On trips to galleries, as she transitioned her practice from painting to mixed-media sculpture, Seattle artist Emily Counts would occasionally notice fellow visitors sneaking touches of 3D works on display. Those pieces had glossy, alluring finishes, similar to ceramics. “I thought, ‘You wouldn’t touch a painting,’” she recalls, “but when something is glossy and curving, it is enticing.”
Eventually, that lure of form and texture would also prove irresistible to Counts, whose experimentation with painting on 3D objects led to her current work with ceramics that engage the senses with their surprising juxtapositions of color, texture, light and material. Her pre-pandemic sculptures often featured buttons that viewers could press to activate lights or sounds; now, she’s experimenting with motion sensors. “Ceramics are some of the most commonly used objects, so I thought it would be interesting to create ceramic sculptures that are meant to be touched in some way,” she says.
Many of Counts’ forms and motifs are inspired by details found in nature, while others, like the hand and eye, are remnants of her early work in self-portraiture. But it’s the powerful visuals of her childhood, from playground structures to her grandmother’s patterned curtains, that often elicit the most visceral responses. “Incorporating them is a way of reexamining and reinterpreting those memories to give them new meaning,” she explains, “and yet they’re charged with that same energy.”
To create her sculptures—which encompass assemblages, vessels, functional light fixtures and wall-mounted pieces, and often incorporate accents of wood, metal and stained glass—Counts begins with the translation of conceptual drawings to objects. Then comes the more challenging work of coaxing the “slightly off” color combinations she loves—vermilion with mauve, ocher with peach—from a limited palette of available glazes and of developing precise, painterly application techniques that achieve a variety of surfaces. “I love the contrast between glossy and matte, or things that are shiny and metallic and glowing in proximity with things that are opaque or solid or thick,” she says. “The different textures and colors and shapes are reminiscent of certain everyday objects”—and communicating those memories to viewers “is kind of like sharing a dream.”