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Plant People: The Art of Rebecca May Verrill

One glance at the exhibit Borrowed, Rebecca May Verrill’s master’s thesis project, is enough to have you wondering if nature inspires art or art inspires nature. While working towards her MFA in Ceramics at SUNY New Paltz, she realized that many of her peers were making art to be preserved in a museum. Having spent 10 years living and working as a professional potter in the high desert of Taos, New Mexico, Rebecca knew her connection to clay was not about posterity. “I thought, ‘If this is what they want, I’m nothing more than an object maker. What’s going to happen to my art after it leaves my hands?’ There’s something beautiful about an object going back to the earth; that it isn’t so far from its source that it can’t go back.”

So, with the encouragement of her professors, she followed her instincts and has made nature a focal point of her art ever since. To make her seed bombs for Borrowed, Rebecca used locally sourced clay, which she dug herself. She then slip-casted molds of vegetables from the farmer’s market and embedded each one with various types of local, non-GMO vegetable seeds to bridge the gap between food origin and the consumer—an approach that invites participation. Once whole, she left the molds unfired and painted them with vegetable juice. Visitors to her exhibit took home her seed bomb to plant in their gardens, illustrating the regenerative nature of taking from and giving back to the earth. Borrowed would just be the beginning of her quest to redefine the connection between art, nature and local agriculture.

"There’s something beautiful about an object going back to the earth; that it isn’t so far from its source that it can’t go back.” - Rebecca May Verrill

Rebecca throwing pottery in her studio

Rebecca’s seed pods on display at her exhibit, Borrowed.

After graduate school, Rebecca returned home to her native Maine and settled in the charming city of Portland. Being home brought back her earliest inspirations growing up on a farm in the foothills of western Maine. Living without electricity for 11 years, she and her sister played outside, ran barefoot in the garden, and made mud pies. Her parents fashioned flashcards with plant seeds, so she could learn to identify and grow food on her own. She explains, “Even today, in between my clay work in the studio, I’ll run home to water my garden and dig my hands in the dirt. And in the middle of winter, I tend to my house plants and browse through seed catalogs. Plants have always made me happy.”

The beauty of Rebecca’s art lies in both product and process. While not one to be pinned down to one particular style, she aims for her art to be multi-functional, cheerful, and representative of its provenance. “I’ve always been a tactile person…Playing with clay combines all of my interests: drawing, painting, printmaking, gardening—it’s a celebration of the melding of the elements.” She throws her forms primarily on a potter’s wheel using both local red and commercial-grade white clays. It’s a conscious choice that speaks to her interest in sustainability and considers the impact of her work on the planet. Maine’s native red earth is a challenge to work with, but she sources and processes it on her own whenever she can.

Like all artists, Rebecca’s work has evolved enormously. During her years in New Mexico, she was a part of a community of potters who would build their own wood-fired kilns and fire in rotation for days on end. While she still loves wood-firing, since moving to Maine, she has gravitated to low-fired, electric kilns for their energy efficiency. Her newer work features both ancient and modern representations of plants, from medieval lithographs to her signature abstract stencils, often carved and embellished with water etching, masking, and various print-making techniques. Her current work showcases Maine’s ferns and stones, a celebration of the elegance and simplicity of the natural landscape. Recently, her interest in herbalism inspired her to start a new line of ceramics featuring medicinal plants. (Be sure to check them out on her Etsy page!)

Despite this incredible range of work, Rebecca still waxes poetic about returning to her seed bombs. In the months following her thesis project, visitors of her exhibit sent photos of the plants that her bombs produced, making her wonder what the potential could be on a larger scale. “Hopefully those who use my work enjoy it as much as I did creating it.”

To learn more about Rebecca’s current projects, you can visit her website, or check out her Facebook and Instagram pages.

Posted in Inspiration on July 1, 2016