Breaking his way into a new artform

Tara Bradbury
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Artist Jason Holley hopes his kind of chainmail catches on

Clay artist Jason Holley spends what he says are “ridiculously long hours” in his studio, to the point where his wife has to bring him in meals.

He uses an extruder to squeeze out long coils of clay which he wraps around wooden dowels, and when they’re the right state of dry, he cuts them off, transfers them to bins, and heats them to further dry.

He then begins the painstaking process of linking them together — by the thousands — chainmail style, in specific patterns, before Raku firing them in a kiln, heating them to about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in open fire.

When the pieces are finally complete, Holley promptly takes a hammer to them.

“Breaking gets me the reaction that I want. It satisfies something in me,” he explains.

Holley’s chainmail ceramic work has been getting national and international recognition, and one of his latest pieces, “Shelter,” is nominated for the Gardiner Museum’s RBC Emerging Artist People’s Choice Award.

Holley, who lives in Amherst Cove, started his artistic career in university, making macramé necklaces and selling them at festivals. From there, he began beading, making his own beads, and discovered chainmail as a way of making jewelry.

“It was relatively skill-based, but I didn’t need a lot of specialized equipment,” Holley says.

From there, he took classes in drawing, painting, sewing and finally clay.

“I stopped taking the other classes and threw all my money into ceramics, because I was in love,” he explains.

There’s something visceral and grounding about having your hands in clay, Holley says, and it’s a feeling unique to that medium. His first show was at the Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Council gallery six or seven years ago, and consisted of a variety of pieces. In one of them, one of the rings happened to have a crack.

Though stressed about the piece, Holley eventually decided to highlight the split in the ring by using a high-polish copper glaze on it so it stood out. Gallery goers, assuming it was a flaw, kept turning the ring so the split didn’t show.

“At that point, I realized I was on to something by revealing that piece,” Holley says. “My next show, I actually showed up at the gallery installation with a hammer and a pair of hedge clippers and went in and damaged the work.”

Holley’s concept is raw and personal, and has to do with the illusion of perfection. It’s about personas, people’s masks, and revealing what’s behind them. It’s satisfying for Holley to watch people’s reaction when they see the destroyed piece, and realize it’s made of ceramic, not metal.

“Shelter” consists of two parts: a cylindrical shape, broken open, in which bright red broken pieces are pouring out. Holley refers to this crimson pool as “the Puddle of Failure.”

“All those rings are actually failed sculptures,” he explains. “The bulk of them are from the piece that I dropped, getting ready for a show at The Rooms. I dropped it trying to load it into the kiln, deadlines looming. I just picked the rings up and piled them into a big box.

“Slowly but surely, all these boxes of clay that were full of failure were everywhere and I just couldn’t bring myself to reclaim them and reuse them. I couldn’t face them. I dumped a bunch of these boxed into the kiln and fired a bunch of these failed rungs, and then I sat down and sloppily painted them with a foam brush and the cheapest red paint that I could get. It took me three or four days of just sitting there, contemplating failure. Here I am, sitting there surrounded by these piles of rings, and I know damn well what they are. It’s a little corny, but this is therapy.”

“Shelter” was nominated for the Gardiner Museum award by Sandra Alfoldy, professor of craft history at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and associate curator of fine craft at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The other finalists for the award are Sarah Lawless, Janet MacPherson, Julie Moon and Brendan Tang.

The national award is based on public votes, and the winner receives $10,000. There are no prizes for the runners-up.

If Holley wins, he plans to use the prize money to renovate his 75-year-old studio, which he says has a fair amount of rot and no real wiring or plumbing, and would love to have a wood kiln built, if he could stretch the money that far.

“It’s phenomenal for me to be one of these five,” Holley says of the finalists. “Some of these people, I’ve been following their work for a long time and I’ve always been impressed by them. It’s cool that I can be considered one of them. I’m certainly one of the more obscure of the five, so if I win, that’s a coup.”

Votes for the Gardiner Museum’s RBC Emerging Artist People’s Choice Award can be cast online at Voting ends Sunday night.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Gardiner Museum, RBC Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Council The Rooms

Geographic location: Amherst Cove, Nova Scotia

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