Decorative ceramics

  • Updated: September 11, 2012 - 11:28 AM
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Ursula Hargens

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Star Tribune

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Here's an antidote to the earthy pots which dominate the local ceramics scene: Minneapolis-based Ursula Hargens crafts bowls, mugs, vases, even large-scale tile murals bursting with narrative and colorful flora. Upon closer inspection, Hargens' work reveals any number of small surprises -- perhaps a luminous butterfly or gypsy moth hiding in the vines.

Forty-year-old Hargens remembers being "encouraged to eliminate the surface" a decade ago, back when she was a graduate student in New York state. That's how she came to understand her passion for decorative renderings. "I realized I like the surface," said Hargens. "That's the part I really wanted to keep."

Flowers proved the natural theme -- not because Hargens is any good at gardening, but because she's a committed student of ceramic history and folk art. "Botanical imagery has been used in pots from the beginning of time," she explained. She is especially influenced by 16th- and 17th-century Turkish Iznik porcelains with their cobalt blues, Italian Maiolica depicting historic scenes on brilliant white backgrounds and Pennsylvania Dutch slipware with its intricate storytelling. Like her forebears, Hargens infuses her art with painterly qualities. "They're like 3-D canvases," she said. "I want them to hold your interest."

Hargens produces three varieties of ceramic art, varying in level of detail and expense. She crafts affordable mugs, plates and bowls with simplified forms for ease of everyday use (check out her mugs in the $45 range). She also crafts refined vessels awash with historic references -- these are best suited for art displays in the home. Finally, because her tile murals require gargantuan effort, they're usually the product of foundation grants or private commissions.

No matter the scale, Hargens always strives for the same elaborate effect. All of her work is crafted from earthenware -- "which is this low-class folk material," she said. This compels her to refine each piece as much as possible. So the mid-level vessels are loaded with fancy flourishes such as pedestals and deluxe gold sponging. Then again, the affordable tableware demonstrates the same mastery of glazing and color as the colossal murals. "I like the complexity, I like the layering," said Hargens of this detail-oriented approach. "I'm looking for a certain beauty and rhythm."

  • BUYERS' GUIDE

    Aesthetic: Decorative, painterly and sweet

    Goes well with: A home filled with vibrant art and eclectic furnishings (but Hargens' large-scale tiles look great against stark white walls)

    Available at: Occasionally at the Northern Clay Center (especially during the annual holiday sale); via schallergallery.com; by commission at ursulahargens.com

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