Three cones stand together, each one showing the signs of havoc from some unwieldy and apathetic force. They have been burned badly, and yet are still deeply beautiful.
The jarring and angst-ridden imagery is the work of ceramist Amiko Matsuo, whose work is on display at the Foxworthy Gallery in Santa Maria in an exhibit called Pyrometric. The works featured use a variety of cones (ceramic firing cones, pine cones, etc.) to draw a connection between the haunting visual effects of fires on the landscape and the fragility of the human existence within it.
Matsuo, who recently joined Allan Hancock College as head of the 3-D and ceramics program, studied under the tutelage of famed sculptor Andrew Saxe at the University of California Los Angeles. The story of the Pyrometric project began when she was teaching at a school in Ventura that was forced to evacuate from the Springs Fire of 2013.
“That got me thinking a lot about the place where we live and how we live in a place where we contend with natural disasters,” she said. “For us here, it’s wildfires. I was interested in the question of how art mediates between people and nature. … I was thinking about how people respond to nature.”
Matsuo said she also began to contemplate the idea of tsunami stones, inscribed tablets that line the Japanese coastline and serve as cautionary tales against human encroachment.
“Tsunami stones will say things like, ‘Do not build houses below this point,’” Matsuo said. “They are a marker or marking of borders between natural disasters. They serve as reminders and tell us a little about what has happened in a place before us, and it’s also a warning to the future.”
Matsuo’s works in the Pyrometric show follow an almost evolutionary pattern, exploring the concept from ancient indigenous fire methods to modern firefights aimed at protected manmade structures such as homes.
One overarching theme in Matsuo’s work is transformation, albeit the reluctant transformation wrenched out of a form bending against its will to the mighty jaws of heat. Fire destroys, but it’s also transmutative. Matsuo highlights this through the use of different types of cones, including traffic cones.
“In ceramics, we use what are called cones and are put inside of our kiln,” she said. “They bend at certain temperatures which tells me when the pieces are finished. The traffic cones are an allusion to that as well.”
Traffic cones serve as warnings and demarcation: a conical barrier between safety and all the unbearable destruction beyond. For Pyrometric, Matsuo crafted clay versions of safety cones and then enlisted the help of Ventura County firefighters to expose the cones to the high heat and smoke of controlled burns.
Matsuo, who studied the ancient Japanese method of coil building known as nejitate, also ventured outside clay for the exhibit. Experimenting with a product known as Phos-Chek, a fire retardant that dumps large oceans of red onto fire-swallowed landscapes, Matsuo created all-new drawings and images such as helicopters and more.
She said the work was completed before the Alamo and Whittier fires started in July.
“When I was creating these pieces, I was feeling really anxious,” Matsuo said. “There was this feeling of foreboding in the images. Part of that came from the color—it’s bright red, it signals dangers. It’s ominous. This was right before the fires happened. When the show came together, I was surprised by the emotional effect of these images.”
Matsuo said even looking at the images now the anxiety still lingers. One thing that also hovers over the project is the ever-imposing idea that fire is a perpetual ghost forever haunting the California landscape.
“There’s something very circular about how these natural disasters happen,” she said. “It will always happen again, too.”
Pyrometric, an exhibit by ceramist Amiko Matsuo, runs through Dec. 1 at the Ann Foxworthy Gallery on the Allan Hancock College Santa Maria campus, located in the Academic Resource Center. More info: 922-6966, Ext. 3252.
Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is on fire. Contact her at [email protected].