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Breaking the Mold
Illustration by Jing Wei
Brenda Tarbell calls herself the Grandma Moses of pottery. It’s a catchy image, this comparison to the legendary folk artist, but it is misleading. True, in her 60s, Brenda has finally come into her own as an artist. But she is slender and agile, enviably able to crouch on her knees for hours, lost in her work. And there’s nothing primitive about that work, either. Case in point: her elegant installation recently unveiled at the Duke Energy Convention Center.
The piece, a 60-foot-long riot of ceramic flowers, is titled Buds, Blossoms, Branches, Boughs to the Queen. I’d heard others talk about it, using words like “ethereal” and “perfectly crafted.” When I finally went with her to see it, it lived up to its billing.
Brenda made the pale flowers from a creamy white stoneware clay; her son David, a metalworker, fabricated branches from steel tubes and she shaped delicate copper wire into stamens. Three interns from ArtWorks Cincinnati—the organization that commissioned Buds, Blossoms, Branches, Boughs—assisted on the project as well. Its placement in a hall on the south side of the Convention Center is just right: Sunlight hits the work, and it seems to expand.
Brenda made the piece to explore the strong connection between Cincinnatians and nature. “I picture people from the deep South looking at the magnolia blossoms, and feeling closer to home,” she says of the first grouping of flowers. She chose serviceberry for the second cluster, because, “in the mountains, it was the first blooming tree in the spring. If you lost a loved one over the hard winter months, the budding of the serviceberry was the first indication that the ground was thawing, and services could be held for the deceased.
“It’s pronounced sarvisberry in the mountains,” she added. “We have serviceberries growing in Friendship Park right downtown on the river.”
Her representation of the dogwood is stunning. The whiteness of the boughs looks Oriental; the lip of the blossom, tissue thin. Indeed, in this region it’s hard to imagine spring without the dogwood scattered across our hills, its branches like delicate flushes of color in a Japanese print. Even in a city resplendent with parks and gardens, the beauty of the dogwood stands out. In Brenda’s work, it marks her slow ascent from pottery to ceramic artistry.
The 1960s and ’70s were creative times in Cincinnati; you could feel it in the air. The network of young artists and musicians was at its peak. Potter Mike Frasca established the Spring Street Pottery in the Pendleton Art Center in Over-the-Rhine; Greg Seigel’s digs were south of town, but he’d drive into Cincinnati when he got enough pieces together and sell them out of the backseat of his car. Painter Tom Bacher created giant canvases of skyscrapers, streets, and fancy cars, rendered in fluorescent paint that glowed in the dark. Jane Cochran was just beginning the fabric art pieces that found their way into international quilt exhibits. Those of us who made up the audience for these luminaries wore dangling earrings purchased from quirky little shops in Mt. Adams. We went around, as arts patron Lib Stone once said, “looking like the Mamas and the Papas.”
That was the scene when Brenda arrived in 1973 with a BFA from Ohio State University. Her first studio was Clifton Earthworks, where Cincinnati Art Academy faculty member Bob Hasselle ran a gallery. But her hands quickly found more work to do. Helping her husband, Jim Tarbell, with his restaurant, Arnold’s Bar and Grill, sidetracked her. So did raising their three children. But she continued to work on her craft, with discipline, out of the limelight. Her great friend and pottery partner, Pam Korte, says she wishes young artists knew the value of simply showing up to make art the way Brenda Tarbell has. “No one knows how she did it all,” Korte says. “She just did it, putting one foot in front of the other, quietly and without assumption.”
My early memories of Brenda are vivid: I recall her dressed for one of her husband’s first “Odd Balls”—looking like a Gibson Girl in a “gently” used gown which she bought for $5 at a thrift shop. I remember her at Arnold’s, helping out in the kitchen, and I recall her at any number of art openings in Over-the-Rhine on Final Fridays. Always lovely, always original. At an opening in Sarah Jane Bellamy’s ultra contemporary gallery, she created a pleated skirt from folded plastic bags, and with her hair in a stylish chignon, she looked as if she had walked out of the pages of a fashion magazine.
