Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dane Youngren "arrests decay" in textured stoneware

Sculptor Dane Youngren and stoneware barn

Dane Youngren has a fascination with "decaying structures" that were originally made of wood--barns, trestles, warehouses and other industrial spaces. The Seattle-area ceramics artist shows his respect for the original workmanship in these structures by giving them a type of permanence, through meticulous sculptures of  textured stoneware. Youngren detailed his methods and showed examples of his "stone wood" to a fascinated audience of Contemporary QuiltArt Assn. members at the group's December 14 meeting.

(Top and above) Two of Youngren's barns

Reared on a farm near Stanwood, Washington, Youngren found many examples of early-day wooden structures in the surrounding rural area, including railroad trestles and barns. Yet the idea of creating art in their image didn't come right away. In fact, he began his higher education at Washington State University, Pullman WA, in Agricultural Economics, earning a BS degree. Along the line, however, he added studies in ceramics and spent an additional year at WSU to complete his BFA.
(Top and above) Two of Youngren's earliest  pieces. The solid-looking bases are actually  hollow.

Some of his first pieces were relatively simple, involving small portions of a trestle,  for example, and featured a solid-looking base that was actually hollow. He uses slab construction, first making a base, adding walls, then a succession of hand-carved "sticks" to complete the form. He uses a needle tool to carve texture on all sides of each stick or board, even though the back side might not be visible in the final structure. The 50-square-foot kiln at WSU proved the perfect working environment--literally--for Youngren as he began constructing his architectural units, board by board, inside the kiln itself!

Youngren assembling one of his pieces in the 50-sq.-ft. kiln at WSU

Finding the ideal "working range" of time and moisture in the clay is the holy grail of ceramics, and given the complexity of pieces in Youngren's work, he finds this a constant challenge. He needs the clay to be just moist enough to work with and not so dry as to be brittle. He has sometimes used slips of paper to help hold pieces together during the construction phase, just as a builder might use rebar in concrete. During the firing process the bits of paper fiber burn away, any moisture boils out, and the clay particles bind together. He finds that his clay pieces will shrink anywhere from 10 to 15% in the firing process.

Sometime Youngren works from his charcoal sketches, though finished pieces seldom exactly match the sketches. Other times he simply designs the piece as he goes.

Youngren doesn't use a true glaze on his pieces; rather he applies stains--each of which has some form of metallic component--then wipes down various areas to create highlights, and fires the completed piece. He actually uses two firings, the first being a relatively low temperature just to hold the pieces together, then he applies the stains, and the second firing is at about 2200 degrees F.

Youngren's later, more complex pieces have a greater structure-to-base ratio. This view shows variations in the stains he uses, e.g. down the sides of the base.
Originally much of his work was fired in a natural-gas-fueled kiln, then he began to use a special kiln that included a soda-ash additive. This material created a greater variety of color and surface design from the stains he used. Some of his newer pieces were fired in a kiln using wood as part of the fuel, again altering the action of the stains to produce a wider range of grays, browns and blacks in the finish.

Another of Youngren's more complex pieces. He created the tiny bricks (bottom right) individually.

Part of an exhibit of Youngren's works near the end of his residency at Pottery Northwest in Seattle, 2011
Also for the exhibit at Pottery Northwest, he began creating smaller pieces, some as elements rather than complete structures.

At one point Youngren realized he needed to figure out how his pieces would be transported for exhibition. The answer turned out to be wooden crates he constructed himself. Studying the results, he now thinks of the crates as part of the sculpture, sometimes displaying a piece on top of its crate, sometimes opening up the ends or tops of the crate and only partially removing the stoneware piece. "After all," he says,"the crates are wooden things that are used, or could have been used..."

One of Youngren's earliest hand-made crates, originally for transportation, later included as part of the finished display.
The ends and top of the crate were removed so viewers could see the stoneware trestle from a different vantage point.

He makes it clear that he's not a model builder: "My pieces are not to scale. They're just convincing enough to make sense. I'm responding to the  process of working with clay, to express my interpretation of how things used to be built. My challenge is how to get the right amount of 'randomness' in how the structure would have been decaying."

"Mineshaft 1"
"Mineshaft 2"
Closeup of "Mineshaft 2"

Youngren enjoys combining a bit of whimsy and public interaction in some of his work, with several projects in public spaces centering around Seattle's controversial Alaska Way Viaduct. As part of a ceramics conference in Seattle in the spring of 2012, Youngren, with friends and members of the public, created a raw-clay-and-wood structure--titled "The Bridge--representing the Viaduct that is soon to be dismantled in favor of a tunnel. The piece used 3000 pounds of clay and involved numerous hands to construct. Then, as planned, the clay dried, the famed Seattle rains came, and soon the piece was reduced to its underlying wood armature. (Youngren was quick to point out that the clay was later reused in other works.)

Coating the wooden structure of "Bridge" with raw clay.
The finished "Bridge"...
...and "Bridge" after the drying clay and Seattle rains had their way with it!

The following year Youngren designed a "Viaduct Observation Unit" for Seattle's Pier 62, a portion of which was actually built and used as a working space. He invited the public to use clay to depict how they wanted the waterfront to be once the Viaduct was removed. Part of public participation included creating a "stockpile" of slightly undersized Lincoln Log-type units, out of brown clay and all, that the artist hopes can be used in future public-interaction projects.

Youngren's original plan for the "Viaduct Observation Unit"...
...of which this part actually got built.
Youngren had special signs made for the public-art installation, reflecting much of the viaduct vs. tunnel controversy in Seattle at the time.

Young reports that visitors asked to purchase some of these tongue-in-cheek signs!
As part of the "Viaduct Observation Project," the public was invited to use clay to create what they wanted to see along the waterfront.
Pseudo "Lincoln Logs" were created for use in future public-involvement projects.
Building a stockpile of the "logs" for future use.

Probably the largest structure Youngren has ever made is a 32-foot-long trestle, comprising 13 different units, whose sheer size has limited the opportunities for its display. Thanks to an Artist Trust grant, this installation is now on display this month [December 2013] at the Davidson Gallery in Seattle, along with many of Youngren's other pieces.
Part of Youngren's largest structure, a 13-section trestle 32 feet long, on display at Seattle's Davidson Gallery.
Every Youngren piece exhibits some degree of "decay," representing the destruction-by-nature that is part of the original wooden structures he is portraying, here as a portion of the 32-foot-long trestle now at the Davidson Gallery.

Youngren's works have been included in exhibitions all over the Pacific Northwest, in Houston, TX, and twice in group exhibits in Korea. For more information about him and views of his work, go to