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Creatures From Clay

Working with a single wooden knife in a disorganized office, Zachary Hemsteger creates his primitive, clay sculptures.

The 27-year-old USF graduate student moved to Florida a year and a half ago after graduating from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in ceramics.

Paintings and old ceramic busts of famous politicians and artists, which Hemsteger sculpted as an undergraduate, crowd his art space. His newest pieces – a mix of machinery, meat grinders and anthropomorphic animals – sit on tables against the walls of his studio located off USF’s Fine Arts Hall.

The new items will be on display in his exhibit at the William and Nancy Oliver Gallery this week.

His centerpiece is a tabletop diorama assembled from smaller pieces – a glazed pig’s head with sausages tumbling out the back and a dark angel with a pair of chicken wings.

“I suggest a narrative, but I don’t want a definitive one liner,” Hemsteger said. “There’s references to the meat and feelings of discontent, but I don’t force (them).”

Hemsteger calls his art “social commentary” that centers around the idea of meat production and outdated machinery.

“(I) try to create a connection … make us realize how close we are with what we eat,” he said.

Hemsteger is not a vegetarian but he said that the way meat is prepared makes him feel guilty and hypocritical every time he enjoys meat from produced the way it is today, sometimes involving slaughterhouses.

To see if he can prepare his own meat in a more traditional manner, Hemsteger is raising his own batch of chickens.
But he said, “They’re too young and cute right now to kill.”

Hemsteger, who has slightly more than a year left before receiving his master’s degree, is also in his second semester of teaching undergraduate students in a Beginning Ceramics class.

“I’m still learning a lot about teaching itself,” he said. “I find (that) I assign projects based on what I’m doing at the time.”

The pieces in Hemsteger’s exhibit are ideas away from his previous undergraduate work, he said.

“I feel like that stuff is in the past now,” he said. “I have a lot on my mind (that I want) to make so I don’t even consider that stuff anymore.”

If a piece is gone, it doesn’t mean that it won’t ever make another appearance, he said. Sometimes, he’ll look back on an old idea and build a new exhibit off a small piece.

Traditional, shiny glazes seen in many of his older works are absent from a majority of the exhibit’s pieces – the most common of which are the bulldozer grinders Hemsteger calls “Mastocators,” sitting inside and outside of his workspace.

The earliest version of the grinders features the rear half of a ceramic cow being fed through an opening. Hemsteger later changed this to broaden the piece’s meaning and make it more accessible.

“I like to distill ideas down into grabbable concepts,” he said.

The sculptures, such as his untraditional totem pole that towers above his other works, maintain primitive appearances – something Hemsteger intentionally achieves by avoiding working with his hands. His wooden knife and detail wire tool let him form sharp edges.

“I like the gestural look,” he said. “I try not to hide the fact that it’s clay … let the clay look like clay. Not everyone likes my work, and I understand why (not). It’s not necessarily beautiful at first glance. It’s roughly made – some people call it technically naive – but I don’t mind that. I’m not looking to make highly polished, precious objects.”
In his free time, Hemsteger also plays drums, which is what he’ll be doing in a PODS containment unit on the exhibit’s closing day for the “Contain it! Installation Fest” at the Dunedin Fine Art Center.

Music isn’t just a hobby, though. It’s a part of Hemsteger’s inspiration and work process.

“I shut the door, put headphones on and just go to town,” Hemsteger said. “I work really intensely for short periods of time and then (I) just have to walk away, which is good, because if you sit too close to something (for) too long, you don’t get a good perspective.”

The exhibit opened Monday and Hemsteger is holding a reception at the gallery on Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Hemsteger is already planning for a student exhibit in the Contemporary Art Museum. He said though his art alone may not be enough to make a living, it’s something he’ll always enjoy.

“I always liked drawing,” he said. “I drew my way through elementary and middle school and high school. So, I kind of always knew I would end up here doing this.”