By Michelle Tupko
Chris Garofalo is not all that interested in the fine art aspect of her work. “I never really thought of what I was doing as being ‘art’ in the high-minded sense at all,” she says with a smile. “It was mostly just entertaining myself.” Garofalo’s ceramic pieces are crossbreeds of plant, animal, sea, land and fleshy creatures. They arise from an intersection between a naturalist’s field book and a dreamer’s internal intuitions—objects of imagination Garofalo would like to see remain personal. “You can put it on the back of your toilet, I don’t care. Just put it some place where you’re going to see it and enjoy it. It doesn’t have to have its own special light or its own little stand. I prefer it to be something that catches your eye while you’re moving through your life.”
Indeed, the intriguing hybrid beings hanging on the wall at Rhona Hoffman Gallery may have all begun with early pieces Garofalo made for her own garden. Wanting some birdbaths, pots and functional outdoor items, Garofalo created clay objects that could serve their function while hiding their own construction. They became a part of the garden itself, like strange animals beneath the leaves or alien buds sprouting. Early on, she displayed her pieces in friends’ bars, a neighbor’s backyard art sale and, eventually, in more established art venues such as Chicago’s Lill Street Art Center and the Wells Street Air Fair.
These earlier pieces were cruder, using a low-fire technique, meaning they were even more fragile than they are now and had brighter, punchier colors. But these didn’t look natural enough for Garofalo’s intentions; they weren’t plausible as part of a natural system. “I was becoming more and more interested in having the work look like I didn’t make it; like it made itself, like it was growing,’’ she says, and this pushed her toward using high-fire gas ovens, a process with a subtler color range, allowing her to create textures that looked less painted, and more like fur or freckles, animal attributes and plant matter.
It was at an art fair that someone put a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life” in her hands. The book sparked a deep reflection on evolution and biological relationships that informs Garofalo’s work to this day. Her life forms began growing into what she often calls “ecosystems,” and a political-ecological message crept into her work, though she’s quite clear that this message is not the only reading her work invites. “Everything grows from something very small. We all, in theory, come from the same place. Everything that’s alive comes from the same source—stuff under a microscope, stuff underwater, stuff in the desert, stuff in your backyard, all looks related.”
Though she doesn’t call herself an animist, Garofalo has inherited her mother’s talent for assigning personalities to…everything. “Do you name things?” I ask. “No,” Garofalo laughs, “I’m not that squirrely.” But as she rightly points out, it’s simply true that everything is, technically, alive. Solid surfaces, she reminds me, are made of moving particles. The maple table on which we’re resting our elbows is still expanding. Nothing is ever at rest. “I love the idea of just seeing a plant get up and walk…saying, ‘oh, the sun’s over here…’” In my mind, I see my oregano plant scooting on its little legs closer to the sunlight on my computer desk.
Garofalo’s first encounter with ceramics occurred while pursuing a BFA in printmaking from Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame. Surprisingly, though, ceramics just “didn’t take.” At that time, Garofalo was more of an image-maker than an object-maker, studying graphic design, and even a little bit of business, in addition to printmaking. It wasn’t until a number of years later, when she moved to Chicago from her hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where she, along with two of her five siblings, were working as graphic designers that she returned to clay. Unable to find adequate printmaking facilities, and looking for a way to make more organic shapes than she could with the plywood work she was doing at the time, she signed up for a ceramics class. This second time around, Garofalo found a whole new relationship to clay as a material. “Something clicked,” she says.
She builds her pieces up spontaneously, “slapping down a slab of clay” and folding it up into shape. “It has everything to do with the shape,” she says, intuiting through her graphic designer’s sense of strong visual essence.
Ultimately, there’s no question that Garofalo could imagine living closer to plants and animals. The desert seems to be the place most on her mind. She says she could imagine retiring out there one day when she doesn’t need the city any longer “to survive.” “I could live out in the desert really easily. I sometimes feel like I’ve been reincarnated and I might have spent a lifetime out there. It just feels so much like home.”
Chris Garofalo shows at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 118 North Peoria, (312)455-1990, through January 19.