Hands of Clay

Buon­aiuto finds art in laughs, hugs, dan­cing

Fran Alex­an­der is a Fayetteville resident with a longstanding interest in the envir­on­ment and an opinion on almost anything else. Email her at fran@deane-alex­an­der.com.

“Flight” by Shel­ley Buon­aiuto.

Shel­ley Buon­aiuto’s hands are drawn to clay as if a mag­netic force is demand­ing she touch and form earth into moods and beauty and anxi­ety and ten­sion. Her fig­ures are of real people, or of people in her mind, who come out of her hands to be born. Most look happy to be here.

She says that from the early days of present­ing her art­work, people liked and bought sculp­ted hap­pi­ness more often than forms of more pens­ive, ser­i­ous human moments. But what stays with me are her pieces that stretch their mean­ings across mul­tiple pos­sib­il­it­ies. Reac­tion to fine art, like fine lit­er­at­ure, is always per­sonal, so what I say here is my own response to her work. Her cre­ations can be seen at https://alittle­com­pany.net.

Two pieces, “Flight” and “Mar­riage,” are sep­ar­ate examples of uni­ver­sal and time­less human exper­i­ences.

“Flight” evokes today’s world of des­per­ate dis­placed human­ity, not know­ing which way to turn, only to run — run for life. It also brings to mind yes­ter­day: Human sur­vival through war, fam­ine, gen­o­cide, storms, fires, bul­lets, hate, rape and enslave­ment is a his­tory of run­ning from dying.

In this par­tic­u­lar work, bind­ings sym­bolic of fab­ric hold­ing a fam­ily together seem to also be entangling them in con­fu­sion and restraint. Or, the ties that bind the three fig­ures might be telling a dif­fer­ent story, one of a rela­tion­ship torn apart, one from the other, to save their child or them­selves.

“Mar­riage” was a private com­mis­sion from a couple who wanted a sculp­ture express­ing the cre­ation, I assume, of each part­ner’s influ­ence upon the other. The three dimen­sions inher­ent in sculp­ture make it pos­sible for the viewer to see the levels of the fig­ures from all dir­ec­tions, pos­sibly even sens­ing in them an emo­tional fourth dimen­sion. Cer­tainly there are many sides to mar­riage that are chiseled over time to cre­ate one main rela­tion­ship out of the many diver­gent pos­sib­il­it­ies two people bring to an effort of mutual tol­er­ance and/or love.

If a pic­ture is worth a thou­sands words, a sculp­ture’s dimen­sions bring three times the exper­i­ence to those of us who favor shapes and struc­tures over other art forms. Great skill must be employed to bring clay, resin, bronze or stone to life, and the fin­ished work has to say what it’s meant to say at a viewer’s first glance in order to set its hook.

Many of this sculptor’s char­ac­ters bend over laugh­ing, stretch­ing, talk­ing, listen­ing, dan­cing and hug­ging, and it’s easy to recog­nize them. They emerge from some­where in our own lives as neigh­bors, lov­ers, par­ents. grand­par­ents, chil­dren or friends. They are skinny, bald, pretty, flabby, eleg­ant and hand­some, truly every man and every woman.

Shel­ley is attuned to rela­tion­ships in everything, which is prob­ably why we met some 16 years ago. Attend­ing envir­on­mental meet­ings about what a green eco­nomy could be, and later join­ing oth­ers in the car­bon reduc­tion efforts of the Cit­izens Cli­mate Lobby, we real­ized we shared com­mon interests. It took me sev­eral years, however, to learn about her art, since she’s not one to toot her own horn. When I saw what she con­tin­ues to accom­plish, I was awe­struck, and it is extra neat when such tal­ent is found here in North­w­est Arkan­sas.

Sculpt­ing women of peace versus men of war (the sub­jects of much bronze statu­ary) drives her to emphas­ize the fem­in­ine attrib­utes of love, emo­tion, con­nec­tions and moth­er­hood, and how they all are related socially, spir­itu­ally, and phys­ic­ally.

It is amaz­ing that she didn’t take a course in sculp­ture for 30 years, instead fig­ur­ing out the craft by learn­ing as she went. One hard les­son recently occurred when clay and weather seemed to con­spire to col­lapse a com­bined piece of two women, leav­ing behind only their heads. She took in stride what I would have given up on, say­ing, almost with a shrug, that she’d change it, make it again and make it bet­ter. That for­ward effort defines her char­ac­ter because she has long been act­ive in social, eco­nomic and envir­on­mental issues, all which require pick­ing your­self back up and going on.

So almost imme­di­ately, Shel­ley set about res­culpt­ing what was broken. With clay in her hands, she knows she can see res­ults far easier and sooner than try­ing to repair the world’s woes. With her art she shows us how we affect each other, and she cre­ates it with the most basic resource we have, the earth itself.