Getting fired up for a conversation

In a relationship, sometimes it's hard to talk -- especially if you're made of clay

Object Lesson


Talk to the hand puppet.

It isn't shy. Baldy here will speak its clay-baked mind as it serves as your personal proxy at the next family get-together. Unglazed and unfazed, this terra-cotta sidekick might not hesitate to say something hard and true.

"I'm more like the person behind the puppet," says the artist, Mary Cloonan. "I love my family... but sometimes ..."

Say no more. Everyone has family stuff. Standard family kits should probably include handy clay puppets.

"It's this idea of transmitting tedious or difficult information. I want people to recognize the situation and emotion," says Cloonan, whose earthenware sculpture is aptly called, "I Can't Talk to You."

Cloonan's ventriloquistic artwork is on display at Baltimore Clayworks in a national exhibition called "Family Matters." The impact of family often profoundly affects our daily lives as well as our studio practices, says the Web site.

Featuring the work of 38 clay artists, the exhibition runs through Oct. 9 at the art center in Mt. Washington, where Cloonan is a teacher and resident artist. The 34-year-old New York native, one of five siblings, felt inspired last December to fire up the kiln and create a family statement with what she calls her "very elaborate stick figures."

Cloonan doesn't name these figures, and she claims they are genderless. But they look like dudes to us -- dudes with some serious issues and earlobes.

While creating "I Can't Talk to You," one of art's "happy accidents" happened, Cloonan says. In her original sketch, she drew both figures staring at one another, which created a more insular effect. But the clay warped in the firing, and the puppet head could be attached only facing out.

That changed everything.

The puppet (clearly the front man) looks poised to verbally pounce. Its handler (blocked, angst-ridden) looks very happy to allow the puppet to do the talking. "They are on the cusp of a decision," Cloonan says. Yes, some puppet is going to say something soon. One can imagine, say, a younger artistic sister speaking up to, say, an older brother.

But not to get all serious about Mary Cloonan's clay work. It stars a puppet, after all.

"I find it funny, as well as poignant," says the artist, speaking for herself.

This is an occasional feature in which we highlight an individual work or object used in creating art.

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