Artist Hugh Hayden makes football-inspired sculptures at Anderson Ranch
As the bizarre pandemic-contorted college and professional football seasons of 2020 stumbled toward conclusion, the artist Hugh Hayden was holed up at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village exploring the game’s meaning in America.
Hayden is best-known as a woodworker, working with familiar domestic objects like the white picket fence, the picnic table, the kitchen table and finding new meaning in them by adding touches like horns, spikes or weed-like wooden tendrils. He came to the Ranch for a residency this winter to explore a new medium, clay, using the famed campus kilns and studios to begin a football-inspired project he’d been mulling for years.
“The body of work I’m developing here grew out of wanting to continue to explore this masculine fragility,” he explained in the studio, surrounded by his works in progress and buckets of clay mixes. “Especially how it is involved with athletics and football.”
Raised in Texas, Hayden has football in his blood. He’d touched on its meanings in previous work, including a metal football face shield sprouting horns and a wooden helmet with spikes inside, beginning to explore the possibilities in the sport’s equipment and its deeper meanings for the American man.
The idea led Hayden to the Ranch to make large vessels, reminiscent of Greco-Roman vases, with football iconography molded in relief on their sides — much like gladiatorial scenes might be in Roman antiquities — and topped with lids shaped like helmets.
To prepare he studied the traditions of Jasperware and Josiah Wedgwood’s influential 18th century stoneware — a book about which sat near Hayden’s molding table in Snowmass for reference.
He had been toying with the project, thinking about whether and how he could work in clay, when the invitation came for an Anderson Ranch residency. He knew of the Ranch’s vaunted history in ceramics and jumped at the opportunity as a way to dive into this world of ceramics and jump-start the football project.
“Coming here is a great opportunity for this crash course into ceramics and in terms of exploring something outside of my traditional realm,” he explained.
On the Ranch from the days after Thanksgiving through Christmas, Hayden crafted his massive vessels and perfected his relief scenes, in his words “remixing the contemporary and the historical; it’s a way of collapsing the contemporary and ancient mythologies.”
The project will include two opposing sides of vessels, Cowboys on offense in blue and silver, the 49ers on defense in red, gold and white, the teams with four “players” apiece.
To mimic the Cowboys’ iconic blue and silver helmet, Hayden tried many different clay mixes to find the right color and consistency, eventually settling on a cobalt carbonate mix.
The vessels vary in size and shape, depending on the players they depict — the center is short and squat, for instance, and the quarterback will be taller and leaner.
“Each one is sort of a representation of a player and kind of anthropomorphic,” Hayden said.
Originally from Dallas, Hayden grew up in the milieu of Friday night lights and Longhorns football and Big D, watching the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and succumbing to the pressure to play the game himself as an adolescent.
His working title for the ceramic football series is “Hughie,” based on his childhood nickname, thinking about his playing days and how he butted up against the expectations of him to be an athlete because he was a tall Black kid in Texas.
“The heart of this project is this notion of expectations, of what someone’s identity should be,” he said.
Working on campus with the help of Ranch ceramicists and in the company of Mars, his wire-haired Ibizan Hound, Hayden planned the residency around a cross-country pandemic road trip from New York to Los Angeles, the beginning of a self-imposed nomadic period after he let his New York apartment lease lapse.
His time on the idyllic and rustic Ranch campus included mostly focused studio work, interspersed with snowy walks with Mars and a few takeout meals from Aspen, but without touristy distractions (and without time, he noted with regret, for a ski lesson).
“It’s definitely felt like I’m in this intensive three-week master class, this deep dive into realizing this project,” Hayden said.
He plans to debut the work in a 2021 exhibition at Lisson Gallery in New York, and is expected to return to the Ranch in the summer high season to teach a non-traditional woodworking seminar, which he hopes will include student foraging trips into the forest to find raw wood and fallen timber.
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The Youth Art Expo will run Feb. 27 through March 14 at the Aspen Art Museum, showcasing work by young artists from Aspen to Rifle.