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John Lamb, Published November 10 2013

Mineral materials: Ceramicist showcases metal-based paints in solo exhibit

MOORHEAD - It’s been a transformative and productive five years since Concordia College arts teacher Ross Hilgers’ last solo show.

At the time, the ceramic artist was beginning a transition from glazes to metal-based paints, creating unique textures and colors for the pieces.

“Since the last show, I’ve really figured out a greater harmony between my work and the paint,” Hilgers said recently.

What he learned is on display in his new show, “Filling Space,” at the Cyrus M. Running Gallery on Concordia’s campus. A reception will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday.

The idea to try paints instead of traditional glazes came after talking to his sculptor colleague, Duane Mickelson. Hilgers learned that if he sprayed a metal paint on his fired clay sculptures, added a patina – a weak acid to start oxidization – the surface would develop interesting characteristics.

“The way the surface can run and rust has this really intricate connection to the forms,” Hilgers explains. “It shows this age it doesn’t have.”

Iron changes from an orange to a deep burgundy or rust red, while copper goes from a teal to a deep fluorescent green.

The rate of oxidization is subject to the climate around the piece. A gallery in St. Petersburg, Fla., recently called him, alarmed by how much the color had changed in the two weeks since it had arrived. It’s all part of the process, he explained.

The gallery believes the changes are a result of the saltwater in the air.

By spraying on the paint instead of glazing, he only has to fire the pieces once, cutting down on his carbon footprint.

The forms fit the finish. Hilgers’ pieces are more angular and less organic than those he made over five years ago.

Each sculpture is constructed of a series of layers, as many as 15 discs or slabs, then separately fired, stacked and painted. The finished works, often 16 to 24 inches in diameter, can weigh up to 150 pounds.

“To put these together is a mini architectural exercise to withstand all of the weight,” he explains.

While he has ideas about how the pieces should look (sketches will be displayed along with the finished work to show the thought process), he’s more instinctive in the studio, trying different pieces to see how they work together.

“When I build, I’m terribly fascinated with how they’re put together in an engineering way. If everything is working well, I have a lot of fun putting these together,” he says.

The finished works prompt the viewer to figure the shapes out themselves. Some use words like “futuristic” and “architectural” as descriptors. Others have suggested they look like Cold War-era relics or even Art-Deco designs.

“Sometimes they’re trying harder than I am. That’s fun,” he said.

So where do his ideas come from? What inspires these shapes?

“That’s the question I haven’t been able to answer well for people,” he said. “When I go into the studio, I turn off my logical thinking. I like simple forms. I like to see what things look like when they collide.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533