Karen Akester is an uncommonly lively, cheerful sort of person — most unlikely to harbor a fascination with morbidity, one might suppose. Nevertheless, the topic of Akester’s recent (December, 2002) Master of Design exhibition at Edinburgh College of Art was Death. She researched the ways various cultures choose to remember their dead and related artifacts they produce. Although she studied many death cults, including Mexican and Native American, British Victorian funerary practices were particularly intriguing to this Scottish 2003 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America. By recreating and re-engaging with traditional death imagery, she obliquely addresses today’s more detached attitudes and finds a richer complexity of meaning in this universal occasion for art-making.
Akester brings a sympathetic sensibility to bear on the dichotomies intrinsic to the human condition. She notes that some funerary iconography, including heavenly cherubs and angels is comforting, while sinister elements, such as the skull and crossbones, can be intended to drive “hell” or evil away. A related theme which consistently interweaves with Akester’s exploration of death art, is a fascination with the dark side of the human personality. Each human being, her practice suggests, carries not only the seeds of death within, but a hidden –or not so hidden — potential for evil.
For her master’s exhibition, she cast images of children or cherubs in “remembrance pieces.” Their chubby faces often resemble babies, though not the sweetly charming ones we associate with Victorian art. Some heads sprout additional smaller heads, perhaps resembling birds or animals, on long necks like horns. These reveal alternate aspects of the deceased’s personality: “bad and good faces.” “The ‘bad’ face,” she explains, “might represent the negative side of the personality.” But, like the skull on an old tombstone, it might equally have the purpose of scaring away bad spirits.
Akester was excited to learn that a doll cemetery containing the remains of three small dolls had recently been found in Edinburgh. “They think it was made by a child, probably in the late nineteenth century.” Many of Akester’s glass sculptures are doll-like figures, a merging of representations of angelic happiness, imp-like evil, and depictions of the pathos of infant death, a pervasive 19th century subject. The faces seem both authentically baby-like and demonic. Above rounded cheeks, smooth pupil-less eyes, some covered by inappropriate goggles, gaze at nothing. These beings would seem perfectly, appealingly infantile if not for their weird gleeful wide-eyed alertness. In addition, their very numbers, crowded and jostled together, are threatening. The dead outnumber the living.
Though she is still engaged by objects like Chinese ceramic funerary figures and mummies, Akester is moving away from static funerary art. “The figures I’m working on at the moment are becoming more puppet-like,” she says. She came to CGCA with the intention of making dolls, some with articulated limbs and joints which can be manipulated. She has been thinking about using these in “a puppet dance which will describe life and death.” Many elements of this plan, such as the costuming of the dolls (She’s considering India as a source) are as yet unresolved. Her eventual goal is to manipulate the doll/puppets in performance or animated films.
At CGCA, Akester cast primarily with the lost wax process, using extended firings and the inclusion of unusual elements, such as recycled glass, to obtain variations in translucency, like marbling. Wax transmits a high level of detail, contrasting plump contours with crisply defined features.
Paradoxically, after casting, Akester prefers to do minimal cold working. “I just take off the sharp edges.” She views chance distortions of casting as serendipitous elements of the finished work. In addition to the wax heads, torsos and limbs for casting, she modeled some heads in clay. These were used for sand-casting mask-shapes in dichroic glass. The dualistic nature of being is manifested through the dichroic glass’s shifting blue to violet color, which changes dramatically depending on the angle of the light.
Akester works with many materials including clay and wood and claims to have “hundreds of unfired pieces of clay” in her home studio. One step toward theatrical enactment, will be placing doll-like glass figures in vignettes or “little situations or scenes.” One planned subject relates to “hyperactive kids and too many sweets.” Heads modeled for this project are all based on photographs of newborn babies. Their eyes are squeezed shut and their mouths relaxed as if sleeping; however, they don’t seem entirely human. Often their goblin-like ears are pointed or oddly squared-off.
Akester is basing some of the bodies for these heads, on a doll she purchased in a local thrift shop, which she believes was made in the 1970’s. “I like it because it’s so distorted.” The small torso — disproportionately smaller than the head — has even smaller limbs with short wide feet and thick wrists and ankles.
Considering her images of dead babies and newborn hyperactive ones, Akester says, “In my mind it’s all linked together. When many people think of dying, they think of rebirth; so the infants fit in with that. Many people think they’re going to come back. I enjoy thinking about that.” Recalling, with a laugh, people who try to have themselves preserved cryogenically after death, she speculates about the “poorest folk who can only preserve their heads,” and adds “I find the Asian cultures most interesting spiritually.” She’s intrigued in the idea of karmic influences on future rebirths and the parallels to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory or hell. “Death is not a grim subject,” she insists. “I feel I’ve got lots to say and visualize about it before I’m going to move on.”