Glenwood potter honors fallen soldiers
Nine for every one – the statistic ran through Annette Roberts-Gray’s head. Nine soldiers injured in Iraq for every one killed. And so many killed, over 2,000. Roberts-Gray, who is a potter living in Glenwood Springs, wanted to do something for the dead. “The statistic got me thinking about (the war). I wanted to do a vase for every soldier killed,” she said. That was months ago. Now, Roberts-Gray’s ceramic studio in her house is awash in white porcelain vases, each about six inches high, each stamped with the name of a soldier, the date of his death and age, and his service – Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force.”I want them to be a memorial,” she said.There are about 250 of them now, in various stages of completion. Roberts-Gray hopes to have about 500 by next spring for a show at the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities. The show will open in March, the anniversary of America’s invasion of Iraq. “That first year’s casualties were 590,” she said.”I wanted pure white porcelain because it’s like marble; it’s very translucent,” she said.Each vase has small handles or lugs on the side, a pointed lug for men, a serpentine handle for women.Roberts-Gray downloaded the list of Iraqi war dead from the Internet.
“I’ve really gotten into the names. I realize what a melting pot we are,” she said.She spends about one hour on each piece. “A lot of my potter friends think I’ve lost my mind,” she said. The production “is so repetitive. But in a way I feel I’m honoring production potters.”Roberts-Gray has come to her project – indeed her life as an artist in Glenwood Springs – on a winding path that led from the door of her parents’ house in Salt Lake City. Her father was a mining engineer who worked for Kennecott, which operates the largest copper mine in the world across the valley from Salt Lake City.When she was 11 years old the family pulled up stakes and moved to Silver City, in southwestern New Mexico, where she graduated from high school.Roberts-Gray went to Western New Mexico University in Silver City. Although she studied ceramics, “I never thought I could make a living at it, so I went into health care and family planning,” she said.That degree led her to take a job in 1981 at Planned Parenthood in Glenwood Springs.In 1986, at a reunion in Wisconsin, Annette met and later married Andrew Roberts-Gray. Andrew was in a masters of fine arts program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He finished the next year and said to Annette, “Every artist should spend a year in New York.”So the couple packed up, and moved to the Big Apple, without jobs lined up.”We just went there cold,” she said.
Andrew got lucky quickly. Reading through the help wanted ads he saw a notice for an art preparator at the Guggenheim Museum, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed temple of modern art in New York. At the time, the museum was in the midst of a new addition construction. Much of its permanent collection was sent far and wide, and Andrew went along with it – to Germany, Australia and Korea – installing the art at the various venues.For the couple, New York was an artist’s dream. Andrew had a pass to all the great museums of the city, and they took advantage of the opportunity.”At first I liked the energy of the city,” Annette said. “But I had a hard time with the summers. I never got used to the humidity.”She and Andrew lived for a short time in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, in an apartment close by the Port Authority bus station and the Lincoln Tunnel. Later they moved to Queens then settled in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.Family planning work in the city did not appeal to Annette.”AIDS was sweeping the country,” she said. Instead she took a job with AT&T, answering a bank of 20 phone lines. “I was good at multi-tasking,” she laughed.During that time their son Aaron was born. While Andrew was traveling, Annette stayed home with the baby. But as he grew older they realized the city was not the place where they wanted Aaron to grow up. Their thoughts turned to Glenwood Springs because Annette had kept her house there. The family moved back in 1993 and Annette went back to work at Planned Parenthood. Andrew got a job at the David Floria Gallery in Woody Creek and learned to make fine art frames. He now has his own thriving business.In 1998, Annette left Planned Parenthood “to see if I could make a go of it in pottery. It’s a hard way to make a living,” she said. Most of her art revolves around the functional – every day mugs and bowls and plates. “I like people to appreciate pottery in daily use.”
Her work is for sale in the Artists Mercantile and the Carbondale Clay Center.The soldiers’ vases represent a sharp turn away from that.”This project is a real departure from what I’ve always done,” she said.These days, when she returns from her day job – packing fine art for moving or storage – it’s back to the soldier vases. Seated at a low table, she attaches the lugs to the sides of the vases. “In a way they remind me of little people,” she said of the ovoid vases, “they’re figurative.” First, she throws the basic shape on the wheel, then when they have dried to a leathery consistency, shapes the cylinders into ovals.She’s also trying to figure out a way to wire each vase with a small light bulb so that the letters of the soldiers’ names are illuminated.With the same movements, over and over, Roberts-Gray finds a kind of peace in the work.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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