Ione Thorkelsson’s Wild Feet

Ione Thorkelsson: Ione Thorkelsson
6 May – 28 May, 1994

a response to the exhibition by Jan Horner

The essential qualities of glass – light, airiness, fluidity – appear to be denied in Ione Thorkelsson’s new pieces with chicken, goose, turkey and wild turkey feet. This unexpected impression was as much caused by the dense texture of the surfaces and cloudy opaqueness of some of the glass used as by the imagery suggested by her creations. Fowl are flightless, often domesticated birds and what Thorkelsson emphasizes about them in her work is their earthbound nature. Special attention is paid to the fascinating ugliness and texture of their feet, warts and all. Meanwhile, the airiness of feathers, the span and grace of the wings are glossed over. Although the initial perception might be one of elegance, the feet are peculiarly naked, absurd and at times menacing.

Most of the pieces appear at first glance to be conventional glass pieces: vases, bowls, plates, cups, but one quickly sees the talons of poultry which are attached to them as feet, handles, and in one or two instances as startling ornaments. The show also includes blown vessels whose generous shapes along with their symmetrical two-footedness imply the creatures from which the feet/talons were made. The detail and precise texture of the feet, some of them webbed, create a striking contrast to the abstracted, blown shapes of the bodies. Some of the larger pieces in this series allude to the hieratic pose of ancient Egyptian bird deities.

All of the pieces seem static and posed. The vessels which do not deliberately mimic fowl are asymmetrical with feet in threes and in sevens and you would imagine hardly capable of movement except in some penguin-like, circular shuffle. The feet are individual and expressive, often suggesting pride, even vanity. They are extended like a high-heeled foot outstretched by a courtier in a deep bow, a hand about to play a piano, the hand of a matron anticipating a kiss or a manicure, and how some of these nails/claws beg a manicure! Only in rare instances do the feet connote their actual purpose of grasping or violence, though horror and the grotesque always seem to be in tension with whimsy and domesticity.

Two vases, with no extensions or feet and which in one case looks very much like a broken egg, actually contain outstretched talons. One displayed inside a glass cover invites the viewer to peer inside. You are surprised upon discovering an outstretched, even panicky talon extended up at you, suggesting more what the egg keeps out, the predator, than what it keeps in. I found one lidded bowl rather disturbing. A webbed foot crudely stuck on the lid – seemed to refer to the contrasting purposes of the two species – the human one seeing the foot as a handle, practical and ornamental – the animal gesture implied by the foot on the lid, on the other hand, suggesting possession and control, keeping a lid on things so to speak. Overall the crudely broken stem of the ankle reminds one of the mutilation involved, more so than in any of the other pieces.

The striking quality about these “feet” and why they more often imply feet than hands is the tiny extra claw, what I would anthropomorphically call the unevolved thumb, which looks so useless, pathetic, and somehow delicate. The proportion of one of the pieces in particular draws attention to the ineffectual quality of these extra digits. It is a small high cup with three thick, very erect stalks for legs, expressive of exertion and rectitude, crowded together and with the smaller higher claws somehow getting in each other’s way.

One piece more narrative than the others depicts a claw holding up an egg in a triumphant even heroic gesture. If one looks behind the piece a precarious balance is revealed where the egg rests on the pad of the talon and the balance is dependent on the force and squeeze of the grip, because the talon lacks a true “thumb”. Or is it just that the angle has been turned on its ear? Would it make more sense horizontally as a claw reaching out to draw back a stray egg? One other piece, a bowl with one side filled in by 2 webbed feet, insinuating the exotic – bats’ wings and horror, presents a similar paradox for turned upside down these two webbed feet could be quite ordinary, merely those of a fowl resting on a rock.

Glenn Allison has written knowledgeably about the difficulty of the processes by which Thorkelsson has created these pieces and the daring required in her changing her signature style. What I appreciate about her new work is how the pieces have surprised me and challenged my notions of what glass art is. In particular the pieces made me aware of how poultry feet are taken for granted, ignored and treated as waste products. Thorkelsson’s new glass works have transformed these homely and overlooked extremities into something mysterious and mythic.

Jan Horner is a writer and author living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.