The earth and the moon are interconnected in ways that have inspired humans for centuries, in religion, art and folklore.
Brooke Armstrong, a second-year University of Montana Master of Fine Arts student, took that relationship to inform her exhibit in the UC Gallery, “Earth and Sky,” which uses clay and wood in six installations, each a different take on the moon, its phases, and how it affects the earth.
“Last winter I started to think about our connection here on earth and what it means to be connected to the sky,” Armstrong said. “It really got into cosmology, which means where we as humans fit into a larger system.”
This is the idea of axis mundi, Latin for "earth navel," an idea of a pole that connects heaven and earth.
But “the sky,” Armstrong emphasized, is not an ephemeral thing in her mind. She is examining it as a very physical place, one interconnected with the earth through weather, gravity and seasonal cycles.
“An earth navel being made of clay,” she said. “I wanted to be more specific about the form.”
There’s inspiration from ancient cultures — as in the wood-and-paper “Moon System,” which renders old designs featuring the underworld, earth and heavens stacked upon one another in three dimensions.
The form of the moon itself comes into play in “Stacking Pots to Reach the Moon I and II.” Both sculptures are made of, yes, stacked pots that differ in key ways.
“Moon II” is more moonlike, the 16 stacked pots glazed like frosting in a creamy grayish-white, dark pieces of clay stuck to the outside like meteor rock chips.
“Moon I,” made with eight stacked pots, is striking in its bluntness. The pots are larger, the chunks of clay removed and stuck on are darker, larger. The glaze, mixed by Armstrong, colors them like a sulfur spring and adds a rough texture to the outside.
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“This glaze has barium carbon in it, and bone ash,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t apply it like that, it just does that in the kiln.
“That’s one thing I want to highlight in my work, is this mystery to the material, and this magical quality that it has.”
Armstrong’s pair of towers also draw from humans’ eternal quest to build objects reaching toward the sky, from piles of rocks to totems and skyscrapers.
“From Here to There” is another wooden piece, with five monolithic black shapes arranged in an arc. Each tower of wood has perfect semi-circles cut from it, bringing the mind to the shape of the moon. It immediately registers as an abstract take on the phases of the moon, or perhaps one of those long-exposure photos of the moon arcing across the night sky.
Armstrong incorporated wood into her show out of deference to her parents, both woodworkers who tried to instill the art in her at an early age.
“It’s really this personal connection to my family,” she said. “I remember the first time I worked with wood I hated it.”
But she gave it another try and found good results, the smoothed wood painted with black milk paint, which has lactose and other natural materials in it that stain the wood a dark charcoal color, with hints of smoky grey and white.
“For me, the reason I wanted to use it was moon cycles relating to fertility.”
Armstrong has a mind that bends toward this kind of thinking — what material can she use that echoes the themes her art puts across? This approach only deepens her thesis, as in “New Moon,” a pair of vase-like sculptures that were fired, then sandblasted to achieve a crater-y look. Armstrong used watercolor to paint them (because of the moon’s relationship with the tides) before finishing up with a waxy glaze that brings out the same black-with-hints-of-smoke texture as “From Here to There.”
Take the time to glance from piece to piece in “Earth and Sky” and notice all sorts of repeating themes, shapes and textures. All interconnected, through the axis mundi.