A San Antonio artist will soon complete the biggest work she's ever undertaken. But the themes of life and nature Diana Kersey explores are bigger than any one project. Kersey started out life in Lubbock, and she said an earthy experience there early on stayed with her.
"I think that for my first experience with clay was, I was probably about in second grade, and my parents allowed me to try to dig a swimming pool in the backyard,” she said. “In Lubbock about 12 inches of topsoil exists. And then you hit Red Clay, and I totally remember just being fascinated with that material on how plastic it was, and I started making little pots out of it. And ever since then, I've had a love affair with that material."
As is often the case for talented people in small cities, Lubbock didn't have a strong hold on her. Nonetheless, that tie was hard to break.
"I was determined to leave Lubbock but circumstances made it where I needed to stay home. And I was lucky enough to have a basketball scholarship," she said.
She played basketball for Texas Tech, and during one of her four years with the team, they won the NCAA National Championship. But college also revealed to her in a new way the world of art.
"The art department at Texas Tech embraced me. I wouldn't say any of them identified me as being an amazing artist and that I would go far, but they loved me as a human being,” she said. “And I think that's what has allowed me to be a good artist."
Kersey didn't really treat college as a career track. She just loved learning. And especially, learning art.
"I got my bachelor's of fine arts, and then I decided to get a master's in fine arts and ceramics, but all those times I was just thinking that I just wanted to develop my mind in an artistic, creative way," she said.
But then a visit to the Mexican pottery town of Mata Ortiz to see how they mastered pottery there crystallized something to her.
"That's where I really had this kind of amazing moment where I finally understood the only way to really get good at something is to place limits on what you're going to use," she said.
The idea was that limiting the variety of materials you use and techniques you employ actually expands what you can do with those materials.
"There's research done on creativity and creativity only thrives when there's limits, which you would think would be the opposite," Kersey said.
This counter-intuitive premise has her limiting the elements and processes she uses, and she thinks that’s the secret to her success.
"Now I'm moving into nearly 20 years working in this way. And I feel like I've mastered my process and my materials because of it," she said.
In nine of those 20 years Kersey has done quite a bit of public art.
The City of San Antonio’s Debbie Racca-Sittre said Kersey’s first public art was on the Mulberry Street Bridge that leads into Brackenridge Park from Broadway Street.
"Diana was selected as the public artist to do a series of tiles along the bridge for that improvement project," said Racca-Sittre.
The 24-panel installation shows a beautiful stylized toad inset into patterns of clay. Kersey remembers the various iterations of the roughly 2 feet by 5 feet panels.
"Other panels in that show the life cycle that toad goes through from a tadpole egg, up through a tadpole and into a froglet and then totally into a toad," she said.
The idea is to depict artistically the life of a creature you could find under that very bridge. Racca-Sittre says the success of the installation is measured by what the city did the year after it was unveiled.
"We ended up using her Life Cycle of the Gulf Coast Toad on our Fiesta medal that following year for the city-wide Fiesta medal," she said.
Racca-Sittre says the process for creating this kind of popular public art is long and detailed, involving research into history, science, and then getting public input. And that public input is very important.
"We want to make sure that the community feels like they own it,” Racca-Sittre said. “And when the community owns a piece of public art, they take care of it. They respect it and they love it."
While Kersey also creates pots and other vessels, she’s specialized in what's called architectural ceramics.
"Architectural ceramics is really just basically any type of artwork that is ceramic that installs in the home or a business like fireplace rounds, light fixtures, backsplashes," she said.
These aren't the dainty little teacups you may think of when you think of ceramics. Its elements are robust and muscular.
"I use brick clays and fire clays and really, always very coarse materials. Nothing's refined. Nothing's going to fire a pure white. Everything is going to be very earthy, and… proletariat," she laughed.
Kersey and her team's current job at the new Oxbow building, a block east of The Pearl, is her largest installation yet.
"I was commissioned to make two large murals. One's 150 square feet, and the other one that's going up right now is a little over 500 square feet," she said.
Both murals' concept is to depict the Riparian Zone, where water gives way to land, and how life flourishes in that space.
"We researched all the plants and animals of the San Antonio River Basin. And so we have herons, and one of our central flower motifs is the yellow water lily flower,” Kersey said. “We have catfish. We have hawks — all kinds of things of the water, things of the land, things of the air. "
Their method for creating these murals is pretty amazing: They built a wall at her studio with a 15 degree slant, create the entire ceramic mural on it, and then cut it apart into puzzle pieces.
"And now they're being treated like individual tiles, and so will apply our colors and our glazes, and we'll fire them,” she said. “And then they get reassembled using thin set mortar back on to the building."
Those individual pieces come together in almost the same visual way that parts of a stained glass window make up the larger window. She expects it to be finished this week.
But Kersey doesn't just create art. She also teaches ceramics at Northwest Vista College. In the last few years she's relished teaching art appreciation, and given that it’s a course students have to take, it’s sometimes to students who don't care one bit about art. She loves that challenge and does everything she can to reach them.
"What's the point of going to college and getting an education? If it's really the point is to work in a cubicle your whole life and pay a mortgage?” she asked. “There's just more to life than that. And art gives you that."
Clearly, Diana Kersey treats life itself as a work of art.
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