Cliff swallows have colonized Adrian Arleo's Lolo property for most of the 13 years she's lived there. The first year they flew in, the sculptor and her husband, writer David James Duncan, allowed the birds to build mud nests above the door of their home.
'That was a mistake," she says, laughing. "It was a big mess."
The couple had to scrape the daubed mud off the ledge each season the birds arrived to deter nest-building, but they do encourage the swallows to build along the sides of the house and garage. "There's sort of this cyclical aspect to living here—the return of certain things," says Arleo.
The precariously supported nests often fall to the ground, and yet the birds keep building. Arleo and Duncan have made a habit of pounding in nails where the birds can secure their homes. It's a mutually beneficial relationship: The birds eat mosquitoes and flies. For Arleo, who often uses animals and the natural world in her ceramic sculptures, they provide inspiration. One of her ceramics series was based on the cliff swallow nests. She's used wasp nests and honeycomb imagery in her work. Other pieces combine animals—often birds—with human characteristics. One striking piece has two ceramic branches facing each other occupied by birds that have human hands and faces. They evoke something from ancient myths, or creatures from a fairytale land.
Arleo recalls a trip to the Phoenix Art Museum 10 years ago where she spied a carved white wood figure "the size of a crow" that also used human-bird imagery. She was drawn to it because it was so similar to her work, yet it was thousands of years old. The Ba figure, as she learned, was part of an ancient Egyptian belief.
"It was very familiar to me," she says. "I looked into what it meant and it has different interpretations. Egyptians believed that humans have multiple non-physical aspects to being a person. And the Ba is one of them. It has the ability to leave and return to the body after it's dead. It's kind of an element of eternal soul in a way."
A few years later she saw another Ba figure—a tiny bird-like human touching a sarcophagus—in Las Vegas's Hermitage Museum. "That struck me," she says, "because when I've used bird imagery, it also represents the soul as a fragile or ephemeral or invisible aspect of a person."
Arleo says in her experience it's common for people to be drawn to this Ba imagery. Ten years ago, the Seattle-based writer Sherman Alexie visited Arleo's studio. Alexie was experiencing a dry spell; no words were coming out. After looking at Arleo's collection of human-bird imagery he spent the evening writing two poems, which ended up in a collection called Dangerous Astronomy and which sported one of Arleo's piece on the cover. His experience at her studio, according to a couple of interviews with the writer, kept him writing for years to come.
Arleo's Ba-inspired pieces are part of an upcoming First Friday ceramics explosion. The Clay Studio of Missoula is showing a 1998–2011 retrospective. Persistence in Clay at the Missoula Art Museum and 60 Artworks 60 Artists 60 Years at the University of Montana-based Montana Museum of Art and Culture are two exhibits celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Archie Bray Foundation. The Helena-based ceramics institute has put Montana on the map for clay arts, and it's famously linked to such Montana greats as Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos, plus artists-in-residence from around the world, including Tre Arenz, Val Cushing, Eva Kwong, and Robert Sperry.
Arleo, who has taught classes at Archie Bray, got hooked on clay when she was 13. She studied art and anthropology at Pitzer College in California where she grew to love artifacts as art. She got her MFA in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design. Though her art has evolved, she says, she's always worked with clay.
Besides the bird-human piece, Arleo will show a piece at MAM called "Eve Honeycomb." It's made of clay, with just a little encaustic wax and oil paint, but its texture looks like pure honeycomb, and it glows as though it has some light shining from within.
Sometimes, she says, she'll make a piece that has more light than the others. "Every once in a while there will be a piece that has a real presence because of the expression on the face. I'm always shooting for that, but it's sort of like some pieces just have this little bit of magic. I just really feel like there's somebody there."
Adrian Arleo presents her work along with numerous other ceramic artists at the Missoula Art Museum with a reception from 5 to 8 PM, and at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture with a reception from 4 to 6 PM Friday, June 3. Free.