created forms of columns, eggs, acorns, arches, spheres and, more recently, teardrops. Columns represent building blocks into a tall tower that one cannot see over—its spells working together, overcoming—and upward reach. Eggs represent new life to come and sincere hope. The acorn is birth of an oak tree and faith in the future growth. Arches were a phase that expressed the value of listening, talking, seeing and looking, like couples in dialogues. Spheres are a playful form of games and balls—and also mysterious as outer planets or inner cells. The recent teardrop form offers many reference points, memorial, tears of God, rejuvenating, spas, clean water and taking care of the environment.
Guided: How do you balance making art you want to make versus art a client may want you to make?
I make some art, like this new teardrop [in the featured image], as a way to express a new message that we all need to hear. Art is viable. I also make art to client’s specifications—within reason. Based on photographs of my sculptures, the client tells me conceptually the type and size of art they want. Then clients get to see working models and glaze samples to make their selection clearer to both parties. I also work with feedback in person or online. There are no surprises. In this way, the art is my creation and also satisfies their vision.
Guided: What is it about sculpture that drew you to it as a medium?
Handling clay is a lifelong love. I did do a year of graphic design, which confirmed fully that I prefer working in three dimensions. Shadows, texture, tactile, visceral elements show up beautifully in sculptural works. With ceramic, I can make hand-held items or human-scale art.
Guided: How does the relationship between nature and art influence your work?
Nature is second to the Maker of the universe. The beauty of nature brings joy. I like to share the joy of beauty.
Guided: What are your recent projects?
I currently am working on teardrops, which is a brand-new form for me where I am working on more cobalt (blue) glazes to reflect the power of water and ocean currents.
Guided: What stories would you like to convey through your work?
Life is beautiful. Art expands our perspective. Working with heavy stoneware keeps my body strong and active. As a daughter of an architect, we believe the best is to come as architects; artists build on experience over the years. Studio Terra Nova is 31 years old now, and I still delighted in delivering beauty. I still feel as if there are more stories to be expressed. Personally, I am most happy when I am in the studio, even if it is late at night. Art points to the real purpose in living.
Guided: Do you think St. Louis supportive of sculptural artists?
Yes, for the most part, St. Louis is supportive of sculptural arts. After all, the Arch is the best sculpture of all kinds. I am a proud St. Louis citizen who grew up in Clayton and has lived in Ladue for 25 years. Although many cities are tough to live in, I think support for arts within St. Louis is extremely high.
Images courtesy of Carol Fleming.