McKnight Fellowships are intended, in part, to challenge artists to try new materials, explore new concepts and test their mettle against the unknown. The four ceramicists whose work is on view through July 7 at the Northern Clay Center made splendid use of the opportunities afforded by their McKnight support.

Brian Boldon and Ursula Hargens received McKnight fellowships in 2012; Edith Garcia and Janet Williams had McKnight residencies to work at the center for serveral months in 2011. Their four-person show offers an excellent sample of contemporary ceramic sculpture ranging in scale from Garcia's doll-sized modernist figures to Boldon's room-sized installation. Conceptually it encompases Hargens' beautiful ceramic alphabets and Williams' ethereal landscape collages mapped on graph paper and boldly sketched in porcelain and wire.

Brian Boldon's work is dramatically installed in a midnight blue gallery that compliments his steel, aluminum, rubber and stoneware sculptures whose surfaces are imprinted with digital photos of cattails and rice grass. Taken at dusk just as the landscape around his northern Wisconsin cabin disappeared into blackness, the photos were sharply illuminated by flashlights that make the grasses stand out against the night sky. He later transfer-printed the images onto rectangular ceramic cylinders that are threaded onto steel pipes. Thanks to Boldon's keen design sense, the sculptures retain their poetry despite a remarkable amount of technical manipulation, and the installation is mesmerizingly beautiful.

Ursula Hargens' handsome ceramic alphabet seems disarmingly childlike, a grid of tile-like letters and numbers each about a foot tall. They appear to be glazed in random colors -- rose, brown, French blue, lemon yellow. But there is more to her earthenware alphabet than meets the casual eye. She has, as she explains in a gallery placard, a neurological condition that inherently associates colors and letters. Called color-grapheme synesthesia, her linkage is not a simple "P = pink" system but a more arbitrary yet persistent tie in which, for example, S = orange/yellow. From that starting point she has created tiles with various linguisitic connections, some with letters excised from flora designs, others combining colors and letters in what she calls a "Mash-up." The results are both beautiful and conceptually fascinating.

Janet Williams incorporates personal information -- her fingerprint -- into computer-assisted line drawings that suggest airy maps of imaginary landscapes. Pushing the technology, she creates topographical sculptures consisting of dozens of tabs of glazed clay that are imprinted with her fingerprints and attached by monofilament wires to an overhead frame. Suspended in semi-circles at different heights, the tabs appear to form in mid-air a topographical image of an imaginary mountain.

Since completing her BFA at Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1998, Edith Garcia worked and exhibited in many locales before settling in London. Her doll-sized androgynous figures hang on the wall but seem to be performers in enigmatic little dramas of non-communication. Though their actions and expressions are inscrutible, they are strangely compelling characters whose silence speaks louder than words.

Edith Garcia "Constant, Same and Forever" (detail)