Reaching Venus

Losing control excites her. It’s “messy,” this sensual interplay of organic materials, glass, and earthy custom clays. She’s excited by these interactions, waiting to see if shards and rocks can give her fantasies complex textures–how they will react in the kiln’s fierce heat. What about the dog kibbles, wood chips and allspice berries? Amid all the “tension,” will they and the gold lustre add startling beauty to the finished sculpture? “Diving” into piles of shards and rocks fascinates Catharina Goldnau. Delighting in the “messiness” of contradictory surfaces, she welcomes the “unexactness” and turbulence of clay firings. It’s an anarchy, an imaginative romp that just might allow her to reach Venus.

“That element of surprise, being at the mercy of heat, that’s fine, I am not a cookie cutter potter,” laughs Goldnau, quickly adding, “I am at the mercy of firings. I’m also a problem solver. I’ve learned to manipulate heat, to make it my friend. Taming heat, turning its power to suit your own ambitions is pure audacity. Kilns are inherently volatile. They transmute clay, transforming raw, weak masses into stronger, glasslike forms–at a potentially worrisome, highly-risky cost.Toxic gases are released during the firing process, and since the heat in kilns is unpredictable, glazes shrink, glass fractures. As Goldnau admits, “I’ve had my share of explosions.”

Navigating the dissonance, the relentless upheaval of being a non-traditional ceramicist, Goldnau fabricates rapturous “Objects of Desire.” Unique sculptural extravagances and sensations, Western Goddess (a “landscape” celebration of a golden/bronzed Beyonce), Candy Mountain, and Rapunzel are whimsy, color splashes, and a juxtaposition of textural flourishes. A frenzy of shapes, bank logos, dollar signs and Facebook symbols, Western Goddess is Goldnau the droll critic, her playing havoc with established notions of beauty. Swathed in golden glaze, her goddess is a superficial one, a ruse, Western values exposed and  mocked.

Tangle, Double Trouble and the wondrous Chalice are equally evocative. Earthy, wild and raw, combined with a distinct sense of other, freely-floating emotions, they oscillate, ramble between two universes, much like Goldnau. Splitting her life between tumultuous “concrete” Toronto, and the Canadian countryside of “fields, rocks, and lakes,” this transplanted Hamburg, Germany sculptor is herself an assemblage of clashing sensitivities. Richly impacted by two divergent “poles,” Culture and Nature, she derives inspiration from Surface Tension (also one of her stoneware and porcelain bowls), “building” on opposites…until it feels true.”Reveling in the contradictions, how the distorted shapes, uneven textures, and variegated seas of colors convey swirling intensities, Goldnau says, “I like contradictions, rough external surfaces, smooth glazes inside. Nature versus Culture. That creative tension is part of me.”

So are her glass shards, rocks, and porcelains. As devoted to her materials as Mother Earth, she starts to make a piece, carves a pattern, lays out glazes, and once her hands start reading the clay, manipulating it, an “emotional attachment” is formed. “Porcelain clays are like Princesses, very unforgiving (and easy to fall apart before firing),” she sighs, “and a creation story every time.” A flight of fantasy, Rapunzel Tower honors that fragility, beauty and survival. Composed of stoneware, custom clay, dripping glazes, and perlite, this 83 cm. high sculpture “defies adversity” in a celebration of female strength.The mythic heroine is trapped, but in this work there are “openings..ways to look out and to find hope.”

Goldnau has already been released. Once limited by family demands, and her teaching French immersion in a primary school, she earned a BA in Craft and Design at Toronto’s Sheridan College, and upon graduation won the 2018 Gardiner Museum Award. “I found my voice,” Goldnau says, in her studio. Pointing to her broken shards and clay, she adds, “I put chaos back in order.” Even if that often means routinely bloodying her fingers in the pile of fragments. “To fuse these elements I do 3 to 5 firings…I want to change colors…be unpredictable, to always experiment. I like to take cultural objects and reimagine them…contrast rocks and clay, be in Nature.” Overcoming the “emotional loss” of pieces fracturing in the kiln, Goldnau resurrects them. Only then does she “feel “whole.”

Some of those fragments find a new life in Golden Shard, a jewelry box meant to be an “intimate space” for the most precious objects. A cherished keepsake reflecting Goldnau’s virtuosity in creating surprises, the whimsical Devil is in the Details is an even greater provocation. The base is a flowery profusion of porcelain; the devilish details are Dollar, Apple and Facebook symbols mixed with “tons of glass, salt and rocks.” Coupling realism with joyful playfulness, the work symbolizes life’s irreconcilable duality. Far less intricately-detailed, but still profoundly resonant, the “childlike” Reaching Venus sculpture metaphorically reaches skyward, a symbol of woman’s now soaring possibilities.

What keyed Goldnau’s ascent? Pausing, she soon answers, “One of my favorites. Keep it Safe.” Daringly turning traditionalism upside down with this globular gem, she’s lined the interior with a velvety, “regal” pillow, and the smooth porcelain is lustered with 18k gold. Confidently exclaiming “this jewelry box sings, I found my aesthetic here,” she completes the imaginative medley with coarse particles, custom clay, and splashes of organic additions.  “That work turned my life around,” she admits, “removed any lingering thoughts about my continuing to teach French. Now Goldnau is considering helping others take similar leaps of faith. “I’ve been asked to teach aspiring ceramicists, to do self-advancement workshops,” she explains. “That could be very exciting.”


Written by Edward Kiersh

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