Artist's Environmental Warning Comes In Shapes Of Clay

Victim Of Contamination Sculpts His Anger And Fears

February 10, 1991|By DOLLY MERRITT

When artist Jim McKee can't sleep, he goes to his basement studio, picks up a board and starts "slapping" on a hunk of clay. Before long,the clay begins to take shape, and eventually, a ceramic sculpture emerges like the one called "Frog From The Reflecting Pool" -- a sculpture of a giant amphibian devouring the Washington Monument.

Angeris one obvious ingredient in the soft-spoken, 39-year-old Ellicott City artist's success. Most often, it emerges in sculpture with a message about the environment.

Since he began working as a ceramic artist three years ago, McKee's work has been featured in several art galleries in Maryland and Virginia.

His latest show, entitled "New Works," was displayed last month at the Aaron Gallery in Washington, D.C.

His career, his anger and the environmental theme evident in all of his pieces stem frominjuries received 17 years ago when he worked as a ramp agent for a commercial airline. He unknowingly handled a shipment containing a leaking canister of radioactive material. That exposure caused burns and tears to internal organs, damage to his nervous system and sensitivity to some medicines.

He spent two years recovering before returning to college to piece his life back together.

But McKee could hardly have foreseen that the accident would lead him to a career as anartist.

After returning to Towson State University in 1986, McKeeearned a bachelor of science degree in visual communication and photography.

But it wasn't until two years later, when he was working on a certificate to teach art, that his interest in ceramic sculptureemerged.

Through the medium of clay, McKee learned to express hisemotions, molding messages about environmental abuse that often use a humorous touch. Clay also allowed him to pound out frustrations about his accident.

In the "Frog From The Reflecting Pool," McKee wanted to portray the environmental decisions that are made in Washington.

Another work, entitled "Bonnie Pilot Frog," which McKee considers a self-portrait, depicts McKee's past experiences.

He chose a frog as the subject of his sculpture because of fond memories from a childhood spent playing in the woods and sitting by a lakeside watching the frogs in the ponds.

"Those images are what started me feeling good again; it was a recuperative process," he said.

The frog in McKee's self-portrait appears to be happily, unknowingly sipping radioactive fluid from a straw.

It is a reality "that snaps you out of childhood," says McKee. And it is the vulnerability he experiencedas an unsuspecting worker doing his job while being subjected to radiation.

The sculptor consistently incorporates two themes -- weathering and contamination -- in his work. Other pieces have focused on war, birth control and the separation of church and state.

So far,he has created over 100 pieces.

"I've always had an interest in earth, fossils, minerals and the earth's reaction to materials," McKeesaid.

Because a safe environment is of particular significance toMcKee, the artist practices what he preaches and uses many recycled objects for his sculpture.

Tree bark, a piece of metal or board, arubber tire and a rolled-up piece of Styrofoam -- all have been usedto add texture to various clay surfaces.

Despite McKee's liberal use of symbolism on so many issues, he is quick to point out that he does not want to be a radical. His intention, rather, is to make people aware of some of the wrongs of society.

"I don't have all of the solutions, just one: If we can help each other, we can be better. We need to see both the negative and positive side (of each problem),"McKee said.

That's why the sculptor hopes to teach art.

In themeantime, he is constantly creating, working on one piece as he thinks about the next.

His most recent works do not include many illustrative messages.

Rather, he is "letting the clay talk" as he creates non-functional vessels from a technique called slab construction.

"When I first worked with clay, after I had sat for hours and hours on medication, I had difficulty trying to understand," McKee said.

"I was angry and nervous about what had happened to me. . . . You can have something horrible happen to you, but if you find something (like the medium of art) that makes you feel good, you can use it to work out your frustrations."

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