- Virginia McKinney works with each piece until the clay sculpture sits perfectly in the steel supports, as seen in “Posturing Pomposity.”
Virginia McKinney’s clay-and-steel sculptures recall everything from Native American dwellings to Asian passageways. Small notches indicate doors and windows; steel ladders lead to unexplored rooms. “I’m intrigued by the idea of the dwelling, of a sense of place,” she says.
McKinney is a relatively new full-time studio artist. She spent more than 20 years teaching different mediums at various schools, while taking classes to further her skills in metal. She chose to “jump off the cliff,” she says, when she found herself freshly divorced with two children in college: in 2003, McKinney moved to Gatlinburg, Tenn., to become an artist in residence at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. “I quit teaching and said, ‘This is it,’ ” she explains.
But don’t expect her to stay out of school: McKinney is now the campus liaison at Arrowmont, and lives in an apartment on the edge of the school’s grounds. She’s also enrolled at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pa., for her master’s in ceramics. “I am a perpetual student,” she says. “Both sides of the desk can be very exciting.”
McKinney describes her work as “a dance between the steel and clay.” She starts a series in her ceramics studio, hand-building red earthenware clay into a dozen forms and bisque firing by the kiln load. Then she moves into her blacksmithing studio and forges steel forms for each piece, hammering and shaping, fitting the bisque pieces into their respective supports.
Then it’s time to return to the clay studio to glaze—not an uncomplicated process. If you look closely, you’ll notice flecks of different colors in any given glaze; that’s because she layers slips, stains and glazes until she achieves depth in the colors. After the final firing, McKinney matches the clay with the steel, which is sanded, primed and painted. “You’d think steel would be heavy, but it lifts up the clay and gives it life,” she explains. “The work has a visceral feel, a strength to it.”
“My work will always be evolving,” McKinney says. Her graduate work is in unglazed porcelain—“I keep thinking about how I could incorporate it.”