Artist Spotlight: Tom Bartel

Tom Bartel was a McKnight Ceramic Artist Resident at NCC in 2015 and we have been proudly representing his smaller works wherein he, “…aims to condense what is present in larger works to a smaller bite-sized scale.” We deviate from our usual Q & A format to share the essay Janet Koplos wrote for the 2016 exhibition, Six McKnight Artists featuring work Bartel made during his residency. Enjoy Koplos’s insightful essay and then head over to our online shop to grab a bite-sized morsel of Bartel for your ceramic collection today.

Tom Bartel: Body Imperfections
By Janet Koplos, first published in Six McKnight Artists 2016, exhibition catalog

Figurative art often tells a story, but the figures Tom Bartel has constructed throughout his career have been powerful yet expressively complex and hesitant to reveal their messages. They have combined such cheerful motifs as dots and hearts with sullen or leaden faces. More than telling a tale they have created moods or established tense and ambivalent auras. 

Perhaps a clue to interpretation is the importance Bartel ascribes to having grown up in Cleveland, a city of mixed messages. Once a great center of commerce and culture, it became a study in Rust Belt decline. He remembers trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art with his artist mother from their suburban home; memories of museum wonders blend with the “heavy edginess” of the city. A great high school art teacher (who was a ceramist) encouraged him, got him to college; he says that may be why he became a teacher. She told him about Kirk Mangus, so he studied with Mangus at Kent State University, where he earned his BFA. He followed that with an MFA in the three-year program at Indiana University. Another three years, a job as a ceramic technician at Alleghany College in Pennsylvania, came with a studio and materials, giving him time to further develop, to find exhibition opportunities and to get a toehold in teaching. Next up was two years of teaching at Viterbo College in Wisconsin, and then eight years at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Although that program was undergraduate only and he was the sole ceramics teacher, he had some amazing students. He is now at Ohio University in Athens, a larger program. He teaches classes from the foundation courses to the graduate level. His specialties are hand-building and the figure.

Bartel’s preference for the figure seems to be innate. Even in childhood, he says, he drew people in striped shirts, and he sees figures and faces everywhere he looks, from clouds to electrical outlets. Graduate school courses in sub-Saharan African art and ceramics history have been important to his work, along with pop culture. The African art often focused on rites of passage, costumes and masquerade/transformation, which was eye-opening to him since in our culture costume is often frivolous. He recognized universal passage experiences in these memorable objects.

His BFA show consisted of life-size nude cadaver-like figures, hung on the wall (the verticality in tension with the morbid quality of the bodies). In grad school he started to make ceramic babies, and he also began to work more fully in the round, devising his first freestanding works. His second year of grad school, making life-size freestanding figures for a critique, he worked too fast and they fell over and broke. That led him to take different parts from different pieces and put them together, which became a signature approach. Disjunction in scale interested him. He feels that work that is difficult to face is more effective in making his audience think of the human condition, life and death.

The heads he made were never purely portraits. They might relate to masks, with larger psychological implications. Recently he has been using molds. During his NCC residency, he worked in a new scale that probably evokes dolls, which he sees as evocative objects. He employs slips and terra-sigillata along with commercial underglazes. He still looks for a skin-like quality but seldom uses true flesh tones. His abstracted figures may be missing limbs. Among the figures that may be in the McKnight show is a seeming hermaphrodite with no hands, a female whose arms seem to end in penises, and a smaller being whose arms terminate in nipples. With stronger colors than previous work, they are blue, red, yellow or green and so extensively embellished that the “skin” evokes clothing, craquelure or wallpaper. The figures might seem to wear onesies or long johns except that sexual features show. Bartel thinks of rag dolls, mummies, other helpless beings. Some of the figures have the thick and simple body proportions of toddlers.

An experiment during his residency at NCC was clown-like red bulbs added to the noses—sometimes phallic in implication, sometimes breast-like, sometimes with a sad-clown implication. A new piece consisted of a rocklike head with pink hearts all over it and another was a sleeping face implying dormancy. More changes are likely. Bartel and his partner, Rachel, have welcomed their first child, which gives an artist examining cycles of life a whole new perspective.

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