A strange looking body moves along the ocean floor, propelled by eight flowing arms, gracefully reaching and grabbing. This is an image that fascinates William James.
"Squids and Octopi are amazing creatures. They're so intelligent, their body structure is so foreign. They have these layers of skins with the chromatophores, the leucophores, and the iridophores," says James. These masters of disguise blend into their surroundings by controlling the size, color, and intensity of these different types of pigment cells. "And then I found out that their arms contain about a third of their neurons, and they are so expressive. That's the part I like in the sculptural pottery, the expression in the tentacles themselves."
He captures that expressivity by combining functional pottery with nature—creating a vase that's a squid. The tentacles, as if in motion, are captured in clay as they cascade down towards the vases' base.
It's clear that James' art is inspired by science, and that hints at his background. Rather than being an artist his entire life like many people that choose it as a profession, he says he stopped doing art after grade school. Instead, his chosen field was engineering. "My degrees are in physics and material science and engineering. I worked for a company designing test equipment for rocket motors and building weird electronic testing equipment for radiation environments," says James.
He retired from that field when he and his wife moved to Utah from California twenty-one years ago. His interest in art was ignited about seven years ago.
"I was volunteering at my son's grade school," says James. He would teach the class about a certain artists and then direct them through a project. "I just kept coming across some of the same ideas in art that I had come across in engineering and science. You experiment, you try something, and see if it works," he adds. "There seemed not to be as big of a separation between science and art as I had always thought there was."
With a newfound interest in art, he took a ceramics class as a 20th Anniversary present from his wife and never looked back. His first professional series, inspired by fossil hunting trips, launched a recurring aquatic theme in his works. Vases and platters were encrusted with ancient creatures. "I did a set of fossils in Utah, mostly trilobites and ammonites, and those relate to when Utah was an aquatic environment."
While primarily driven by an intense interest in his subjects, James' unique ceramic art has found success in recent shows. One of his squid jars won a Best in Show award for ceramics at last year's Utah State Fair and an octopus jar took first place in its category.
Now, James is incorporating other interests into his artwork. In his studio, the standard pottery wheel and kiln sits next to a 3D printer, a Computer Numerical Control machine, and a welder.
"I've been working on touch sensors and proximity sensors and various ultrasonic distance sensing, light sensing. Those haven't made it into anything yet," he says.
But they will. James says in his first project he will use sensors in a Jellyfish lamp that will change LED light colors in a specific pattern. No doubt after that he will keep pushing his art in new directions, fusing his love of science with ceramics.
James and fifteen other clay artists in Utah are displaying their work in a show called Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature, at the Art Access Gallery. The show is curated by Heidi Moller Somsen and runs from March 15 – April 12.
Other artwork at Biomimicry: Innovations Inspired by Nature