A Naturalist’s Sensitivity

Michael Sherrill’s botanical wonders
In his delicately rendered sculptures in clay, glass, and metal, Michael Sherrill seeks to elicit a sense of wonder from viewers, and to make them see the natural world anew. Sherrill’s most recent work reveals his naturalist’s sensitivity to botanical wonders, especially those outside his studio in the mountains of North Carolina. His floral forms have the allure of Martin Johnson Heade’s passion flower and orchid paintings and the botanical engravings of John James Audubon, aligning his work with a long history of a reverence for nature in American art.
This retrospective, organized by The Mint Museum, illustrates the artist’s evolution over his more than forty-year career. The presentation at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum includes more than seventy-three objects, from Sherrill’s earliest teapots and functional clay vessels to his mixed media sculptures inspired by nature, such as Temple of the Cool Beauty (Yucca) and Yellowstone Rhododendron.
Primarily a self-taught artist, Sherrill moved from Charlotte, North Carolina to the Western North Carolina mountains in 1974. His early influences came from the North Carolina folk pottery tradition and the community surrounding Penland School of Crafts, where he is a frequent instructor, and the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild. Sherrill’s mature style marries his intimate observation of the natural world with his own psychology, imbuing the work with a powerful emotional layer. Sherrill’s exceptional skill that allows him to seamlessly incorporate iron, bronze, and flameworked glass into his compositions is based in his innovative approach to using tools, technology, and his keen sense of materials to achieve what he calls his “natural narratives.” Tools have played an essential role in the evolution of Sherrill’s work, and almost every tool he owns has been modified in some way to meet his particular needs. In 1997, Sherrill founded Mudtools, a line of hand-held ceramic tools produced in the bright color palette for which he is known.
Plants native to the landscape around his studio in Bat Cave, North Carolina, such as rhododendron, mountain laurel, and apple trees are often depicted in Sherrill’s sculpture from 2000 to the present. Some works, like Yellowstone Rhododendron, are drawn from native Appalachian plants, while others, like Bloom at Night, are fictive species created from the artist’s imagination. Sherrill’s strong connection to place solidifies his position as a quintessential Southern artist.
A catalogue, edited by Annie Carlano, senior curator of craft, design & fashion at The Mint Museum, who also served as organizing curator for the exhibition, includes essays by Ezra Shales, professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design; and Marilyn Zapf, guest curator for the exhibition and assistant director and curator at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design in Asheville, North Carolina. It is available for purchase ($40) in the museum store. For more information, please visit www.https://americanart.si.edu


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