Julia K. Steele
Chinnery is a Vancouver, British Columbia based artist. Her
coiled and altered vessels, which are the subject of this article,
are utterly of this place. Here is a landscape of thickly treed,
4500-foot mountains rising steeply from the ocean shore. A coast
battered by wind and rain, inhabited by whales, salmon, bears, cougars,
and eagles. This is also a land of giant trees whose ghosts the
ocean serves up creating tangles of bull kelp and driftwood on sandstone
shelves. Chinnery speaks of this landscape as a geography that penetrates
After many years
of travel and study abroad, Chinnery has firmly planted herself
in the coast of British Columbia. She shares her deep love of this
place with her husband and life partner of twelve years. Both their
family roots extend back eleven generations in Canada: hers to the
earliest French explorers and his to the British and Mic Mac Indian.
Together they have explored the ocean by kayak and the coastal mountains
on foot for weeks at a time. Chinnery admits that it's "a cliché
to say that the natural world moves me to create, but your thinking
does change when you spend days on end isolated in nature. Your
normal thought patterns are suspended and another level of consciousness
takes over. It's like walking around in REM sleep for weeks. That
experience can change your life, never mind what it does for the
The power of
the flora and fauna in British Columbia has inspired people to creative
expression for millennia. The Coastal Salish, the Kwakuitl and Haida,
indigenous peoples of this region, have been informed by the towering
cedar and the endless variety of patterning left on beaches by the
ebb and flow of the tides. The pieces depicted here are Chinnery's
visceral response to such a land and seascape. The vessels evoke
driftwood, navels, spines, swirling oceans, whirling wind, beaten
coastal trees, intertidal sandstone ledges and fire. Chinnery's
broken rim lines and portholes also evoke what lies beyond body
and landscape, namely the sky, the very air we breathe.
Sky is an archetypal
symbol of spirit, the father, higher mind consciousness (not to
be confused with ego consciousness), and enlightenment. The vessels
also draw attention to their earthly origins by their rough texture.
They flower, burst, branch and flame into rims three or four times
the size of their tiny bases. By marrying the elemental (mother
earth) with the spiritual, Chinnery's pieces in effect heal the
rift between the most troubling of all binary oppositions: body
and soul, earth and sky, feminine and masculine.
of her work as housing a body consciousness. "Most potters
and sculptors of clay have experienced losing control of their bodies
through injury. It struck me, in a particularly lengthy episode
of back pain, that my body was a separate but absolutely connected
aspect of my very thoughts. It seemed the pain I was experiencing
was actually a thought pattern- a different level of existence that
is possibly more truthful than conscious thought. It occurred to
me that my pieces were manifestations of this alternate thought
in a very literal way; I stood back and saw female figures throughout
the forms. Clay is a particularly sensitive medium that way. It
will divulge your thoughts and feelings for you- without your conscious
permission or understanding. I suspect the same channel of communication
exists between the viewer and the piece: through a channel that
bypasses spoken word and conscious thought. "
as all clay objects do, signify the hands and soul of the maker.
Fingers drag up the spine of the vessel, leaving a wake of ridges,
mounds and petrified eddies. Excised walls allow inner and outer
worlds to merge. The hands of the maker speak a language that is
turned to stone; the story of a body we can never know but of which
we each fully are. The pieces point to a truth or knowledge that
is beyond the linear workings of our everyday ego-centered minds.
Spinoza, the great contemporary of Descartes and the refuter of
Cartesian dualism, asserts that we are so much greater than our
conscious minds. He points out that ego consciousness can only ever
know itself and as such is not capable of knowing or containing
anything else. He conceives of a kind of body knowledge or intelligence
that various philosophers have gone on to develop into theories
as widely varying as Panpsychism (consciousness in every 'thing')
and Deep Ecologists (proponents of Gaia-we are all one in that we
are part of a single ecology, planet earth).
Descartes' split between mind and body placed supremacy on the mind
or ego-consciousness (I think, therefore I am). Cartesian
dualism legitimizes and valorizes the part of our minds that separates
our self from our body, our fellow beings and our landscapes.
body, spirit, land/seascape, fire, and air, Chinnery's pieces insist
upon the interconnectedness of all. Utterly elemental, through their
organic curves and curls and their non-linear reaching out into
space, the vases evoke a spiraling testimony to the truth of our
being which I believe lies beyond ego-consciousness. Indeed all
art stands as a signifier of what is beyond ordinary consciousness.
Born from creatures who cannot do without ego, our bodies shape
and create objects of beauty which are windows to the world we know
by instinct exists, but of which we can barely speak. Really we
are best mutely pointing to it by physically bringing beauty into
being. If the writing itself is beautiful and topples over into
an aesthetic experience for the reader, then at this point the writing
mirrors the experience of seeing the piece. Ultimately, writing
embodies nothing. By its very failure to say the unsayable it says
everything worth saying.
This is a round
about way of admitting that Rachelle Chinnery's pieces leave me
spell bound and tongue-tied. Their portholes and flaming, swirling
rim lines break the model of a traditional vessel. Their rim lines
fling free the sky and invite it into the very heart of the vessel.
Chinnery's raw and organic finishes draw attention to the pieces'
earthly origins and insist that the viewer take into account that
the vase is made of clay-the
origin of all life. By picking up the striking features of her local
landscape, the shear beauty of her vessels is testimonial to Chinnery's
observation that "our geographical connectedness is in loving
where we are." It is through substance and form that Chinnery
performs her alchemy. By drawing upon all the elements-air, earth,
fire and water-Chinnery, the maker provides the world with objects
that embody a feeling of wholeness and interconnectedness with all
is a writer and potter living in Vancouver.
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