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IWU Creator's 'Red Thread' Ties Art To Life

In Grace Sheese’s artwork, rabbits, squirrels and other animals frolic around ceramic cups. Yet under the whimsy, the artist has a powerful message about connection to share.

The new show from Grace Sheese is called “Red Thread” and is currently up at the Wakely Gallery at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The ceramic cups are perched on small shelves jutting out from the gallery wall, and each is connected to a strand of red thread that runs from cup to cup, occasionally knotting, but always connecting.

"There's this idea, it's a Chinese idea, that everyone we meet we're connected to by a symbolic red thread."

After falling in love with ceramics in college, Sheese pursued a career in teaching. She currently teaches ceramics at IWU and also teaches at Bloom Community School. But in her mid-30s Sheese began to feel the pull of the artist’s studio. Teaching was no longer enough for her. So she flipped roles, becoming a student in pursuit of a master's degree and a dream of being an artist.

“It was my dream to become a full-time potter,” Sheese said. “I hoped to rekindle that love for clay.” 

At the end of her first year back at school, Sheese gave birth to her son, Grayson, who in addition to being the apple of his mother’s eye, became a great source of inspiration for Sheese’s artwork.

“One day I was looking at his drawings and they were just wonderful. The stories that he was telling with them were in line with the stories that I think about and try to tell in my work. I think a lot about motherhood when I create my work. It’s both a struggle and a rewarding experience to be a mom. I’m trying to figure out how to be a mom, a full-time teacher and a working artist. So, while I’m working I think a lot about those things and the experiences I have with Grayson, and how this little guy is reflecting me. He inspires my work on lots of levels.” 

Sheese also calls on the other relationships in her life to create her fanciful-looking cups. The rabbits, bears and squirrels on her cups represent family and friends. Eschewing human figures—“I’m not good a drawing people,” she admits with a laugh—Sheese uses animals to create a unique narrative on each vessel.

“I chose animals very specifically because in stories that have a moral, like fairytales, there’s a lesson to be learned or a deep idea behind the story. And I think sometimes it’s easier for us to think about those ideas if it’s not so closely related to who we are. There are human traits behind these animals.”

The series of cups on display are connected by strands of red thread. Sheese points to an album by singer Lucy Kaplansky called “The Red Thread” for her inspiration.

“There’s this idea, it’s a Chinese idea, that everyone we meet we’re connected to by a symbolic red thread. A lot of people who adopt children from Asia consider their families connected by this symbolic red thread. And I think it’s a really beautiful idea. It’s been sitting in the back of my head for a long time. So, this show is really inspired by that idea and how my life is connected with these people by these threads.”

“All the people represented here are connected through me. I tried to show the different types of relationships with different types of thread. Some of the threads are thinner, some have knots because I feel our relationship is really entangled.”

Sheese insists that these works needn’t just sit on a shelf as part of a display. Got a hankering for a cup of coffee? Go ahead and grab one of Sheese’s cups. She wants her work to live right alongside the people who purchase it.

“The pieces I make are all functional. I do love this idea that people are using my work on a day-today basis. People are drawn by the whimsy of the pieces. I have an eclectic personality and a good sense of humor, so I’m drawn to the whimsical things. I think my work reflects that.”

Hear how an old friend of Grace Sheese inspired one of the pieces in "Red Thread" in this bonus audio segment.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.