Vanessa Brown | Seeing The Softer Side of Steel

When was the last time you built something with your hands? For many of us living in this digital world we are disconnected from the materials that surround us and from the process of making.

This connection to material is what drives Vanessa Brown, a Vancouver based sculptor, who believes that working with your hands can be a very special process. “So many of the objects we fill our lives with are fabricated through abstracted processes,” said Brown. “So the possibility of working with your hands, and being able to make something that is actually connected to what you care about, is a very special thing to get to do.”

Brown’s material of choice is steel. “For me it was a material that really spoke to me,” she said. “It was one of the first times a medium started generating ideas as I was working with it. I was was surprised by what it had to offer.”

Historically, steel has been associated with industry, weaponry, and monument, however Brown’s interest in the medium diverges from this. “When I started working with it I started to realize that it had all these other qualities – that it could be gentle and slight and intimate and flexible and take on many forms. To me, those qualities are as real and true as all the other associations people typically make with steel,” she said.

Brown’s most recent work, Penumbra, is part of an exhibition called Dream Islands, at the Nanaimo Art Gallery. The exhibition focuses on contemporary art practices that are based in craft, and specifically around the work of the late Salt Spring island potter Lari Robson, who died in 2012. Robson was an artist and a craftsperson that loved to connect with the materials he used and with the people who purchased his pottery. He wanted his pottery to be lived with and used every day. The gallery, having recently aquired a collection of Robson’s pottery, organized an exhibition incorporating Robson’s pieces alongside work by a number of contemporary artists. Brown, along with the other artists, was gifted a piece of pottery and was asked to make something using Robson’s work as inspiration.

“My bowl had this really amazing detail. There was a round, dry spot at the base where Lari Robson’s fingers pinched the bowl in order to dip it into the glaze. The area around the spot where his fingers held the bowl left a white halo in the shape of a cresecent moon. So, the first thing I did was incorporate it into a mobile,” said Brown.

The mobile she created depicts a moon. Under the moon a bottle pours into layers of painted cups, which cascade outward and float in circles. “For me it was a way of thinking about Lari Robson and about the ripple effect that takes place when someone dies. You touch the lives of the people around you, but the effect spreads,” she said. “I put my thumb in the same place that his thumb once was, and I never even met him, but his work has impacted me.”

“I also liked the idea of the penumbra around an eclipse,” said Brown. “It looks like something is missing from the sky. It’s there, but it looks like a hole. The light that shines around it indicates its presence. We all do that. Even when someone is gone, we are the light that indicates the presences of the person that has died.”

Penumbra will be at the Nanaimo Art Gallery until September 17th.