Sandy Spring Museum was once a sleepy little historic museum filled with old-timey stuff. Sure, the farm equipment and bric-a-brac were invaluable in recalling Montgomery County’s history, but some four years ago, the museum’s board decided to bring in some much-needed revenue by way of rent.
To that end, the museum opened its doors to a squadron of contemporary artists and an architect who have taken up residence in the main building and a small barn. On any given day, an enamellist, a quilter, an architect and a silversmith are abuzz working on their art. The museum has expanded this venture by opening up another even larger barn for artists, home to a band of potters known as The Silver Spring Clay Works, said Allison Weiss, the museum’s executive director.
Of course, a museum can’t flourish without visitors, and Sandy Spring hopes to be hopping on Saturday when the resident artists open their doors to the public for an up-close look at their works in progress. Visitors will be able to explore the studios, ask questions, learn about the various techniques and purchase art from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Some of the artists don’t mince words. From the start, potter Rikki Condon wanted to make it clear start that she is “not a production potter. I can’t make hundreds of the same thing. I get bored.”
Nor is she a traditional potter. For a time, she wouldn’t even create what potters like to call “vessels,” a fancy word for a container. The Ashton resident figured they were way too expected, but eventually, she said, “I realized that was silly and that it’s important to create art that can be used every day.”
As far as common misconceptions about her medium, Condon hopes to assure visitors who come to the open house that “you don’t have to be strong to throw a pot.” And as for making a perfectly cylindrical vessel on the potter’s wheel, forget it. “If I don’t want to center it up, that’s fine. I do what I damn well please. As long as it’s well-crafted, it’s fine,” Condon said.
The potter may be a bit of an opinionated firecracker, but she also has a keen sense of observation. Working at the museum, she became fascinated with pencil drawings, known as silhouettes or shadow pictures, of Fanny Pierce Iddings (1867-1965). She photographed a drawing of Fanny, downloaded it to her computer, then printed out a copy to use as a paper pattern to create her plates. The potter also found an antique wedding certificate and photo process silk-screened the script on the plate, creating a melancholy image that feels both historic and modern. Lately, she has been picking flowers that grow near her studio and pressing the blossoms into the wet clay, creating another type of silhouette.
Lauren Kingsland earns her living by creating quilts. She has even written a book on how to make a quilt out of the scores of T-shirts many people have stuffed away in their drawers. These icons of the 21st century “are the contemporary version of the flour sack people use to recycle to make their clothes,” she said, speaking from her home in Rockville.
Although Kingsland has made hundreds of these T-shirt quilts, she devotes most of her time at the studio to creating elaborately detailed wall hangings. The quilter was influenced by a style of drawing called Kolam that she observed while traveling through southern India some eight years ago. Typically practiced by Hindu women using rice flour, it is a geometrical drawing composed of curved loops, drawn around a grid pattern of dots. Noting the similarity to a kaleidoscope, she married the two ideas to create what she likes to call “reflective symmetry.”
Regardless of the complexity of her ideas, Kingsland has learned at open houses that many people still seem to think quilting is the act of pushing a needle into the cloth one stitch at a time. And, of course, she always hears people say that it is an old-fashioned craft. Kingsland isn’t cowed by such remarks and ever so nicely sets visitors straight, explaining that hand-sewing isn’t a requirement and that quilting is a dynamic art form with as many possibilities as painting and sculpture.
Still, she is no snob. “The medium is for everybody,” she insisted. Inexperienced sewers– who have never made a quilt–can create unique artwork that is also utilitarian.
Of all the artists working at the museum, Susana Garten probably has the most challenging time explaining that her medium is vitreous enamel. “People think it’s paint from a can or ceramics,” she said. And worse, she often hears visitors comment that they “did it in camp,” then realizing how demeaning they sound, point to her work and add something like “Of course, it was nothing like that.”
The process of painting glass powder on metal, then firing, requires both patience and stamina. Garten begins by using copper, iron or steel and forming it into a shape. “I consider the metal to be my canvas,” the Olney resident said. She coats the metal with a fine enamel powder or she may etch the metal, and then fires the results for a few minutes, followed by etching or painting again and again until she gets it just right.
Garten doesn’t want her work to be defined simply by the brilliant colors glass enamel can produce when fired. Instead, she compared herself to a fiction writer who talks to the characters as they write. Her art pieces speak to her as she works on them and with some of her works demanding up to 30 firings, it can be a complex conversation.
The museum’s resident artists will hold an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. the first Saturday of every month, at the Sandy Spring Museum, 17901 Bentley Road, Sandy Spring. Admission is free. Call 301-774-0022.