Local clay artist hosts annual Natchez Project

Published 12:04 am Sunday, January 23, 2011

NATCHEZ — Artists’ hands can craft expressions their minds never conceived, so clay artist Conner Burns lets his fingers do the talking.

Burns, creator and sponsor of the Natchez Project, will make room in his studio for three artists next week as they will create, interact and finally open an exhibition of their work from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 29.

The artists, who were granted fellowships from Burns, are Mike Jabbur, Cynthia Lee and Cory McCrory. They converged at the Conner Burns Gallery at 209 Franklin St. Saturday to work without distractions and draw inspiration from each other. The week will end with a free exhibition at Burns’ gallery.

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“We get to go deep,” Burns said. “Most of the time artists interact post-creation; this allows us to interact during the creation phase repetitively over the week.”

Burns hosts different artists at his studio for the annual Natchez Project, and in the fall, Burns said he brings in a non-clay artist to mix things up.

“The week of the Natchez Project is all about the artists just doing what they want, no strings attached,” Burns said. “I prefer a diversity of processes, like a potter, sculptor and something in the middle, which varies. It’s interesting to see the process of someone who works differently, and the variance in the way we process materials.”

Burns said the gallery will be closed until the exhibit opens to avoid outside distractions while the artists work. The exhibits are always well attended and supported by the community, Burns said.

“Visitors will see the best 2 percent of what we’ve created,” Burns said. “People can take in the aesthetics of the work, and hopefully when they see what someone else created, it encourages or inspires them to be creative themselves. The community has always supported and enjoyed the exhibits where they can interact with the artists, who are a joy themselves.”

Much of Burns’ work, mostly vessels, look as if they just “grew that way,” as opposed to conscious design. Users are encouraged not only to look at, but reach out and touch the pieces. Many of Burns’ creations are organically visual and possess functionality. Vases, trays, bowls and tea sets are made of white porcelanious stoneware, created with wheel thrown and slab component techniques.

Burns was exposed to the arts as a child. His father, an accountant, worked with clay and was active in the local theater. Burns didn’t have much interest in clay, but that changed when he took a pottery class at a local community art center as an adult. At the time he was working in the health and wellness field and on track to receive his doctorate.

Burns took a week off to work on his pottery, which turned into a month, and then years, working under his mentor Steven Hill at Red Star Studios in Kansas City.

Burns said he is thankful for his experience in the corporate world, which helps him budget, set goals and adequately plan how to achieve them.

This week Burns readied his studio for the guest artists.

“The artists I invited are all accomplished artists with strong skills and respect in the art community,” Burns said. “The exhibition is a chance for people here to see artists at the top of their field.”

Clay artist Jabbur has made both functional and sculptural vessels. His current focus is on functional, yet expressive, form and surface.

Lee works in a manner that incorporates a variety of techniques combined to create a rich and varied surface and story. Much of her work features plant life “bursting” from earthlike exteriors.

McCrory composes sculptural work that is both whimsical and playful. Imaginative thought and attention to detail will evoke smiles.

“Artists love Natchez and the people of Natchez, and that translates in ways we don’t even know,” Burns said. “They go home and talk about it, and that represents Natchez really well.”