Allegan ceramic artist Jen Lawson-Steeves is obsessed with noses. Lawson-Steeves’ masks will be on display at Fancy Pants Theater during the Kalamazoo Art Hop on Friday.
“Honestly I love looking at people’s faces, and noses are my inspiration. It’s so funny to say that, but I love noses. And that’s how I start every single mask is with a nose. And that really is what actually draws out what the mask becomes.”
She says she grew up looking at the masks her father brought with him from South Africa.
“We always had masks in the house. And even though my dad’s a painter—and there’s paintings, and sculpture, and woodcarvings and stuff—the masks were always what I was drawn to the most. I just love that you can sit there and look at it, and it was three-dimensional. And it had a lot of character and humor…those sorts of things.”
And Lawson-Steeves’ masks have character. While many of her works look a lot like tribal masks you might see in Africa or Indonesia, it’s the colors and expressions on her masks that really make them unique.
“This is the guy I was working on last night," she says as she takes out a wet clay mask. "I really love his nose. I decided to put a little bend in it and make it very pointy.”
Ceramic art can be tricky, there’s not much you can do to salvage a work after it’s fired. But unlike many ceramicists, Lawson-Steeves says she likes the surprise that comes when she takes a work out of the kiln. That’s probably why she likes raku, a Japanese glaze that’s a little hard to control.
“Basically it works with low temperature in the kiln and then cooling very fast. So there’s a reduction of the glaze in either sawdust or shredded paper, that sort of thing. And then, you never know quite what you’re going to get with raku which is what I love about it. Some people have a hard time with it because they want a specific result and that’s hard to get with raku. But I love the very ethereal nature of raku.”
Though Lawson-Steeves molds most of her faces from memory, she did use one model for a mask.
“I did a nose and I just thought ‘Barbara Streisand.’ And I love her, I love her nose. It’s beautiful, it’s just exquisite. So it was really fun that that nose went ‘Ok, well, how am I going to turn this into music?’”
The mask, called “Blue Note,” has a curl of hair resting on its face that looks a lot like a treble clef.
While many of Lawson-Steeves works are humorous, more are just serene. Her mask “Peace Woman,” for example, has eyes closed with her mouth curving into a carefree smile.
“There’s lines as well as dashes and dots, and it’s sort of in a halo around the face,” Lawson-Steeves says. “And the colors are just a really…a brown with a tan and a yellow and then a very very light bluish-green with some brown specks. And it just came out beautifully.”
Rebecca Thiele: “Do you feel like you get really attached to these faces?”
Jen Lawson-Steeves: “Absolutely, yeah. There are some that I am definitely having a hard time even thinking of parting with. But it’s gotten easier the more I’ve made, you know, because you just sort of realize that this isn’t going to be the last one you ever make. This is going to be one of many. And they all have their own personality and their own look, but they all definitely end up being a piece of your heart, absolutely.”
You can see Jen Lawson-Steeves’ masks at the Fancy Pants Theater in Kalamazoo.