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Quills & Queues: Taking ideas and setting them in stone

Ashland artist Julia Janeway will be showing a new body of work at the Rogue Gallery, 40 South Bartlett St. in Medford, with an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. today, Friday, July 20. The show will be up until Aug. 24. Janeway, whose carved ceramics are drawn from her “love of illustration,” is using her new series of work to explore the meaning of sanctuary. In this series, inspired by Mexican and New Mexican devotional paintings (“retablos”), the traditional icons and religious figures are replaced by birds and animals.

I chatted with Janeway about her background, work and upcoming show.

JG: Can you tell us about your fine arts background?

JJ: I am the daughter of a public high school art teacher and so I grew up with a healthy amount of art history and experience making art. However, my path to becoming a professional artist was circuitous. Two weeks after I finished my Ph.D. and was embarking on a career as an English professor, my wonderful mom died. It was only after spending some years teaching literature and hauling my mom’s wheel and tools through various states that I reconnected with clay. It was one of the most important discoveries of my life, a way of working through grief and reaffirming the things I feel passionately about in this world.

JG: What makes you passionate about working in ceramics?

JJ: I love clay because after all those years working with ideas, teaching literature and writing (which is an abstract thing to do), I am now literally taking an idea and turning it into stone. Also, as any ceramic artist will tell you, clay is so demanding and forgiving all at once. You can be heading toward the finish line and, at the last minute, experience complete disaster — the glazes don’t turn out, things crack! But the opposite can happen as well. You can open up the kiln and it’s like you’ve been given an unexpected gift.

JG: Tell us a little bit about this show and how it came about.

JJ: A small tragedy made this particular show come together. One night this past winter when I was driving home through the snow, I hit and killed a little screech owl. I was horrified. I took it home and put it on my table. It was so beautiful with its luminous eyes and intricate feathers that it still seemed alive. I thought, “This owl needs to be honored some way.” I had been making shrines and so I started making clay “retablos” — traditionally they are boards depicting painted saints — of owls, of birds, then of other animals. I started carving sacred hearts, halos and feathers, which seem like holy objects in of themselves. Humans entered my drawings too, and yet the creatures are the true saints, bringing solace or simply wonder.

JG: What particular role do you feel an artist should fill in the culture, particularly now?

JJ: Art makes us think and feel. It can provoke us or comfort us, connect us to ourselves, each other and the world. I always come back to a line from the play “Death of a Salesman” in which Mrs. Loman says that something terrible is happening to her husband and “attention must be paid!” For me, that is the point from which I make art. It is a way of paying attention.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Julia Janeway