Singing Ceramics: Brian Ransom at Cobb Gallery

Sounds beyond your average whistling tea kettle.

Think along the lines of the playfulness of those rain sticks you made in first grade mixed with a little bit of pinch pot, refine it to perfection, and you get the technical but magical work of Brian Ransom. Combining the technical aspects of ceramics with ancient traditions mixed with a bit of soulfulness — Ransom makes clay vessels that seem to exude their own identity both visually and through their own unique voice.

Ransom, Professor of Visual Arts at Eckerd College, is part ceramicist, part musician, so it makes sense to combine both of his loves into one by creating instruments that are functional, yet sculptural in their own right.

Out of his udu drums, stringed instruments, and hanging bells, his “Double Nest of Pot Flutes” is one of the most visually striking of his pieces. With at least 10 long blow tubes connected to a gathering of globular, stilted chambers, it would be impressive enough even if it didn’t create sound — but it does, and powered by your own hot air. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what it would sound like unless played. Without a few videos of CDs within the exhibition space (with headphones as to not interrupt the sounds coming from the other pieces in the room), much of the magic is lost in not knowing what each piece is fully capable of. Part of the excitement is not just hearing, but seeing the movement of the musician and the disbelief and intrigue of the sounds produced by these hand-fashioned instruments.

So what’s the work around? Just supplement the exhibition tour with a few of his YouTube videos to make a more complete experience by seeing the mastery of his musical skills in improvising song. A certain amount of calculation is involved in producing specific sounds that are more mellow and organic in comparison to your typical metal instruments. Instead of tinny calls, Ransom is able to create anything from a low cooing to a brighter hooting, to even double tones, depending on the shape and size of the chambers.

But inquiring minds had to know. With the assistance of gallery curator and Professor of Visual Arts Arthur Skinner, he was able to aid in giving a sampling of the sound from a few pieces. I would have never guessed the noises that would come from “Serenade/Figurative Whistling Water Vessel” if it wasn’t for Skinner slowly tilting the triple-sectioned piece, producing a sound so quick, startling, and unexpected.

Ransom first found out about Whistling Water vessels when he received his first masters in anthropology. He fills the bottom chamber of the ceramic dyad or triad with water so that when tilted, the water moves from lower chamber to chamber, producing not exactly a whistle per say, but more of an uncanny wailing cry. These pieces are usually adorned with erotically charged, somewhat mythological figures, and this piece is no exception with a sexual horned cherub standing on top with his brass horn and, ahem, “other flute” raised to the sky. His sheer playfulness especially shines here as he exemplifies the enjoyment, pleasures and sensual nature of life.

While his whistling pods generate reverberations on their own with only minor manual assistance, Ransom’s Sound Resonators are self-sufficient in that they make sound on their own accord. A box with wires running from it to the wall and under the base of “Dirigible,” where the electronics inside produce non-natural, buzzing sounds that reverberates within the large, bulbous vessel. Aggressive, geometric cuts are made into the soft, flowing form to make “mouths” for you to put your ear up to and listen. Ceramic’s link to the earth is disrupted with the continuous, if not a little disconcerting, humming and babbling emitted from them.

Interruption of the “natural” spirit of ceramics is upset further with the combination of heavy-duty metal hardware used to either hold the forms together, or in the case of “Sound Resonator VI,” to actually suspend one vessel over another. As the industrial sounds echo from one hollow dome to the other, there is a transformative nature of these pieces that turn them from being static objects into more performative ceramics.

Despite feeling like there was a little something missing from the exhibition, it’s worth stopping by to experience how ceramics can be brought to life with the touch of a sound sculptor. Whether the music’s feel is more ritualistic or experimental in nature, I’ll be awaiting Ransom’s next experimental concert to experience the magic in person.

Caitlin Albritton, CL Tampa's visual arts critic, spends her time tracking down art you might not see anywhere else. She's also an artist in her own right. Follow her on Instagram or read her blog.

Brian Ransom and Alumni

Cobb Gallery at Eckerd College, Library Circle

4200 54th Ave. S, St. Pete.

Through Mar. 13.

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