During our recent trip to the Raleigh area, we had the opportunity to see the Pod Triangle Installation by artist Alice Ballard. Located outside of The Umstead Hotel & Spa’s restaurant, Herons, the Pod Triangle is made up of 15 pods in varying colors and designs. Commissioned by Mrs. Ann Goodnight, this triangle is just one of the pod triangle installations created by Alice Ballard. A Walk Remembered, Ballard’s largest installation to date, will be on view at USC Spartanburg in February 2019.
When did you first become interested in creating art?
When I was about 3, I climbed out of my crib when I was supposed to be taking a nap and drew all over my bedroom walls with wax crayons. When my mother came up to check on me, she was horrified and punished me by making me spend the rest of the day cleaning the walls off. This was my first memory. The funny thing I that I don’t remember the punishment part, but I do remember falling in love with making marks and lines. I truly believe that my love of art started here although I had no idea what art was.
I do not remember a time that I didn’t love making art! I also never considered being anything other than becoming an artist of some kind.
What inspired you to create your pod pieces?
When my husband Roger and I drove to Asheville to Highwater Clays to purchase clay, we stopped along the railroad tracks to let the dogs run around. There was a tree that caught my attention with its clusters of heart-shaped black pods. I snapped a few branches off and brought them back to my studio knowing I would do some work inspired by these pods. I later found out the tree they came from was called the Princess Tree or Royal Paulownia tree, which is an invasive tree from China.
As often has been the case with me, I can ponder an idea for quite some time, and in this case, it was 2 years or so. I had been invited to have a show on the main floor of Blue Spiral 1 in Asheville with work by the late Will Henry Stevens. It was the perfect time to develop a new body of work. I created 9 tall Tree Totems and decided to try a wall piece comprised of a number of press-molded pod forms that would all be treated differently and would incorporate different aspects of the colors, and textures of my favorite natural forms.
First Pod Triangle at Blue Spiral
I ended up with 15 and wanted to create a long row at head height but knew they would not give me that kind of wall space. I tried a grid and other groupings and in the process of moving them around, I had formed a triangle! I looked at it as if it had formed itself and thought how perfect a triangle, the symbol for femininity, would be. I also thought about Judy Chicago and her famous Dinner Party being in the shape of a triangle. I decided 15 would create a triangle that could be a focal point for the show yet still be in keeping with the ideas of nature so prevalent in Steven’s work. I felt they would complement one another perfectly and they did.
Later a smaller one was featured at the Jerald Melberg Gallery in a solo show I had there and subsequently was reviewed in American Craft Magazine. Eventually, Mrs. Ann Goodnight whose husband was building the Umstead saw my Pod Triangle and had their Canadian Design firm commission me to do a 15 Pod Triangle for them.
Greenville Museum Pod Triangle & Totems
Do you have a place or places you like to go when you need a little inspiration?
That is easy, a walk on the beach, a hike in the mountains, or just wandering through my garden to see how each plant is doing. All of this is an inspiration. I can even get excited about natural forms while walking through the produce section of the grocery store. I am excited about all manner of treasures that Mother Nature offers us. We just have to notice them and then look, really look, at them. I have been picking up all manner of “natural stuff” since I was a little girl.
How do you start each day in your studio?
Even on days I may not be as inspired, I know if I just go in and start I will be hooked by the materials themselves. I forget everything else and time disappears. Suddenly I am in a wonderful state of feeling connected to my materials and the meaning of my project or the piece I am working on.
Today is a perfect example. I saw my husband off to work on our new home in Clover for a few days, walked into my studio where I am working on a special commission for Chef Rob Connoley, who is opening a restaurant in St. Louis and just recently published Acorns and Cattails. The next thing I know, the dogs are asking for lunch and I am still in my nightgown wondering where the time had gone!
Commissions for Chef Rob Connoley
Tell me about the process of creating one of your pieces?
The Wall Pods start with a simple press mold, which will help me to create forms in clay that are approximately the same size. With one press mold, I press clay into the mold twice and put them together with a hanging device on the back. They are all smooth in the beginning. After that, I treat each as a blank canvas and add clay, make texture, carve, color, airbrush.
The Wall Pods can be used alone or as part of a grouping. Sometimes they are intended to be together as a trio… These are fired with oxides, terra sigillata, and sometimes a touch of glaze and fired 2-4 times, depending on whether they need additional layering of materials.
I loved all the unique shapes/colors of the pieces from your installation. What inspired the unique shapes and colors for this particular installation?
As for the Pod Triangle for the Umstead, I knew I wanted a variety of subtle colors and textures to represent aspects of all my favorite plant materials. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what the inspiration is but at other times, I am more playful in the way I might combine aspects of several favorites.
I like to have some that are lighter, some darker, some matte, some with a soft sheen that comes from the terra sigillata. I like warm and cool colors, bright and soft colors. I lay them out so that they can work together and the colors and values are placed in a way that help to keep the eye moving but still stay within the work. Placing them can be a challenge, but when the layout is just right, it can be very satisfying. I like to create harmony in my work, but with a bit of an edge.
Pod Triangle | The Umstead Hotel & Spa
How long does it take to create each piece?
It’s hard to say because I work on a group of pieces that require drying and resting and sometimes 3-4 firings. A piece like the one at the Umstead would require 6 months from designing to installation. I most likely would be working on some other smaller works at the same time or doing workshops or teaching.
Tree Totem in GCMA Collection
What did you enjoy the most about creating pieces for the installation at The Umstead?
Without a doubt, the process of just making and working with the materials with a general direction in mind while being open to trying new possibilities as they present themselves. It is also very satisfying to see them after they have been installed.
In the case of the Umstead, they did an amazing job of placing the piece and the lighting is perfect. Knowing your work is in beautiful surroundings and that someone who is a master of installation is installing your work is mighty special. The other exciting aspect of this commission was the focus on nature, peace, and tranquility. I am so proud of this commission because I know it is being appreciated probably by 1000’s of people at this time.
Do you have a favorite piece from the installation?
I actually never thought about it, which is good because each piece must be holding its own as far as the Triangle as an entire installation. I can honestly say I don’t have a favorite.
Is there a piece or pieces that you’ve created during your career as an artist that has held special meaning to you?
The Pod Triangle at the Umstead is one of them. Another is 9 Tree Totems that were a memorial to the victims of 9/11 and a way of finding some closure after the death of my first husband and father of my son Ryan, in 1983. We were living in Charlotte at the time.
Most recently, I did a trio of the unfolding of a peach-colored tulip as a trio of Pods for a friend’s apartment in Paris. They were created in memory of my parent’s romance. I lived in Paris when I was 10-12 and remember my father going to the flower market and bringing my mother armloads of tulips.
Pod Trio before firing
A Walk Remembered is a huge floor installation that is like a 3-dimensional journal of my life. This is my largest work, which is ongoing and will be shown at USC in Spartanburg in Feb. 2019.
A Walk Remembered