Artist Uses Work to Bring Joy

Published: November 28, 2008


Dragons are a regular fixture in the art of Kevin Irwin, whose work is on display at the Wiregrass Museum of Art until Jan. 1.

Kevin Irwin is fascinated by dragons. Actually, she loves them.
The mythical creatures appear in almost every culture. In some cultures, these fire-breathing animals are bad and are routinely destroyed by those who are good. In others, the dragon is a protector and a symbol of good fortune.
In Irwin’s world, they curl up in bed and snuggle. Or lounge on the couch and read. They use their fiery breath to make glass beads. They’re mischievous — ripping up museum fliers when nobody’s looking and everybody’s staring.
“The dragons kind of embody my philosophy of life,” Irwin said. “ ... I look at life very positively, so I kind of created my own dragon.”
And what fun Irwin’s dragons have in still life.
These ceramic, glass and wire sculptures can be seen at the Wiregrass Museum of Art as part of Irwin’s exhibit created specifically for the museum and appropriately named “An Incident at the Wiregrass Museum of Art.” Irwin’s work will be on display until Jan. 1.
But the dragons are just part of the exhibit. The real inspiration for Irwin’s Dothan exhibit were squirrels in her Birmingham backyard. Squirrels that terrorize her dog. Squirrels her dog loves to chase. Squirrels that chew their way into her home. It’s a whimsical world of animals and havoc.
The premise is what would happen if squirrels got into the museum after hours. Well, in Irwin’s interpretation, they’d climb up an antique chandelier, get into display cases and tear open an unattended cookie box.
Her squirrels are joined by the dragons and cats. Irwin and her husband rescue cats, so it’s not unusual for a cat to be in her art studio. A piece called “The Cat Salon” started with Irwin making one big ceramic cat in a bathing pose. Then she made another. And another.
“When I saw them lined up, I loved it,” Irwin said. “It looks like a salon. It was happening, and I followed it. It was very spontaneous.”
Irwin moved to Birmingham from California in 1970. She’s been a full-time studio artist ever since — working six days a week, eight hours a day. She’s self-taught on clay and painting. She began making glass pieces 15 years ago after studying an Italian method and attending classes.
For Irwin, her creatures come alive when she’s molding them. All her animal creations have the same eyes — an almond-shaped Egyptian look. She likes the eye shape because it’s full of mischief and wisdom, she said.
“The Incident” is Irwin’s first exhibit at the Wiregrass Museum of Art. When invited to show her work, Irwin said she didn’t want to just send what she had on hand. She wanted to do something special, and the museum staff gave her the freedom to do it.
“I wanted the exhibition to be something children of all ages could come in and appreciate,” Irwin said. “I want for every age to come in here and get it.”
Irwin said it’s important to her that her work be beautiful to look at, and she keeps that in mind when she chooses her colors and the details she puts in a piece or art work. But her work is also about humor.
“I think it’s just as important for art to bring joy,” Irwin said. “I think the greatest gift or the biggest success that art can be is if you can make someone smile, laugh or feel good even for a moment.”



Dragons, vessels, figurines among clay gems at Bare Hands

Fired Earth, Works In Clay.
Bare Hands Gallery.
Through April 26.

“Kevin Irwin builds colorful little vignettes of fanciful figurines in bucolic settings, creating amusing scenes of dogs treeing squirrels and birds and a large gray squirrel gathering acorns about him. She enters a world of fantasy with serendipitous dragons in sagging beds or reading to a passel of hound dogs that lie atop a gentle monster. This clay craft show charms with a few pieces that depart from the usual kind of objects.”   
 - Laura Axlerod
The Birmingham News, April 13, 2008