Exhibition Opens June 28 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Artist and inventor Michael Sherrill (b. 1954) masterfully combines clay, glass and metal to create large-scale, botanically inspired sculptures. His ingenuity in form, command of technique and innovation in process allow him to translate subtle details found in nature into dramatic objects of beauty. Sherrill is known for his delicate sculptures that elicit a sense of wonder from viewers. His recent work reveals a 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.
“Michael Sherrill Retrospective,” organized by The Mint Museum, traces the evolution of Sherrill’s work across his more than 40-year career. The presentation at the Renwick Gallery, which includes 73 objects from Sherrill’s earliest teapots and functional clay vessels to his most recent mixed-media sculptures inspired by nature, is on view from June 28 through Jan. 5, 2020. “Michael Sherrill Retrospective” is presented in conjunction with the Renwick Gallery’s installation “Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination,” which also features botanically inspired sculptures. These exhibitions are the latest projects at the Renwick Gallery to explore an expanded definition of contemporary craft and new technologies. Robyn Kennedy, chief administrator at the Renwick Gallery, is coordinating the exhibition’s presentation in Washington, D.C.
“Visitors to the Renwick Gallery this summer will be captivated by the conversation about place and the inspiring beauty of plants in our world that is taking place between the botanically inspired work of artists Michael Sherrill and Ginny Ruffner,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Primarily a self-taught artist, Sherrill moved from Charlotte, N.C., 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 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.
“The toolmaking becomes part of the creative process,” Sherrill said. “It’s also part of the process that brought me pleasure.”
Plants native to the landscape around his studio in Bat Cave, N.C., 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” (2001), are drawn from native Appalachian plants, while others, like “Bloom at Night” (2008), are fictive species created from the artist’s imagination. Sherrill’s strong connection to place solidifies his position as a quintessential Southern artist.
The exhibition is organized into four sections—“Early Work,” “Teapots,” “Studio” and “Contemporary Sculpture.” Each section is introduced by Sherrill with a video created for the exhibition.
Free Public Programs
Sherrill will discuss what inspires his work and how he came to develop his line of pottery tools, Mudtools, Thursday, Sept. 12, at 6 p.m. in the Renwick’s Rubenstein Grand Salon. Sherrill, James Gagliardi with Smithsonian Gardens and David Suls from the Golden Triangle BID, will lead a walking tour exploring the Golden Triangle’s landscaping and gardens Friday, Sept. 13, at noon. Details are available at americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/sherrill.
Related public programming for the installation “Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination” includes a screening Thursday, July 11, at 6 p.m. of the documentary A Not So Still Life (2010; 80 mins.), followed by a Q&A with the artist in the Renwick’s Rubenstein Grand Salon.
The accompanying catalog was edited by Annie Carlano, senior curator of craft, design & fashion at The Mint Museum, who also served as organizing curator for “Michael Sherrill Retrospective.” The catalog 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, N.C. It is available for purchase ($40) in the museum store.
Following its presentation at the Renwick Gallery, the exhibition will travel to the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe in 2020.
“Michael Sherrill Retrospective” is organized by The Mint Museum. Funding for the exhibition catalog and national tour is provided by the Windgate Foundation. The presentation at the Renwick Gallery is made possible in part by the James Renwick Alliance.
About the Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and F streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station. Its Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website: americanart.si.edu.