Erica Cummings: Touch and Response

Erica Cummings: Touch and Response
Untitled ceramics by Erica Cummings

March 4 – 27, 2022 – Opening reception Friday, March 4, 4-7pm
Virtual panel discussion Thursday, March 17th at 7pm – join the discussion here

Erica Cummings’ work evokes the organic. Her ceramics seem to pulse, reminding us that clay is the stuff of life and that, on a microscopic level, it is made out of the tiniest remnants of bone, of seeds, of ancient sea creatures. This awareness of the deep biology of everything permeates Erica’s entire oeuvre, from functional plates and bowls through to her politically-minded installations.

Erica worked with ceramics for over twenty years, concurrent with her academic and professional career in agricultural and environmental science. The forms she uses in her sculptures reflect her ability to observe closely the way things grow and develop. The pieces feel overwhelmingly organic, yet still abstract; we do not know if the spiny object we’re looking at is a life-sized fossil or a giant replica of a tiny molecule. Many of the pieces are modular, and seem to replicate themselves. Erica had a talent for setting a form in motion and letting it unfurl on its own as the viewer takes it in.

Some of the works have an explicit larger political or social context that reflects Erica’s commitment to social justice and cultural awareness. Erica spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, which was invaluable to her practice. She created works such as Learned Helplessness to raise awareness about female genital mutilation. The piece is intriguing and painful, using simple forms that each manage to be a unique articulation of an overwhelming problem. Similarly, one of her last pieces, which is on permanent view at the University of Vermont, uses ceramic corn kernels to represent Vermont family farms that have closed in the past decade. She was able to make 56 of the kernels before her death; her friends and family created the remaining 344 kernels to complete the piece during the summer of 2021. This spirit of collaboration and growth is entirely fitting for Erica’s work, and for the dedication with which she approached her community.

Erica’s sculptures reflect the deep emotional and visceral ties we all feel to the natural world and to the process of making, of feeling the earth and understanding what it’s made of. Of her own work, she wrote: 

“My pieces evolve as my fingers transform clay and metal, by touch and response, forms and textures akin to those that live, wander the earth and sea, perish, and melt back into the ground. Additionally, personal experiences and world events inform my work. My pieces ask to be touched and turned; the top becomes the bottom, the front to the back. Through time, air, and the fire that affixes their skins of bare clay, char, trails of smoke and metal.”

All of us at the Front are deeply honored to have had the chance to know Erica Cummings, and we are grateful to her family for the opportunity to realize her solo exhibition, one year after her passing. She is greatly missed.

Erica Cummings (1972-2021) worked in clay for over 20 years and was involved with the UVM Pottery Coop since 1999 as a student, studio assistant and instructor. She worked for many years in the Northwest Crops and Soils program at the University of Vermont; the lab she helped establish in 2011 was renamed the E.E.Cummings Crop Testing Laboratory in her honor last year. She began incorporating metal into her work after taking a sculptural welding class at UVM in 2002. She received a scholarship to attend Haystack School of Craft in Deer isle, ME for ceramics in 2001 and juried into the Vermont Artist Week at the Vermont Studio Center in 2003 and 2004 for sculpture. She showed her work at Frog Hollow in Burlington and at the UVM Living and Learning Art Gallery. She presented her first solo show at J. Langdon in Montpelier in September of 2019, and subsequently became a member of the Front early in 2020. Erica passed away in March of 2021.