For an artist, inspiration can come from just about anywhere. In the case of Ann Coddington, an associate professor of art at Eastern Illinois University, an interest in the metaphoric complexities of birds has spawned a series of works she'll be exhibiting this spring.
"Birds can represent hope, freedom and flight, yet at the same time a blackbird or raven can represent death or can be foreboding presence," says Coddington, explaining her gravitation toward the creatures. "My grandmother always had this superstition that if a bird flew into your house, it meant somebody was going to die. For me, they're really a metaphor of the paradox between freedom and death. It's that simultaneity of meaning that I find fascinating."
Coddington began work on her first bird-related piece, entitled 44 Blackbirds, about four years ago and recently exhibited it in Eastern's faculty art show. Now, she's preparing a work called "passages" for exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati. This piece will consist of approximately 600 birdlike ceramic forms suspended from a 30-foot ceiling with black thread.
"The project deals with a lot of different kinds of metaphors of birds," said Coddington. "From literary references to the prophesized 2012 apocalypse, the end of the Mayan calendar, and the image of birds raining down from the sky. It's supposed to call to mind a lot of different things in the viewer."
To create the bird forms, Coddington utilized an ancient basket-making technique known as "twining" — an off-loom method of creating three-dimensional woven forms. After twining the birds, she casts them to create plaster molds. With those molds, Coddington slip casts a ceramic form. After repeating the process hundreds of times, she generated the work for her Cincinnati exhibition.
"It's a way to make multiple forms that appear to be woven but in actuality are ceramic," explains Coddington, who went on to say her undergraduate studies focused on fibers and an interest in working with textile structures in a dimensional fashion. "I'm gradually — hopefully — working toward getting 1,000 of the bird forms and possibly having an exhibition in St. Louis next year at the Craft Alliance Grand Street exhibition space."
Coddington says she has been lucky enough to have the help of internal grants and summer graduate assistants for some of these types of large-scale projects. For instance, a summer research grant supported her recent exhibition at the Beverly Art Center in Chicago. Grad assistants provide Coddington a helping hand, while also providing themselves on-the-job experience with a professional artist and the opportunity to work on projects featured in places like the Sheldon Museum of Art in St. Louis and the Merwin Gallery at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.
"This past summer, I had Brandon Schawel as a studio assistant, and he'd had many semesters of ceramics in his undergraduate education here at Eastern," said Coddington, referring to her work on the passages project. "He was a really big asset because he came into it already knowing about ceramics, so he was the perfect graduate assistant."
The "passages" exhibition in Cincinnati is slated for late March into June, with a lecture at the end of April. It's far from the only item on Coddington's agenda for next year.
"I have an exhibition entitled vestiges coming up in Pittsburgh at the satellite gallery of the Society for Contemporary Craft," said Coddington. "It opens in December and runs through February. I think I'm going to be doing a twining workshop in conjunction with that exhibition. Then, later in February and March, I'm doing an exhibition at the University of Missouri at their Bingham Gallery. I'll also have a lecture and visit with the graduate students there."
If things work out well, that might not be the end of Coddington's 2012 schedule.
"A lot of times, one exhibition flows into the next one," explained Coddington. "I may have an exhibition like the one I just had at the Beverly Art Center, and some gallery people or curators from other exhibitions will see that show. One show often leads into the next. The work you make for one exhibition is sometimes shown in multiple venues. I'm making 600 birds for the Weston, and my hope is the project will continue to grow and be shown in other exhibition spaces throughout the country."