Sculptural gloves offer better grip on meaning

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Her sculpture can invoke giggles or dismay. It can unsettle, prompt out-loud laughter or give flight to imagination.

The art is formed from ladies gloves that are stuffed and shaped to take on new life and a new identity. Sometimes the art is affixed to a wall; other times it is perched atop a wooden base, balancing on a thin black pin. Or it can be propped up on a flat surface, standing on legs made from fingers or reaching up from a base with the circumference of a wrist.

Whatever the form or position, the art is the creation of Claire Watson. The sculptures differ from piece to piece yet retain the identity of their original usage. They were leather gloves; now they are art. Individual meaning or imagery is left to the viewer. Ms. Watson doesn’t take a stand on these issues during their creation or even afterward. The forms are meant to spark ideas and evoke emotions that can be difficult to name.

Ms. Watson’s unusual glove sculptures are currently on view at Art Sites gallery in Riverhead in a room shared only with another series titled “Familiars” created by Ms. Watson. These sculptures begin with kitchen and household tools that may have become obsolete, transformed with the help of polymer doll maker’s clay. The idea of combining doll making materials or methods with objects clothed in a “feminine” identity runs through both series. So does playing with the idea that objects are feminine or masculine depending on their original usage.

Ms. Watson’s artistic musing on the gender of objects began after she exhibited a series that used tobacco pipes to create art in the mid-1990s. One woman attending the opening reception said she was surprised to learn that the artist was a woman. She was “so sure” a man made the artwork because of the subject matter, Ms. Watson recalled. This remark set Ms. Watson onto a new path as an artist, a path that led to gloves and a significant body of work, “With Kid Gloves,” made from 2001 to 2007.

Ladies’ gloves seemed the perfect material to explore objects that were feminine, Ms. Watson said in an interview at the Riverhead gallery. Gloves were collected by women, so it was possible to gather gloves that had been worn. The form-fitting hand coverings suggest both fragility and flesh. They contain and conceal. They are fashion accent and protection, and have a part to play in costuming and in practical function. Gloves have texture and substance, and are possessions that are taken care of. And they are items that are displayed to the world.

It seemed as soon as she settled on making art from gloves (as opposed to shoes or jewelry pins), collections arrived on her doorstep in Water Mill

from relatives and friends from her native Texas. A sculpture fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts allowed her to concentrate on her art and leave her day job behind, resulting in her most significant body of work to date.

To allow the gloves to take on new identities, they were deconstructed, stuffed with sawdust and refashioned using doll making techniques. Sometimes doll parts were incorporated into the work.

The wall sculpture “Real and Pretend,” for example, features two mated gloves. On one, a set of legs and one hand seems to be out for a casual stroll while the doll head on the neighboring glove looks distressed.

Another sculpture, “Circumferee,” features doll’s feet suspended from two legs swinging above a curved hand that is arched acrobatically. In “Fingerling,” the bald head of a young child stares at the palm of a small hand curving away from it.

Other sculptures springing from gloves use doll making techniques to form unusual shapes for viewers to interpret. “Suddenly Somebody” appears to be a person/creature sitting with legs outstretched with a full five-fingered glove for a torso. “Dispatched” features a pair of white gloves as wings for an airborne figure.

The shape and direction of each sculpture came from the gloves themselves, the way and the extent to which they were deconstructed and the forms that evolved as the art progressed. In some cases, “gloves” were made by Ms. Watson from sewing patterns. Other times they came straight from the collection she had amassed.

“It’s really about the process and letting the materials lead the way,” Ms. Watson said. “Sometimes I used gloves and sometimes I made the glove shapes from patterns. It depended on the sculpture and where it wanted to go.”

Ms. Watson’s most recent series, “Familiars,” developed in the same way. Still exploring the idea that some objects imply a gender, sculptures are being made from household utensils no longer in common use. The sculptures on display spring from sock darning forms, wooden pastry rollers, wooden spoons and tenderizing mallets. ?They were selected both because they are made to be grasped or touched by the human hand and because their shapes suggest parts of the human form.

Each sculpture plays upon this idea by encasing the object in “flesh” fashioned from doll makers clay. The object seems to imply a human figure but in a more abstract way than in the glove series. Their abstraction is intentional, Ms. Watson said. This body of work harks back to the idea that the tools are relics of a “scarcely remembered feminine past.”

“I didn’t want their human features to take attention away from the shapes of the forms,” Ms. Watson said. “They’re not supposed to be seen as anything in particular. It’s more about the mystery of functions that are no longer part of our common knowledge and what the objects have become now.”

Ms. Watson said she’s not finished exploring the gender of objects—especially those that are feminine. While the shape of her latest series is still unfolding, she is certain she will continue to work daily and let the art led the way.

“I’ve learned that the habit of working works, and I let it lead to the next piece,” she said. “That’s what I did with the glove series—I just kept working on the variation of an idea. The shape of the material led the way.”

Ms. Watson has exhibited in galleries in Berlin, Germany, and is part of the public collection of the Osterreichisches Tabakmuseum in Vienna, Austria. She has exhibited at the Islip Art Museum, the Anthony Giordano Gallery at Dowling College and in galleries in Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin and Houston, Portland, Maine, and other locations.

Ms. Watson’s work is currently part of the two-person exhibition, “Recalled Intimacy,” at Art Sites, 651 West Main Street (Route 25), Riverhead, through May 18. Watercolors by Clyde Phillip Wachsberger are also on view. The gallery is open Thursday to Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., or by appointment by calling 631-591-2401.

Ms. Watson will also be giving a talk on May 18 at 2 p.m. at the gallery as part of the series, “Art, Women Feminism: The Cult of the Goddess,” sponsored by the North Fork Arts Project.

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