Poised on her corner pedestal at the Northern Clay Center, "Venus Gaia" is a haughty, take-no-prisoners goddess, an imperious figure whose arched brows and tattooed face peer from beneath a bristling crown of sea urchin spines. Her lean torso and sagging breasts hint at an ancient lineage, but the twigs sprouting from her taut arms suggest eternal renewal. Raised to the heavens, her hands invoke blessings or brimstone at a whim. Hence the propitiatory offerings that surround her -- bits of precious coral, ornamented shells, fragments of bone, a tiny skull. Offered no doubt on bended knee, the trinkets silently beg for her mercy, protection and fertility.

Wow! What a dame. Whether Venus or Gaia ever looked or acted like Marko Fields' incarnation of her is anyone's guess, but his interpretation is definitely memorable, a 21st-century goddess angling for eternity.

For the McKnight Foundation, whose grant money enabled Fields' work, the success of his sculpture is a profound validation of the importance of grants to artists. McKnight is a primary supporter of creativity in Minnesota, distributing about $1.7 million annually to dozens of artists, playwriters, dancers, composers, filmmakers and other creative types in awards ranging from $5,000 residencies to $25,000 fellowships. Currently two shows display the work of 10 recent McKnight award winners: six ceramicists at Northern Clay Center through July 5, and four photographers at Franklin Art Works through Aug. 1.


With work that ranges from Fields' figurative stoneware sculpture to glowing porcelain light fixtures and traditional tea bowls, the Clay Center show encompasses many trends in contemporary ceramics. Besides the goddess, Fields' sculptures include brilliantly biting critiques of religious mumbo jumbo and environmental abuse, among them a pie-shaped ceramic "pillow" emblazoned with names of companies accused of polluting (Dow, Chevron, Exxon), a mutant teapot, a DDT spray can, and a shrine festooned with sexy, albeit dissolute, gods.

British artist Margaret O'Rorke produced a mesmerizing installation of porcelain lights shaped like little meringue mountains, while Alyssa Wood generated a series of book-shaped wall plaques in tribute to birthdays and domestic utensils. Japanese-American potter Lee Love used his residency for an intensive study of tea bowls, 55 of which mark his 55th birthday and stand as a catalog of myriad rustic shapes, textures and glazes. The robust pots of Australian artist Greg Crowe embody a restless, coiled energy, while the sculpture and teapots of Minnesotan Andrea Leila Denecke infuse earthy Midwestern shapes (barns, silos) with Asian sensibilities (textured glazes, furrowed surfaces).


For the past 50 years, artists have moaned about the end of that open road that once promised Americans freedom, opportunity and wealth. That loss weighs heavily in the images of three McKnight photographers who evoke curiously similar moods of melancholy.

Peter Latner's black-and-white images are the most traditional, comparatively small in format and documentary in nature. Taken on Midwestern road trips, they record bland landscapes and desolate moments in dead-end towns -- a dangerously eroding Works Progress Administration dam in North Dakota, a nondescript gravel road that's part of the legendary Oregon Trail, a crushed light pole in a Casper, Wyo., parking lot.

In his square-format color images, Tom Wik implies a similar desperation in the manicured suburbs of Florida. Each picture is essentially an abstraction: a band of blue sky above a strip of shrubbery-and-stucco above a swath of asphalt. Sandwiched between the blue and the gray, the homes are stripped of personality and reduced to nearly identical and meaningless social signifiers. In his larger color images, Anthony Marchetti records apartments where telltale debris -- moldy walls, cigarette butts, abandoned furniture -- implies hurried exits and furtive lives.

At a time when the American Dream has been hit by failing credit, overdrafts and a falling stock market, the quiet desperation in these photos seems prescient, if a little clichéd. By contrast, Paula McCartney's installation, "A Field Guide to Snow and Ice," seems modestly magical with its images that look like ice (and sometimes are), including falling snow, sand drifts, stalactites and blossoms of Queen Anne's lace, a starry flower that suggests a snowflake.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431