by Rachel Perry
photo by George Bredewater
Sheryl A. VanVleck moved to Brown County from Wyoming with her husband, mother-in-law and grandson last November. But she’s no stranger to Indiana.
“We originally are from northwest Indiana, near Merrillville. My husband, Roy, worked in the mills and became ill with a lung disease. Doctors recommended that we move out west, so we relocated to Netrona County (near Casper) in Wyoming in ’93,” she explained. One of her daughters lives in South Bend with her family, and the other daughter recently bought land and moved with her husband and children to Kentucky, so Brown County became a good location accessible to both.
Sheryl attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts, she immediately put her skills and talent to use. “Knowing that Roy wasn’t going to be able to work, I traveled out west doing art fairs and rendezvous,” she said. A professional portrait painter since 1985, she became interested in painting the images of Native Americans. “I traveled from coast to coast marketing my art work for many years and would often exhibit at an Indian ‘Pow Wow.’ I met some wonderful people, made some good friends and was often blocked in for the weekend by a thousand cars. I would be lulled to sleep at night in my van, by the rhythm of drums. I found it to be one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.”
While living in Wyoming Sheryl met her mentor and friend, Lynn Munns, who taught and directed the pottery department at Casper College. Sheryl audited ceramics classes for a few years to gain access to the kilns. “One semester I sat down with the instructor Mr. Munns and said, ‘Okay, so what do you want me to do?’ And he said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘ I don’t know. Maybe I should use the Japanese technique and just throw the same size bowl all semester just to get the technique.’ And he said, “No Sheryl, look at what you do. What is it that you enjoy the most? You like to throw something and then hand-build something onto it. You like to hand-build the clay.’ And it was like a slap in the head. I hadn’t realized it myself, but his suggestion made perfect sense. I’m in heaven doing it (creating clay pieces). My husband says I get really crabby when I can’t create.”
After seven years of art fairs Sheryl decided, “I couldn’t do one more.” The hard labor of traveling, setting up and selling in all weather became too much of a grind. Meanwhile, although Roy had responded well to the dry climate in Wyoming, the massive seasonal fires in the area beginning around the year 2000, compromised the benefits of the previously clean air. “It seemed as though the smoke would come from thousands of miles away,” Sheryl said. “It continued to be bad for three or four years. One year the fires actually circled our house!”
The VanVleck’s Brown County place is tucked away in the woods off Oak Ridge Road where a horse barn is converted into the pottery studio. Although Sheryl’s two-dimensional art is still in evidence, the space comes alive with her uniquely whimsical pottery. Hand-shaped animals like camels, elephants, zebras and gorillas peer, hug and teeter on mugs, bowls and candelabras. Some of the animal sculptures exist for their own narrative sake, like the clay version of the old woman who swallowed the fly, with all the consecutive animals she consumed stacked atop her belly.
“I enjoy pushing clay to its limit as I strive to deal with the issues of the frailty of life and the need to balance man’s desires with his responsibilities to this earth,” she writes in her artist statement. “I feel that the sculpture of a man rising from clay, while balancing a globe, upon which sits a contemptuous gorilla might touch one viewer to contemplate man’s place in the context of nature.
“I love the laugh I receive when viewers see the look on the face of a gorilla when he finds a very drunk looking giraffe has decided to settle on his shoulders. And what a surprise I have for clients who look into a bowl and find a gorilla staring back at them. I hope they will start each day with a smile as they drink from a cup I have made with a giraffe, zebra or other animal handle.”
Although Sheryl VanVleck’s pottery speaks for itself, her professional resume reinforces her quality work. She’s been profiled in Art of the West and Southwest Art national publications and was a winner in The Artists Magazine portrait competition. She has exhibited with the Pastel Society of America, Cassatt Pastel Society, Midwest Pastel Society, Masters of American West and the Societe des Pastellists du France Salon International Du Pastel Exhibition in Compiegne and Paris, among others.
Sheryl VanVleck’s clay creatures will be on the Sixth Annual Studio and Garden Tour June 26th and 27th, 2004 in Brown County. For more information about the tour check <www.browncountystudiotour.com>. For directions to the VonVleck studio call 812-597-5309 or e-mail <email@example.com> or check out the website at <www.vanvleckstudio.com>.