Scraps of wood. Blocks of marble. A teacup. A twig.
For Arroyo Grande artist Trent Burkett, these elements are more than raw materials waiting to be molded into artworks. They’re objects with inherent beauty and innate narratives.
“There’s a story behind every material for me, which is really exciting,” he said, comparing his studio with a library stocked with books. “That’s how I get the most excited, when I come across materials that have potential. I start thinking, ‘I can do this. I can do that.’”
Burkett explores his process-oriented approach to art in his solo exhibition “Etcetera,” which opened Aug. 5 and runs through Oct. 2 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. The show features a mix of drawings and sculptures, from bell-like ceramic domes to artfully arranged towers of wood and stone.
Born in San Bernardino, Burkett holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from CSU Sacramento, plus a master of fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota.
He spent 14 years teaching sculpture and ceramics at the University of the Pacific in Stockton before stepping down as professor and department chair in 2014 to focus full-time on his career.
His next step was opening City Art Plant Studio in Arroyo Grande, where he now offers private instruction and workshops via the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. (The next workshop, “Fired Up: Handbuilding Ceramics,” will be held Oct. 21 through 23 at City Art Plant Studio.)
“We wanted to raise our kids in a healthy, more beautiful environment,” the father of two said, and the Central Coast fit the bill.
Burkett previously exhibited his ceramics work at the museum in 2014 as part of the Central Coast Craftmakers group show “Dimensions: An Exhibition of Fine Craft from California.” Juror Carol Sauvion, owner of Freehand Gallery in Los Angeles and creator of the Peabody Award-winning television series “Craft in America,” awarded him third prize.
With “Etcetera,” “I wanted to show my breadth,” Burkett explained. “Whether it’s a full-blown ceramic sculpture work, a larger-scale wood, steel or marble (piece) or large drawings on paper, there’s a lot going on.”
The show’s title, he said, “refers to these typical starting points I have in my work.”
For Burkett, that means mostly natural materials such as a chunk of stone hewn from the Yule Marble Quarry in Colorado or a mesquite stump collected at an oasis in the desert east of Palm Springs.
“It felt like a real interesting place to go as an artist, a place that could be tapped in some way and somehow be brought into the work,” he said of that oasis, an austere, silent place of native palms and petroglyphs.
“I draw a lot of inspiration from being outside in the wilderness,” Burkett explained. “It’s all forces of play. You look at a still mountain, but that mountain has a huge amount of power producing it.
“My religion is the power of nature, basically.”
Burkett’s challenge is figuring out how to channel that power into his art.
“I don’t want people to sit down and show people my scrapbook of the trip. They weren’t there,” he said. So, he continued, “How do you get that energy in your work? It’s always sort of stumped me.”
When asked to pick one piece that sums up “Etcetera,” Burkett selected an ordinary wire clothes hanger that he found discarded in the oasis.
“We all use hangers and need them, but we don’t aestheticize (them) or think of them as anything other than a disposable, functional object, like a Styrofoam cup,” Burkett said, despite the inherent beauty of the form.
Mimicking the process of glazing pottery, Burkett methodically dipped the hanger in white paint every day — from February through the beginning of August — until it started taking on a new identity.
“It’s literally like there are stalactites coming off this thing,” he said, referring to thick, drippy deposits that resemble oozing icing on a gingerbread house. “You still recognize it as a hanger, but at the same time it’s completely metamorphized into this other thing. … It’s like nature is reclaiming it.”
For Burkett, the transformed hanger serves as a reminder of humans’ fleeting impact on their environment. “Anything that man does, just give it a million years and nature will essentially take it back anyway,” he said.
Burkett said he’s presenting the piece “in hopes that the viewer can enter into that and pick up this energy, without me providing this whole story or narrative.”
“I’m happy to talk about it and share the stories,” he said, but he wants art lovers to bring their own meaning to the works as well.