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Alice in Wonderland

Since 2007, local sculptor Alice Corning has created the awards that have been doled out to honorees at the Mill Valley Film Festival. We sat down with her to talk about her work and her love for her hometown.

From and to and , each of the filmmakers and actors receiving Spotlights and Tributes during the since 2007 end up toting some pretty heavy hardware.

That human-shaped hardware, the MVFF Award, is the creation of 68-year-old Mill Valley sculptor Alice Corning. Corning lives and works in her Mill Valley home and studio, loving her panoramic view overlooking the green valley below. A Cincinnati native who learned to sculpt in the bustling streets of Manhattan in her 20s, Corning now enjoys a more peaceful life. We caught up with Corning in her home studio and spoke about her life as an artist and her love for Mill Valley.

Mill Valley Patch: What brought you to Mill Valley from Cincinnati, Ohio?
Alice Corning: From Cincinnati, I went to college in the Boston area. I married, started to have children, moved to New York City. In the 1970s, NYC wasn’t a wonderful place to raise children. So we thought about places to go, and I had family members who had moved to California, and it seemed like a nice place to raise a family. There also was a strong ceramic tradition in California. We stopped in Mill Valley because the people have a real sense of community, it had people from all areas of life, all economic areas, so I liked what Mill Valley had to offer us. Having lived in Manhattan for seven years, we decided that we didn’t want an urban setting. We wanted to be close to that, but also the proximity to the mountains, to the sea, the redwoods. It all was pretty wonderful.

MVP: On your website, it says that you received a degree in English Lit and started off as a poet before using your hands to sculpt. Why did you make this transition to working with clay?
AC: The tactile sense of clay, and I love working with form. Words were becoming too abstract for me. I still do a little poetry writing, but I really like working with my hands.     

MVP: What first exposed you to sculpting?
AC: It was actually in New York City. I met a woman at the Episcopal Seminary down the street from my house where I took my children to a playground. She was taking a class in SoHo and she showed me these little bowls she made, and I thought that was so wonderful to be able to make something like that. From there, I found a studio in SoHo and went to classes there. I was about 27 years old when I started.

MVP: As a former poet, how do words interact with our artwork now? And do you name your pieces?
AC: Once in a while I will name my pieces. Another way that words enter into my clay world [is] at the start of the millennium, I started to do a series of what I call my ceramic pages – very thin pieces of porcelain that I write on. That is the closest I have come with integrating words with my clay. I have different styles that I name as a group, but I make a lot of work, and to name each one would seem a little precious. When I enter shows, I do have to name a piece - they like titles. For instance, I had two pieces in a show last winter at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz. One was a large porcelain, low cylinder that had some calligraphic squiggles on it, and it was glazed with a celadon glaze that had pooled on the inside. I thought that the calligraphy looked like waves, and the pooled glaze looked like water, so I called it Calm Sea. So once in a while I will name a piece - when they twist my arm [laughter].

MVP: When looking at your different pieces of work, it seems like you sculpt a wide variety of things: curvy lines, people's torsos, functional items and the more stark triangular pieces. It almost seems like these things come from different artists.
AC: People say that about my work. People come to my studio and say, 'It looks as though there are 10 different artists working here.' I just have fun with the variety. I’ll get an idea that I want to explore, and I’ll go with it for a while. So, over a period of 40 years, there is quite a lot of variety.  Usually, there is a theme that I am working on. I dream about pots, and that is what I work on.

MVP: What are you working on currently?
AC: I have a series of vases that I began maybe 10 or 12 years ago. They are very thinly rolled out sheets of porcelain, which are then rolled and stand up. From there, I follow the lines, which lead me to add on some ribs or some buttons. A friend of mine who is a jazz musician said of them: “It’s as though they are the vase and the flower all in one piece.”

MVP: How does the Mill Valley weather affect your work?
AC: A lot of my work is seasonal. It’s weather based. For instance, the porcelain vases are pieces that you want to work on when it is a bit warmer, because if you work on them when it is a stormy day they tend to sag. I work in stoneware in the rainy season because it has more grit and it will hold up better.

MVP: What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?
AC: The best thing is when your hands are in the clay. There are so many endless variations in my work. Just altering the form while the wheel is spinning. That’s very thrilling, that’s my favorite part.

MVP: Tell us something about you that might surprise people.
AC: One is that I like baseball. I like the Giants. I like football too. That surprises people.  

MVP: If you could sculpt one subject for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
AC: The human figure. That has been for me for many years. A pot is like a figure; we talk about the belly of the pot, or the shoulder of a pot, or the lip of a pot. But figures that I make are the most interesting things for me to work on. One of the exciting things that has happened in my career is that [Mill Valley Film Festival Executive Director] Mark Fishkin selected one of my figures to be the prize in perpetuity for the actors and directors for the festival.

MVP: If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask yourself, and how would you answer it?
AC: Why Clay? I am on the board of the Leakey Foundation and the human element of clay has fascinated me from the anthropological point of view as well as the artistic point of view. The whole history of people working with clay is very magical. And clay is involved in things that we don’t even realize.

MVP: What is your favorite thing about Mill Valley?
AC: I get to look at the mountain everyday [her view is spectacular, folks]. I enjoy hiking on the mountain. The people are great, there is a relaxed attitude and friendliness. It has some of the feeling of an old town. I love that we have a , the , we have a  and we have great markets.

MVP: If there was one thing that you could change about Mill Valley, what would it be?
AC: It has gotten too congested. I regret the degree to which the city has allowed itself to develop population-wise, and more and more condos being densely packed in.

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