Recently I was invited to have lunch at a house in Hyde Park where the hosts have filled the walls with contemporary art. Our meal arrived on ceramic plates and cups so fragile, so tiny, they looked like dishes fairies might have dined on. I knew immediately they were Brenda’s work. They reminded me of pieces she’d shown at a holiday art and craft show: small mushroom caps made of thin white ceramic material. They were utterly original, nothing like the sturdy, earth pottery pieces of the 1960s and ’70s. It was the first time I noticed that Brenda was going in a new direction, leaving craft and stepping up into art.
“I no longer throw on the wheel; I work with paper clay now,” she says when I ask about the change. Her medium is clay that’s blended with a fiber such as cellulose—delicate-looking, but strong. “I hand-build: I pinch, I prod, I poke my material into shapes,” she says. She’s had the opportunity to practice her new techniques in good company. She worked one summer after college at the Banff Centre in Alberta, and a Summerfair Foundation grant enabled her to study with Curtis Benzle at La Meridiana International School of Ceramics in Tuscany.
Heady stuff. But, she insists, “I still call myself a potter.”
Two years ago, when my family gathered in Cincinnati for a holiday weekend, Jim and Brenda invited us to their wonderful old house on Broadway for breakfast. There was food to spare, beautifully prepared and served on handmade plates. Jim was in excellent form, slicing heritage tomatoes to spread on a beautiful platter. He scrambled eggs into a frittata with onions, green peppers, and cheese, and everything was served up next to stacks of bacon and sausage. My sister snagged a piece of cured ham on a beaten biscuit, moaning softly as she bit into her treat.
Though the day had started gray and colorless, inside it was all cheer. When Brenda brought out the coffee, it was in handmade cups—handle-less ones, meant to be cradled in your palm like a warm hug. And just then, a ray of morning sunlight beamed through the window, anointing all of us with holiday spirit.
Around the Tarbell house, what Brenda hasn’t made herself she has swapped with other potters of distinction, people like Bob Hasselle and Michael Frasca, and her friends Louise Jenks, Terri Kern, and Pam Korte. Her friendship with Jenks, Kern, and Korte has culminated in the annual show they do in Jenks’s driveway in Hyde Park. They call it “Pots and Lemonade,” and it’s one of those friendly, get-there-early-and-chat affairs.
Jenks, whose sturdy, colorful stoneware pieces grace so many Cincinnati tables, is awed by the way Brenda can turn clay into ethereal art. “She is absolutely fearless. She will try anything,” Jenks says. “The strengths of her shapes carry the delicacy of her work.”
On a recent visit, Brenda wore cotton pants and an old turtleneck dabbed here and there with something, paint or clay, and her longish dark and silver hair was pulled back and fastened with a barrette. When the subject turned to growing old, she held up her hands to show her knuckles beginning to swell. “This is arthritis,” she says, laughing. “This is old age.” We sat companionably for a while, feeling the aches in our bones, the pleasures of having work to do, and the pain of having to do it. I wanted to ask her how she’d managed it all: the husband, the big house, the children, and the work. But I didn’t. It seemed to me a question nobody could answer satisfactorily—not a woman who is an artist, maybe not any woman.
Pam Korte, who teaches at the College of Mount St. Joseph, has some observations about the joy and pain of making art. “There is a lot of talk nowadays about ‘Putting in your 10,000 hours.’ It’s the new trend in talking about art,” she says. “I’d say that Brenda has done that and more. The discipline of it, the years when you’re just slogging through, showing up at your workspace.”
I thought more about it: about the dewy days of youth, followed by the slackening of energy in middle age, when the children are sick or the house is a wreck or money problems are hanging over your head like storm clouds. The years when you’re golden, and the years when you’re not. They’re followed by what I like to call the Sagging Chin Years, when the skills you have mastered finally begin to pay off. Perhaps it is “just showing up” that shapes the artist. But I think it’s more complicated than that. I think it has more to do with spirit. It is hard to create beauty with a pinched soul.
“Brenda is one of the most generous artists I’ve ever known,” says Korte. “It’s been a privilege to work alongside her while she put in her 10,000 hours.”
She paused. “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
Originally published in the February 2014 issue.