The scene is uncharacteristically perilous for an art gallery. Construction workers pour in and out, and the lights flicker and fade as renovations go on in New Elements Gallery’s new location on Front Street. Adding to the chaos is YiFenn Strickland in the act of showing myriad ways her ceramic vases can be displayed. In one configuration, they stand as two glazed vases ready to hold freshly cut flowers. Then she spins each vase around and places one atop the other, carefully aligning the edges of each piece to look seamless. Suddenly it’s no longer two vases—but a solid clay sculpture. She quickly rearranges them, showing an entirely different configuration. The ceramic pieces are stable considering their fragile appearance. If anyone other than Strickland were handling the ceramics like this, they would be promptly escorted from the gallery.
“Knowing they’re not attached makes me nervous,” chimes in Sheila Keefe Ortiz, whose paintings align the walls. Intensely colorful expanses of flowers, still-lifes, and various outdoor scenes provide one calming element in this abnormally hectic situation. The pairing of Ortiz’s painted serenity and Strickland’s erratic sculptures marks “Time & Place” at New Elements Gallery. While the two artists seem as though they have little common ground, they both deal with memories and their surroundings in their work.
After achieving her master’s degree in design, Ortiz spent most of her life in Corning, New York, as a middle-school teacher specializing in art education and Spanish. However, she never fully abandoned her studio-art roots. When she wasn’t busy in her classroom, she was painting in her home studio. Having recently retired from teaching, she finds herself newly transplanted in Wilmington. The change of scenery had a profound impact on her work, which inspired her to organize the show.
“I was open to the experience of living here,” she explains. “I moved here about three years ago, and my work has been really affected by my surroundings. I thought, What meaning do I find here in Wilmington? What do people find meaningful here for them? It’s about how a place affects you. You hear what people love about Wilmington—they love magnolias, they love Azalea Fest. Those are there roots. That’s what they connect with. So, I was connecting with things I thought made Wilmington special.”
Her still-life paintings range from controlled to gestural. In her larger paintings, flowers are formed from measured fields of color, while in her smaller ones, colorful floral shapes emerge from starkly scattered charcoal lines. Regardless of technique, her brushwork demonstrations a confident hand.
“Line is similar in all the pieces,” Ortiz explains. “I want to let myself identify with the essence of the subject, and show the line and the process of creating it. I don’t like to lose immediacy in the work. Part of why I leave those lines in it is because I wanted to show something of the drawing that’s underneath the painting.”
However, her paintings aren’t about flowers and color. Memories guide her work, infusing still lifes with a sense of familiarity. Ortiz recalls childhood memories of playgrounds in vivid brushstrokes evoking the frenetic energy of youth. She captures the gloom of drenched fallen leaves scattered across the streets after last year’s Hurricane Matthew.
“Since we call this show ‘Time & Place,’ in the back of my mind, I was expressing memories,” Ortiz recalls. “Some pieces have my mother’s things in them. One piece represents my three sons as three vases. They have a lot of symbolism in them. It’s me trying to find meaning in Wilmington.”
Strickland comes from an entirely different background than Ortiz. After moving to the United States from Laos, she spent over a decade as a software engineer before entering the art world. Lacking formal art training, she dabbled in painting as a hobby before finding her niche in ceramics. She credits Hiroshi Sueyoshi at Cameron Art Museum’s Pancoe Art Education Center for introducing her to the wonders of clay.
“I studied with Hiroshi for about three and a half years, and that’s when he retired,” she reminisces. “After that, I’ve been doing my own thing. I fell in love with clay and can’t seem to stop!”
Strickland’s ceramic surfaces draw heavily from her surroundings, with rich earthy tones contrasting with serene oceanic blues. The textures of her clay range from crumbling earth to slick liquescence. Some of her nesting plates resemble crashing waves, while some seem to unfold like rose petals. Her vases are at once static and fluid, evoking abstracted figures caught mid-dance.
“I am not someone who creates the same thing over and over,” Strickland asserts. “I respond to things happening around me. You see a lot of blue, a lot of water, because I live near the ocean at Kure Beach. So, I’m just responding to my surroundings. I love human figures as well. Some of these more gestural things, you can see maybe a body, a turn of a dancer, or waves.”
Other pieces have a distinctly architectural feel to them. Strickland evokes her engineering experience in merging functionality with decoration in her ceramics, often requiring a careful balancing act to display them. One such set consists of two heavily-textured rectangular vases that can be stacked atop one another. The end result is an impossibly top-heavy sculpture vaguely resembling a twisting building that miraculously maintains its stability.
“This is my preferred arrangement,” Strickland observes. “I want you to feel the tension. Sometimes in life you feel that things can throw you off balance, and somehow you still try to keep your balance. I like the sense of danger and imbalance, even metaphorically.”
Both artists were surprised to find so much common ground despite their seemingly different approaches. Both embrace imperfection, evidenced by Ortiz’ underdrawings showing through finished paintings and Strickland’s organic clay shapes. Most importantly, both women share a sense of dedication to the galleries that host them. Although they both participate in benefit shows for organizations like Empty Bowls and the Carolina Clay Guild, they plan to stick with New Elements Gallery for future showings.
“I’m not one to do a lot of local shows because I don’t like to take my work from here to there,” Ortiz comments. “It’s not for me. I’m a gallery artist. My work is kind of spiritual. I don’t want to cart it all around. I feel I give it more respect by having it in a gallery and taken care by someone else.”
Strickland agrees, but also maintains that her work is less about sales than it is about communicating and enhancing her creative abilities.
“If people respond to my work, that’s great,” says Strickland. “But to me it’s never a means-to-an-end. It’s more about exploration. If I come up with an end-product that surprises me sometimes, I wouldn’t mind hanging onto it.”