Leslie Blackford’s Distinctive Voice
The first time I encountered Leslie Blackford’s inventive creations was the summer of 2007. It was decidedly different from the figurative polymer work I had seen before. From the early days of polymer clay, many artists have found the material to be well suited to sculpting. Two notable artists who use polymer in a sculptural or figurative manner are Katherine Dewey and Maureen Carlson. Although stylistically very different, both Katherine’s and Maureen’s pieces are fanciful, and highly accomplished in terms of technique, finish, and completeness of an idea. Their figures always seem to allude to a story.
Leslie’s figures also suggest a story but generally one that has a bit of an edge. Her work often engages the viewer with intimations of irony, emotion and darkness despite their seemingly whimsical or humorous appearance. The immediacy of her approach is present in both her imagery and her style. Leslie’s art has a folksy quality to it, although to me, it also recalls the imagery of the 15th century Netherlanders painter, Hieronymus Bosch. The titles of Leslie’s pieces offer hints as to what she might have been thinking. Her method is direct, her techniques tend to be simple and although most of her figures are conceptually complete, her workmanship is not meticulous. One gets the idea that she needs to express her ideas quickly before both the time and the impetus evaporates.
Like many other artists, Leslie’s designs imply a personal reaction to an experience. An annual family tradition of walking in springtime fields always yields a few local arrowheads. Leslie has taken to incorporating these arrowheads into a series of amulet/talisman like objects as seen in Modern Relics 01 (2006). In this version, a wistful looking bear head and legless torso are fixed to the top of the arrowhead. The bear’s head is green in what appears to be a faux stone type effect while a mosaic of small turquoise chips covers its body. Towards the bottom is a single large red square. One wonders whether this red tile indicates a site of emotional vulnerability, the spot for an arrow to inflict pain, or is simply a bright decorative touch?
The feeling of vulnerability is also a part of her 2006 figure, Bird Cage. A dark bird head with a long pointed beak, a somewhat dour expression and a pair of avian feet comprise the top and bottom of a gangly, clothed form that includes a window into its gut or perhaps its soul. Captured within is a small cat that seems a bit frantic and desirous of escape. Its red body and ashen head help to express the dire nature of its situation. Remnants of an old ghost story book appear in the background. The title, Bird Cage, calls to mind several interpretative meanings. That a bird would have swallowed a cat is already a twist on the reality of cats devouring birds as a natural event. Moreover, the idea that a bird, which is so often caged itself, might be the cage for another creature stretches our perceptions further, although there certainly are many carnivorous birds of prey. Birds, which are a frequent motif in Leslie’s oeuvre, also represent the freedom of flight and an ability to escape, in a way that a cat, even though it might have nine lives, cannot.
Leslie’s 2006 work, Fortunes -5 Cents, contains captives as well. Embraced within a hollowed out tree trunk stands a ghoulish looking figure, whose open belly reveals a small swine face inside a fortune teller’s booth. Atop the head of the larger figure, one sees wild cords of hair and a blue bird, while a pair of outstretched stick like arms sprouts below. An over eager looking pig peers out over a sign offering fortunes for a pittance. But, whose fortunes are being told? Both the ghoul and the pig are already captured within a larger structure, so is their fate an inability to escape their circumstances? Only the blue bird-perhaps a reference to happiness-, has the means to flee and yet even it seems to be caught within the confines of the hair. There is little in this imagery to offer a light hearted peak into the future. Instead, this figurative sculpture almost dares one to seek their fortune from this uneasy set of creatures.
Discomfort of another kind occurs in Leslie’s piece, Damn Everything but the Circus from 2005. Here one sees an oversize pig with a masked cat riding its back. They are perched on a platform balanced on three blocks. The title, which appears on the plaque below the pig’s head, is a quote from the poet, e.e. cummings, that exhorts one to live the circus of life to the fullest*. Yet, the extremely obese pig wears a dunce type cap and seems a tad ridiculous standing on its teeny feet, while the cat, dressed in the traditional white suit of Pierrot, the 19th century French sad clown who was a bit of a buffoon, plays at cards. Is the piece a comment on the delights and absurdity of life? Or, does it imply that we should live every day, even if we appear a bit foolish and the steadiness of our base is precarious?
Leslie’s graphic mask, The Pain of Words~ Robin’s Words (2008), is more obvious. A robin sits on the upper edge of a vacant eyed face and seems to look away. From the mouth of a bilious green mask spew four vibrant colored snakes which seemingly represent the hurtful words. Yet, the serpents both enter and exit the mouth the way mean thoughts must first come into consciousness before they can be verbally released. By using snakes as imagery, Leslie makes clear that the venom of such words is poison. The reference to a robin in the title identifies the source of the words. Nevertheless the sculpted bird sits above the pained image of the mask, mute and calmly looking up and away as if to disassociate itself with the content of what is happening below.
Clearly Leslie’s art is full of interpretative possibilities. Although we each can look and come away with our own impressions, her work derives from something that is deeply personal. By blending her own experiences with a bit of an outside the mainstream reaction, Leslie creates her highly imaginative, but often disarming and slightly aberrant art.
*full quote from e.e. cummings reads: “Damn everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning, damn everything that won’t get into the circle, that won’t enjoy, that throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence……”