Ceramics speak of love, companionship

From the time she was 3 years old, Nancy Thorne Chambers has loved books.

“I was adopted when I was very young, and so I was torn away from my brothers and sisters, and I was pretty lonely,” she said. “Children’s books became a real companion for me.”

The Olympia artist has made that love visible through her installation, “A Story Place,” on display through Christmas at Matter Gallery.

The collection of ceramic sculptures depicts a young girl reading a story to 30 animals and insects, many elaborately dressed. The pig’s vest and jacket are decorated with gold leaf.

“There are hummingbirds and bugs and mice having tea,” said gallery co-owner Roxanna Groves. “There’s something everywhere you look.”

The book the girl is reading is called, like the installation, “A Story Place.” The girl’s photo is on the cover, and there’s a photo of some of the animal listeners inside,Thorne Chambers said.

Although Thorne Chambers’s smaller sculptures are popular at Matter, the sweet installation is a bit of a departure for a gallery that often showcases the edgy and offbeat.

Groves said she wasn’t sure what to expect when Thorne Chambers told her and the gallery’s other artist-owners about “A Story Place.”

“We walked in, and our mouths just dropped open,” said Roxanna Groves, gallery co-owner. “It’s breathtaking.”

And while much of the work at Matter is made from repurposed, reused or recycled materials, ceramics fit the gallery’s broader mission to be green. “There’s nothing greener than clay,” Groves said.

Many of Thorne Chambers’s sculptures have a lot of personality and humor with shapes that aren’t quite lifelike. They’re often either exaggeratedly tall and thin or short and chunky.

“A Story Place” definitely has a different mood, both more and less realistic. It looks, fittingly, like something out of a storybook. And that’s where the work started.

Thorne Chambers, who worked as a graphic designer for many years before becoming a family therapist, has long wanted to illustrate children’s books. She never has, but an illustration she did for contacts in publishing won an award.

The subject of the illustration: a girl reading to animals.

After retiring seven years ago, Thorne Chambers got serious about working in clay. When she looked back at the drawing, she decided to sculpt the rabbit she’d drawn.

“I thought maybe I should make the other animals,” she said. “I think I made the fox next. It just evolved over time.”

The piece took her about two years to complete. She finished work on it in March, and it took till now for her to find a gallery where it could be displayed.

It sits on an 8-by-10-foot platform topped with moss. The 40-plus elements include a girl the size of a 7-year-old; 30 animals, most roughly lifesize; and six 6-foot-tall trees with a total of 1,400-1,500 leaves, all made by hand.

The tree trunks, the girl and some of the larger animals were sculpted and fired in more than one piece, because Thorne Chambers’ kiln can’t accommodate a piece that’s more than 37 inches wide or tall.

The artist uses coils of clay to create the hollow figures. The clothing is painted with glaze, while the skin, hair and fur remain matte in texture, painted with layers of color after the final firing is complete.

Thorne Chambers intends her piece to speak to the power of reading and the importance of relationship. She also views it as something of a tribute to her late daughter, Tiana Buckley, who died in 2002 at age 36.

“My daughter loved books and animals,” the artist said. “I like to think that that’s in honor of her.”

The artist’s hope is that a children’s hospital or library might purchase the work so that many children can enjoy it.

In the short term, Olympia has most of this month to get to know the work.

“We just felt like it had to be seen,” Groves said. “We wanted to put it in the gallery for Christmas and share it with the world.”