January 23, 2001
by Michael Smith
Bertice McPherson's high school guidance counselor encouraged her to be a secretary; her parents gave her the same advice. Ten years after graduating, she hated her secretarial job and often found herself doodling and drawing. Her husband at the time, Robbie Fleming, encouraged her to go to art school. She enrolled at South, received a grant, and got a work study job maintaining the ceramics studio in the art department.
Bertice soon learned that the art classes she had taken at Vigor High School, courses in leatherwork, block printing, painting, and drawing, had not prepared her for college work. McPherson focused on painting, having always dreamed of it, but found that she fought with the canvas. She switched to ceramics during her second year after observing that those students always enjoyed what they were doing. She immediately discovered her love of the clay, losing all sense of time while in the ceramics studio.
She finished her B.F.A., majoring in ceramics and minoring in painting, and began teaching ceramics at the Jewish Community Center and Davidson High School through the Continuing Education Department. Bertice has also taught ceramics at Spring Hill College and currently teaches ceramics and printmaking at the University of Mobile, a position she took in 1985, but has also taught classes in copper enameling, 3-D design, sculpture, drawing, and art appreciation. She also teaches ceramics at Gallery 54, a locally-owned art gallery.
Many may think of ceramics as the application of glaze to pre-formed, mold-made, slip-cast porcelain objects. Bertice explained, however, that ceramics is any work done with clay. In her courses, she teaches the art of molding clay by either hand-building (using pinch, coil, and/or slab techniques) or using a wheel to throw pots.
Bertice took a break from her teaching in 1989 to pursue further education at the University of Alabama. As a graduate student, McPherson molded clay into face pots, vegetable and organic forms, and the human torso. Because her professors encouraged her to focus her work, she chose the human shape as it was both common and universal.
Bertice began a series of pieces depicting the human body in armor. She found, though, that the clay did not lend itself to the fragile look she was attempting to portray. McPherson attended a glass workshop in Birmingham, read books, and, with the help of a Tuscaloosa friend, learned to work with the glass, finding the look she wanted for her armored figures. The glass was fragile, however, and needed support. Bertice received a grant from the university and began electroplating copper which she used to emphasize the armored look and to provide support for the glass forms. She completed her M.F.A. requirements, her final show a collection of clay, glass, and metal works, and returned to Mobile to teach.
Bertice has continued making the torsos. Most depict women and her pieces range in age from the young and nubile to the elderly. One particularly beautiful piece depicts a very pregnant woman with her hands resting on her stomach.
The torsos portray issues and ideas very personal to Bertice. "Stolen Heart" is a female torso covered in small spikes; though one wants to touch the beautiful woman, her armor protects her. However, the woman's heart has been stolen as shown by the mirror embedded in the left breast. The stolen heart image is reinforced on the woman's back by a bird, with a red, heart-shaped head, which is flying away. Another piece, "Leaf Masker," has a face, masked by a leaf, peering from a mountain of umbrella leaves, demonstrating her love of nature and local flora. Though many of Bertice's early torso pieces wore armor, with the passage of time, she has returned primarily to the unadorned human form.
Bertice moved her home two years ago and has not yet installed the equipment she needs to work with glass or electroplating. She has, however, set up her five ceramic kilns at her home where she has her students come for pottery firings. Those kilns vary in size from the jewelry kiln which is about six inches deep, wide, and high to the thirteen-cubic-feet kiln. Without her glass and electroplating equipment, McPherson has focused her work on clay, her first love.
Bertice is part of a group called The Dirty Girls, comprised of eight women, including five of Bertice's former students, who are "all clay appreciaters." Clay work is usually solitary work and the individuals joined together to educate the public about ceramics and to have a good time. They organized last May and had their first show, which will become an annual event, at the Mobile Botanical Gardens last August. In December, they had a one-day show at the Eastern Shore Art Center. The group is now planning a two-week show, beginning on February 8 at Gallery 54, called "Dirty Girls in Love" where each artist will show five or six pieces depicting love. Bertice's personal work can be regularly viewed at Gallery 54, here in Mobile, and The Dog and Pony Gallery in Birmingham.
McPherson loves Mobile and would not willingly live anywhere else. While she would like to show more of her art outside of Mobile, she is saddened by the many artists who have left their hometown because they felt that they had to to be successful. Though she is not wealthy, she pays her bills and would not exchange her life for any other.
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A personal note: Several years ago, I had the opportunity to take pottery classes with Bertice for about a year. She offered as much instruction as I wanted (which was not much) and allowed me to play with the clay in ways that interested me. My experiments, both failed and successful, taught me the properties of clay. Bertice's ability to teach, while nurturing my inquisitiveness, made the experience most pleasant.
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