Inventory Number: SEE099
Size: 90h x 68w x 50d in.
Origin: United States
Adam, Waiting for Eve was originally created to be displayed at Masterpiece London, set in the foreground of the 10-foot tall Solomon J. Solomon painting, “Eve” (1908). The tips of each branch were designed to inter-relate with the sway of Eve’s curved wrist, alluding to Michelangelo’s iconic “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel. The sculpture’s scale makes it ideally suited as a visual anchor, with those same elements and their shadows charismatically interacting with the surroundings. Hand-carved entirely in clay, the piece incorporates both natural and anthropomorphic elements in its hyper-stylized realism.Eric Serritella specializes in hand-carved trompe l’oeil vessels transformed into birch and weathered logs. His one-of-a-kind ceramic sculptures are internationally recognized and have been exhibited, awarded, and collected on five continents for their exquisite design and incredibly realistic textures.
Those who have spent time considering nature may have experienced the startling phenomenon in which an inanimate object suddenly seems to come alive. The face of a cliff winks knowingly. An outstretched tree limb beckons. A hollow trunk laughs with mouth agape. They offer an uncanny sense of emotional connection in the instant before the viewer’s logical brain reasserts reality.
This is the magical realm in which Eric Serritella works. His ceramic trompe l’oeil sculptures startle and delight with an anthropomorphic repertoire of gnarled branches, weathered surfaces, and flaking birch bark. The naturalistic conceits are so effective that the viewer’s initial impulse is to believe. Snared by the convincing realism of these beguiling limbs, the viewer must reason his or her way to the conclusion that it is sculpture after all, not a piece of nature plucked from the forest.
Serritella’s work joins a long history of trompe l’oeil in clay. He acknowledges that he is neither the first nor the last to find a calling in the technique and is inspired by the centuries-old traditions of Yixing, China, where artisans crafted petite stoneware teapots, whimsically embellished with sculptural flora and fauna. These deceptively simple and beautiful functional vessels have engaged generations of potters and collectors. Serritella was also mentored by Ah Leon, the contemporary Taiwanese artist and master of rendering wood-texture in clay.
Having lived most of his life in rural parts of the Eastern United States, Serritella takes his visual vocabulary from the forests he knows best. He has an easy affinity with trees, which he calls “kindred spirits.”[i] Although he is often surrounded by nature (his studio faces the woods), he does not sculpt from life. Rather, he persuasively conjures forms and textures from memory. Botanical authenticity is not the point. He might pair oak grain with birch bark. He is not copying nature; he is appropriating visual elements for creative expression.
Serritella works in a light-filled studio adjacent to his North Carolina residence. A large, blank wall provides a backdrop for his work, and the studio is spacious enough to view these sculptures in the round. The nature of his practice demands a dual personality to tackle what he sees as distinct phases: designing and carving. The design stage is intuitive and physically intense. He moves large volumes of clay, sculpts trunks and branches, and refines the composition. His studio assistant holds elements at various heights or angles so that Serritella can determine final placements. Classic rock fills the studio with complementary energy. Despite the free-wheeling vibe, the work is technically precise and physical armatures are required to support cantilevered limbs. Once the form is complete, the carving can begin. By contrast to the form work, detailing is quiet and meditative. The artist listens to Rachmaninoff while he wields a small X-Acto blade to create the fine textures that trick the eye into thinking that clay is wood. His realism depends not only on the textured surface, but also on the different clay bodies—up to eight shades of white, black, and used to create variegated colors. Serritella also details the surface with slips and oxides. Finally, he slices the sculpture apart with wire into sections that fit in the kiln. It can take a month to fire all the pieces, which must be reassembled with epoxy and ingenious metal hardware that secures the limbs without a visual trace.
Serritella’s most ambitious sculpture to date, Adam, Waiting for Eve, 2017, was designed in dialogue with a painting of Eve by British artist Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860–1927). At seven feet tall and nearly six feet across, the clay sculpture is a feat of architecture and engineering as well as art. A sturdy, yet battered, birch trunk culminates in outstretched boughs. The fingerlike tip of each branch echoes gestures from Solomon’s Eve and from Michelangelo’s original Adam: reaching, but paused in tension, just short of touching. Ghosts of the Muse, 2017 is smaller at nearly four feet in height. Its contorted and weathered trunk is full of knots and intriguing holes which look as if they might hold a dark secret or emit a wail. It is barren, gothic, and wise.
Serritella has only recently embarked on such large sculptures. The artist admits that it was daunting to tackle the requisite technical challenges of construction. Bolstered and encouraged by his gallery, he persevered and succeeded in launching this new body of work in 2017.
This is the just the latest in a series of remarkable transitions for Serritella. Although he was interested in art and art history from an early age, he studied marketing at Ithaca College. He worked his way up to vice president of an advertising agency. In his spare time, he took up pottery and found it meditative. After sixteen years in marketing, he charted a mid-life course correction that many seek but few embrace: he left his steady job to be an artist.
In one of the most serendipitous events of his life, in 2003, Serritella signed up for workshop at Cornell University, open to local potters and taught by the internationally known ceramic artist, Ah Leon. The two struck up a friendship, and as the course concluded, Serritella asked Leon for career advice. The master potter said wryly, “Eric, you need to make better pots.” Soon after, Leon helped his student secure a five-month residency and apprenticeship with master potters in Taiwan. There, Serritella received an immersive, second education in the art of functional pottery. On a follow up trip, in 2006, he studied tromp l’oeil in depth, paving the way for a creative pivot.
Over the next decade, Serritella established himself as a master of trompe l’loeil composition and technique. Following in the Yixing tradition, most of his creations began with a teapot. Even pots that were overwhelmingly sculptural (to the point of obscuring function) were still, technically, vessels. Through the teapot as launching pad, he honed his expressive skills. These pots have personality and narrative. Charred Birch Stump Teapot, 2013 stands proud and animated, despite extensive burns to its lower half (fig. 2). At a glance, the viewer is more taken with its character than with its “teapotness,” which is hardly apparent. Yet “functional” forms were a boon to the emerging artist, who benefited from the well-established markets for studio craft and collectors who focused on teapots.
Now, with nearly two decades of full-time ceramic practice behind him, Serritella impels himself to relinquish the vestige of function and to challenge himself as a sculptor. As with any artistic leap, it is challenging and invigorating. His sculptures activate space differently than tabletop objects. He wants to continue increasing size, perhaps to the point of a full-scale outdoor installation. A bigger kiln would help. So would studio assistants to help him work though big compositions in clay. Logistics aside, with the freedom and the technical know-how to push his large-scale sculpture, Serritella’s next goal is as simple as his mentor’s initial challenge. This time, he just needs to make better trees.
[i] Eric Serritella in conversation with the author via Skype, September 4, 2018.