Jennifer Halvorson Essay

Jennifer Halvorson Essay

Jennifer Halvorson
Fall 2010 Fellow

The core tension in Jennifer Halvorson’s sculpture contrasts warm, interwoven complexity with icy, crystalline transparency. It is a contrast of feelings about familial relationships explored partly through techniques and materials. It can be seen perhaps most readily in the way Halvorson uses glass. In one work, “Guarded,” she layers a sequence of blown glass bell jars on an Ionic column capital. The precise structures have an almost Victorian (even Frankensteinian) scientific quality. Parts of the glass of the uncannily perfect domes have been transformed into the visual equivalent of a woven surface through intentionally induced crackling.

The Fall, 2010 Resident Fellow of the Creative Glass Center of America relates her recent sculpture to her own family and the intergenerational rural family matrix that protects and sustains its members. In an American culture where complaints of abusive parents and sociopathic siblings are the mainstay of talk shows, Halvorson refreshingly observes, “[Individual members of families] thrive because of just connecting with one another and being able to work together.”

In Halvorson’s work curving arched silhouettes and layered images of nests — literal bird’s nests, layers of wool, sheltering domes — and eggs, suggest the nurturing, protective function of family: “layers of protection that are inviting.” However, cage-like structures enclosing family relics, such as an ornate cast-iron heater grating, remind us that protection however graceful and well-intentioned can become containment, even imprisonment.

Broken and cracked eggs also speak of the limits of protection. Halvorson has witnessed that inevitability in her own family. Since her graduation from college, she has lost three grandparents. The remaining grandmother has developed severe short-term memory loss over the last four years. “Now we can’t talk about anything in the present. Conversation shifts to stories of the past. They are always just crystal clear.”

In Halvorson’s experience families work together and individual members know what their tasks are. Women’s skills are transferred from one generation to another through recipes, gardening and handwork. Illustrations and examples of all these can be noted as elements of Halvorson’s sculpture. Even the egg and nest imagery are linked to practical life on the grandmother’s “homeplace.” Halvorson’s sculpture embodies two aspects of work that is done well and with pleasure: order and ornament. Her family’s pumpkin vines planted between rows of corn to maximize cultivatable space are surprising but a rational and satisfying use of land. The object is not beauty but the contrast of plant shapes and heights has a visual appeal. Lace and quilts are functional: protective, attractive linings for the nest. Their construction and ornamental use is not possible without logic and order.

All the skills and knowledge and hard-won history of a family grows distant and obsolete over time, like the recipes Halvorson locked behind that fancy cast iron grating. The container looks

like a rural mailbox but it doesn’t work like one. No one is going to pick up these dead letters. Halvorson’s tender enshrinement is more than most old family recipes get.

Young generations hear stories of the past but can’t know how accurate or embellished they are. Stories live only when passed on and they change with retelling. “We make decisions of what part of that memory to exaggerate — or not.” Through the shadows of memory we can see and respect and honor the past but we unavoidably alter it as we carry it forward into the future. Halvorson takes this responsibility seriously.