Designful

Art

Cool Composition, an imposing, brightly colored bronze sculpture of an electric fan
Photo courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Oakland-based artist Woody De Othello likes to use clay to make ordinary things, and he likes to make them very, very big — so big that they slump and slouch from the weight of their own being. De Othello’s sculptures are often of objects you might find in an average household, from a telephone to a typewriter, a cat scratcher to a wig stand. For last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, he created Cool Composition, an imposing, brightly colored bronze sculpture of an electric fan, installed to tower over its surrounding ecosystem of houseplants. “All the things I’m making are related to this idea of the domestic, and I’m realizing that I’m really just questioning, ‘Where is home?’ ‘What is home?’” the artist says. As a first-generation American born to parents who come from Haiti, questions of identity are fairly inevitable for De Othello, particularly given the ongoing conversation surrounding race that has recently become the subject of global attention.

Woody de Othello sculpture, JMKAC Arts/Industry residency
Photo courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

“When you start to unpack that, it’s like I’m trying to make sense of what home is. What does that look like? In that way, there’s a lot of tension in my work. There’s this uneasiness, this level of exhaustion that’s a part of what I’m communicating. And I feel like it’s just one of those situations, like, ‘I’m supposed to be calling this place home. And this is how they’re treating people who look like me?’”

The African concept of nkisi, which suggests that spirits can inhabit inanimate objects, is important to De Othello’s practice. “What happens if the things around a figure start to encapsulate the emotion and the energy that I’m trying to communicate?” he asks. It’s also no accident that his ceramics — and by extension, larger installations such as those seen in Breathing Room at the San Jose Museum of Art earlier this year, which marked his first museum show — are infused with exuberant color and an intentional clumsiness that connote a kind of dark humor.

Meridians 2019 installation ArtBasel Miami
Photo courtesy of Mark BlowerPhotography by John Wilson White, Photo courtesy of Woody De Othello and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco
“Getting in my own way” sculpture, Woody de Othello
Photography by John Wilson White, Photo courtesy of Woody De Othello and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco

“I like to laugh,” he says, “but I also feel like humor camouflages what’s really going on. You shouldn’t feel bad after laughing, but have a conversation about it. I want to have these heavier conversations, but sometimes if you’re just looking at things so directly, it’s hard to approach it. It’s a little more seductive to be unassuming.”

Vessel for feelings of shame and guilt, sculpture, Woody de Othello
Photography by John Wilson White, Photo courtesy of Woody De Othello and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco
“Weighing down”, sculpture, Woody de Othello
Photo courtesy of JKA Photography

While it’s almost incidental that Black Lives Matter has now become global, racism is an issue that has been on De Othello’s mind for some time. For Breathing Room, he created ceramic forms accompanied by paintings, many featuring hands covering faces or other parts. “Things were showing themselves and hiding themselves at the same time. I think all in all, the show was just a general feeling of digesting and learning about how messed up racism is. I was thinking a lot about W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness and knowing how you are in your body and existing in space, but also having to live with how the outside world looks at you, too. There's a lot of divisiveness and confusion that goes on with that,” he explains. “It’s weird, because a lot of times, for the outside world, you have to present positive, upbeat energy. But when you’re alone, what is that energy? I feel tired and sometimes I just sink into a space where I’m looking outside at the world going on.”

Breathing Room exhibition, San Jose Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of JKA Photography

Since his debut at Breathing Room and during the period of social distancing due to COVID-19, De Othello has found painting and sketching to be an alternate outlet that he enjoys for its sense of immediacy — though ultimately and hopefully, these will play a part in larger installations he hopes to explore further. “I want to be able to create full rooms, full experiences, just so people’s bodies are as much of the work as the work itself. I could see myself making a type of set for a play or for some type of movement to happen in,” he says.

Breathing Room exhibition, San Jose Museum of Art,
Photo courtesy of JKA Photography
Breathing Room exhibition, San Jose Museum of Art,
Photography by John Wilson White, Photo courtesy of Woody De Othello and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco

In the meantime, De Othello is looking forward to finishing his three-month Arts/Industry residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which partners artists with skilled craftsmen. While his residency was interrupted with the onset of COVID-19, the end goal is an exhibition in 2021. “I was thinking of a show called Positive Moments and wanting to put positive and thoughtful pieces out into the universe. I was making a lot of vessels with ears; I’ve been thinking about a vessel that you can whisper into or talk to and feel like you’re actually being heard,” he explains.

Woody de Othello
Photo courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

“The first thing is, I want to get the emotion out. But then I also want to have the conversations around it. Even if somebody doesn't get at the exact reference point, there's common ground to be explored,” he says.

Woody de Othello
Photo courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center