Memoirs of a sculpture

For those who are jealous of friends going overseas this summer, here’s one piece of advice – don’t be. The trip to foreign countries has grown tiresome, trite and cliché. And on a student’s budget, traveling to far-away destinations is not exactly practical. With student loans stretched to the limit, many are lucky to afford a trip to McDonald’s, much less an excursion out of the country. However, there is an opportunity to absorb foreign culture here on campus at the new exhibit on display at Centre Gallery in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center.

The exhibit, Mono No Aware by Taylor Robenalt, consists of seven ceramic and mixed media sculptures that explore the varying roles of women in Japanese society, ranging from laboring in rice fields to working as modern geishas. Although ceramics are often associated with functional objects such as bowls, cups and those misshapen ashtrays that every 8-year-old makes for their mother, Robenalt takes a unique approach to her craft, producing highly stylized, figurative sculptures.

The originality in Robenalt’s work is due to her background in art. While attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Robenalt majored in sculpture. Her concentration was not on ceramics, but bronze casting – an art form that requires a great deal of time, labor and money. After graduating, Robenalt spent two months in Tokoname, Japan attending a ceramics workshop and living with a host family. While her education forged her career path, her experiences living with the host family – especially the matriarch – sparked her interest in Japanese culture, particularly the plight of women. Upon her return to the states, Robenalt transferred to USF, where she is conducting post-baccalaureate work in ceramics.

The majority of Robenalt’s pieces in Mono No Awake represent the stages required to become a full-fledged geisha.

Geishas are traditional, female Japanese entertainers, often viewed as perfect women because of their mastery of the arts of conversation and etiquette. They are known for their beauty and grace, as well as their distinctive style, which involves elaborate costumes, makeup and hairstyles.

Becoming a geisha is a lengthy and complicated process, yet Robenalt manages to represent each stage of the process with accurate and amazing detail. The five ceramic figures, ranging from maiko (apprentice geisha) to junior and senior geishas, display the appropriate styles of each stage of the progression.

The first of the figures is a beginning maiko named Hatsuoki, which is translated as “Middle of Ocean.” As a beginning maiko, she is wearing heavy makeup, which includes a white face and neck, red eyeshadow and a “W” pattern left unwhitened on the back of her neck to symbolize sensuality and forbiddenness. Her hair is worn in the “Split Peach” style and her kimono and obi (the silk sash fastened around her waist to keep the kimono closed) are highly colorful and elaborate, containing shades of purple, blue and green. The obi contains images of fish – a reference to the meaning of her name.

The other two maiko also reflect customary garb. Takazuru, a junior maiko, wears an obi decorated with cranes, which is appropriate since her name is translated as “Tall Crane.” The senior maiko’s name, Teruha, translates as “Shining Leaf,” and as such, her obi is decorated with leaves. Robenalt was careful to pick names that would be appropriate and symbolic.

Interestingly, instead of creating solid, flowing kimonos for the maiko, Robenalt created multiple ceramic tiles that she wired together in rows in order to create the kimonos. The tiles for each maiko increase in size as the maiko progress towards becoming a geisha.

The last two ceramic figures in the series, the junior and senior geishas, exhibit makeup that is much more natural and their kimono and obi have more subdued patterns and styles. Whereas maiko are highly ornate in appearance, geisha allow their own natural beauty to shine through. They have other attributes that are more important, such as their skills in the arts. Maiko often are unskilled and therefore must depend on their beauty for attention.

Robenalt’s experimentation is evident in the geisha. Instead of possessing the tiled kimono of the maiko, the geisha’s kimono is one piece. Also, the geisha have hands, whereas the maiko do not. Whether stylized or accurate, Robenalt’s skill is apparent.

In order to create the maiko and geisha, Robenalt fired the pieces three times each, which was necessary for the use of color and decorative decals. Although the maiko and geisha figures are the main part of the show, the exhibit also contains “Contemporary Female Dancer” and “Old Lady in Rice Field,” which are both worth seeing. Robenalt chose the Japanese phrase “Mono No Aware” as the title of the exhibit because it represents “the appreciation for ephemeral beauty manifested in nature and human life” – an appreciation that can be tinged with sadness, but can also be accompanied by admiration, awe and even joy. The exhibit runs through May 29.