The Art of Fish
It’s early, early spring and the Finger Lakes are blanketed in snow that resembles dollops of marshmallow fluff draped on tree limbs. Peering through the windshield, I barely make out the name on the street sign, half plastered with thick snow, directing me up and up to Alan and Rosemary Bennett’s home and studio. It’s a wonder this creative duo lives at such a high altitude, while venturing down below the water’s surface to gain their artistic inspiration. Alan and Rosemary both work in clay, recreating creatures and themes of an aquatic nature. Alan’s realistic three-dimensional fish gaze with glassy eyes from their wall perches, as if staring at me from the other side of a scuba mask. Rosemary’s pieces take the more practical forms of vases and teapots with beautifully sculpted scenes of ocean-inspired themes. Sometimes, however, he throws the pots and carves on them. They both often mix glazes and work together on the glazing and ring—truly a joint effort on every piece.
Visitors to the property are greeted by the site of a rustic barn with schools of fish out of water, hanging on the boards, the one in the center labeled “Bennett Clay Fish.” I must be at the right place! Inside and out, fish are clinging to the walls of the buildings. Later I learn that giant sea turtles and other aquatic creatures occupy most horizontal surfaces, now hidden under the snow.
Rosemary, who was trained in art therapy and works at The Arc of Steuben, is welcoming from the start, clearing a comfortable meeting area at her kitchen table amidst more wonderful creatures above our heads and surrounding us in the cozy room. Alan, who has been teaching ceramics part-time at Mansfield University for the past four years, enters a few minutes later, taking a break from the fish he told me he’d be working on all day. The couple is preparing a large commission—a shoal of menhadens being chased by tuna that will appear to move through a wall. It will be a sight to see!
Alan has been enamored with fish for as long as he can remember; Rosemary has fond memories of fishing with her “fish crazy” family on summer vacations to Maine. The two met at art school at Ohio State University, where their shared interest in sculpting and all things fish was the start of something special. Alan recalls admiring Rosemary’s drawings of an octopus.
“We have a similar way of drawing, although Rosemary’s [drawings] tend to be more detailed,” he says.
“In grad school, Alan made pots with beautiful sh sculptures on them, then [over time] his fish jumped off the pots,” says Rosemary, referring to the three-dimensional form his art takes today. Often the couple will be working on the same piece, doing different parts. Alan chimes in, “We share back and forth. It’s like having extra hands from the same body. It’s wonderful!”
The two started snorkeling in the 1980s, happy spending time with their muses—the fishes. “We do most of our snorkeling in Keuka Lake,” Rosemary says. Alan describes the experience of swimming close to pike, bluegill, cat fish, bass, rock bass, and giant carp as “magical.” He has gone so far as to pack oil pastels and a canvas down below the water to paint plein mer. But the real magic happens back up on dry ground.
Early in their careers they spent time in Mexico, where Alan worked as a consultant designer for El Palomar, a ceramics business first opened by Americans in the 1960s. There he designed and painted lead-free stoneware for export, mainly to Japan and Germany. They both recall the experience with great fondness— “there’s nothing like the light [in that part of Mexico],” Rosemary reminisces. Alan agrees, and describes having difficulty designing for the New England market, as his eyes had already “become accustomed to the color.”
When they arrived back in the states, Rosemary remembers, “we were making pots with bright colors and intricate designs, but nobody wanted them. Then Alan went to a show in Connecticut and put up a sculpture of a fish on a snow fence and people were fighting over it.”
The studio, which was bathed in the low afternoon sun, seemed to have the perfect conditions for detailed applications. “We live in our studio,” Rosemary laughs, immediately going to work. She picks up a large trigger fish that had been bisque-red, making the piece rigid enough to hold and glaze. She had carefully laid out the intricate pattern of colors, taking cues from a reference picture. Alan mixed a glaze of light blue that, after firing, will become a vibrant blue; thanks to the chemical processes that occur under high heat.
Alan has been perfecting his glazes for decades. He and Marissa Scott, a colleague from the English Department at Mansfield University, are working on a book that will allow other artists to replicate his methods. “Alan is very interested in special effects glazes,” Rosemary explains.
One example, crystal glazing, uses a mixture of metals passed through a fine screen and applied with bran flakes. Alan jokes that he “got the idea at breakfast one morning.” The results are an other-worldly, three-dimensional appearance. Colors are also a career-long challenge to Alan. He explains that “getting the purples to work on a piece along with other colors is difficult in high fire temperature ceramics.” He’s excited to publish the book, summarizing forty years of research into a reference guide, written in everyday English, for ceramic artists.
Raku glazing is probably the most exciting process the couple uses. Pieces are fired in a special kiln designed to reach a temperature of 1,870 degrees Fahrenheit. The piece is then “fished” out and smothered in sawdust. The clay undergoes thermal shock, creating tiny cracks in the iridescent glaze. In the end, the surface looks remarkably like scales. The piece is then dipped in water to halt the cracking process.
As Rosemary applies, and we discuss, glaze, Alan has been working a piece of clay, quickly transforming a non-descript slab into a beautifully formed shad. “I started out making a trout, but it wanted to be a shad,” he muses. “We often say that if we listen to what the fish wants, it comes out good. That’s why we need so many glazes, because they ask for a lot.” The tail is forked—he skillfully shapes it into two parts and uses a special knife to create divisions that resemble tail fins. For the whites of the eye he uses porcelain and a high-iron clay for the iris. The last step is to remove clay to create a hollow form. “You have to gut the fish,” Alan jokes.
Other artists in the Finger Lakes are inspired by the scaly swimmers within our lakes. Craig Wilson, with a life-long appreciation of wildlife, works in metal and wire. The Rochester area sculptor has been creating contemporary figures of fish, frogs, and other nature-inspired scenes for more than fifty years. Penn Yan collage artist Phiddy Webb uses texture and patterns to create unique, colorful designs, of which fish are some of the most popular. The whimsy in Phiddy’s work is reflected in the names of her pieces, such as Wiley the Walleye and Peggy the Perch. The Bennetts, Craig, and Phiddy will be featured at the Arts Center of Yates County’s ([email protected]) Gone Fishin’ exhibit opening on Friday, May 4 from 5-7 p.m. The show will be on display through June 2.
Other local venues for Alan and Rosemary’s artwork include: Spotlight Exhibition, West End Gallery, www.westendgallery.net, through the end of April; Arts in Bloom Open Studios, Steuben County Art Trail, www.artsinbloom.net, April 28-29, with Alan and Rosemary demonstrating Raku both days at their studio; Artizann’s, Naples, www.naplesvalleyny.com/artizanns-gifts-finger-lakes; Arts Center of Yates County, Penn Yan.