Like the ruins of ancient civilizations, the sculptures of Ron Fondaw tell stories partially erased by time. Made of adobe, sticks, and pigmented plaster found at or near the site of construction, Fondaw's large-scale architectural forms coninually give way to cycles of creation and disintegration.

They rise from the ground in shapes that suggest primitive dwelling places, archways, and corridors. On chosen walls of these demestic forms, colorful drawings are worked into the surface — giving precedence to gesture and to that which is most temporal. Left to the natural elements, the sun-baked walls of these giant structures crack, insects and small mammals burrow inside making nests, trees take root, the entwined stick armatures shiver off coats of mud and colored plaster. Eventually, dust returns to dust.

Fondaw, a professor of art at Washington University in St. Louis, began creating his extensive series of adobe structures in the early 1980s. They are only one facet of his body of work, which includes sculpture, ceramics, drawing, painting, and commissioned public art projects. In the adobe structures, Fondaw combines elements of these various disciplines in an effort to "find my limits as an artist," he says.

The notion that life is impermanent and constantly in flux inspires both the physical and conceptual properties of Fondaw's adobe work. On a formal level, he is fascinated by the patina of age that natural elements lend to the adobe surface. He sees the aging process as both beautiful and largely unappreciated in a culture that "deplores anything old, disheveled, or peeling." By creating architectural forms that decay back into the ground, Fondaw attempts to dissolve the perceived difference between built and natural environments. As the sculptures weather and change, nature re-creates the original structure, and the question becomes, "Where does art end and nature begin?"

The Giving Tree (1998), a temporary work inspired by Shel Silverstein's children story and created on the grounds of the St. Louis Art Museum, tries "to awaken people to the symbiotic relationship between nature andman as opposed to the biblical interpretation in which man is dominant over nature." A Bradford pear tree serves as a support for the adobe structure. The tree walls of the structure reflect the three main branches of the lower part of the tree. Walking around this piece, one's sense of interior and exterior becomes blurred. On one side, the walls form two chambers, where bare and colored areas of adobe are enlivened with twigs and branches that seem to grow out of them. The chambers give a sense of enclosure, yet their rough organic texture is more closely associated with the outside. The other side of the structure expands into a flat vertical wall vividly pigmented and illustrated with both abstract and readable images carved into layers of colored plaster. It is reminiscent of the elaborately decorated walls of churches or temples, except that the paintings are on the exterior. The pear tree becomes part of the wall, the images reflecting and transposing it.

Like all of the adobe works, The Giving Tree is intended to break down over time. Fondaw's fascination with ephemeral materials began with his graduate studies of African architecture. Many of his pieces are constructed using labor-intensive techniques such as rammed earth or adobe cast methods of construction, which have been used by many cultures around the world, From South America to Denmark.

In Tapiola (1994), constructed at Watershed Center for ceramic Arts in Edgecomb, Maine, Fondaw found that after three years the weathering process had caused a halo of earth to form on the ground around the piece, in effect, redefining its original structure. The revelation of Tapiola's new form gave rise to Whispering Walls (1998), in which symbolic objects emerge over a period of years from beneath coats of mud.

With its fragmented archway and huge rounded form made of straw and mud, Whispering Walls has an affinity with an ancient dwelling place. Constructed next to a lake about 50 yards off a wooded path in Cedarhurst Sculpture Park in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, the form is a trigger for the imagination. Through the arch way, one finds a frescoed wall where layers of pigmented plater — cobalts, bright whites, brilliant reds, and yellows — reveal geometric patterns. The wall leaves the viewer in an ambiguous place that could be interpreted as exterior or as a fragment remaining from an interior. the back of the structure forms a dome, and a shape that could be interpreted as a bizarre chimney extends from the dome and funnels around a living tree. (As in all of Fondaw's works that involve living trees, an air space is left between the bark and the adobe so the tree is not damaged.) The dome, which does not have a port of entry, functions surreally, as if it is a dream or a memory of a dwelling. As the piece decays, the viewer will begin to see an oak desk and a chair emerge inside the dome.

Fondaw works intuitively, responding to materials at hand and inviting a loss of control over them. Making art is a meditative process in which he attempts to loosen the demands of his ego. "Everything that happens to my work, I like to think, comes of what the work needs as opposed to what I need as an intellectual acting on it," he says.

Ironically, Fondaw describes finishing a piece as "setting something in motion." "People ask me, 'Well, you make this now and then it changes and it'll still up — you're not in control of the form it takes, so is it still art?'" he says "I guess my answer to that is I'm looking to learn something from what it does. I start these things in motion and then hope they will show me something new. It's a myth that we have absolute control."

The circular shape, found in almost all of Fondaw's work, is a fitting expression of the dialectic continually at play in his adobe structures. Notions often viewed as contradictory in Western civilization — beauty and decay, human activity and the activity of nature, interior and exterior, art and architecture, creation and destruction — are integrated and fused until one becomes the other. As the work decays, it reveals its past and its future.

Julie Stevenson
Sculture magazine
September 2000