By Sue Sommers
Pinedale artist Cristy Anspach has produced and exhibited bodies of work in painting, ceramics, fiber, and sculpture. She has been teaching art in the Pinedale Elementary School since 1999, and loves her job.
Anspach knew she wanted to be an artist her sophomore year in high school. “I had always liked drawing and image-making,” she said, “but a particular teacher was super-inspirational for me.”
The teacher, who she remembers only as “Mr. Berger,” noticed her in an inconspicuous corner of the classroom, absorbed in a watercolor painting. He quietly came over, watched her work, and without saying a word, replaced the standard-issue classroom paintbrush she held in her hand with a quality watercolor brush. Mr. Berger later gave her several watercolor brushes to take home.
The teacher’s actions told Anspach that he believed in her as an artist, and she never forgot how it made her feel. His confidence inspired Anspach to keep making art, and to teach art to kids.
“I don’t know if I can be a Mr. Berger, but I hope I can give kids confidence in their abilities,” Anspach said.
Having seen her operate a classroom, I can say that Anspach’s childlike enthusiasm, tempered by kindness and knowledge, works magic on her students.
When Anspach graduated in the early 1990s from Colorado State University with a BFA in painting and a BA in art education, she was an abstract painter skilled in translating the external world into a personal vision. But soon she started painting plein-air to learn to render what she saw and enhance her skills in draftsmanship and color.
The drive to master new materials and techniques has kept Anspach’s studio practice vibrant and enhanced her teaching career. The restless search for novelty could have dissolved Anspach’s focus, but she has respected her own vision through a wide range of media. Her work is resolutely earthy and earth-based.
The oil paintings Anspach produced after settling in Sublette County in the late 1990s ranged from traditional scenes of western Wyoming’s wild and agricultural lands to carefully composed industrial landscapes: the gas fields, rigs, and equipment that produced so much economic wealth for Wyoming, so much energy for the nation, and so many questions about safeguarding the environment. Anspach’s straightforward renditions proposed a thoughtful, complex approach to a charged topic, and brought refreshing depth to a well-worn genre.
Paradoxically — or maybe predictably, since many artists encounter this conundrum — the more her landscapes began to sell, the less fun they became for Anspach to paint. She eventually lost interest in the series.
“But I really should get back to those industrial scenes,” she said. “I would like to do more of those.”
An avid experimenter, Anspach embraces relatively far-flung media, producing innovative and engaging bodies of work that each hold potential for expansion and development. As the art writer Julian Barnes has observed, to be good, a work of art must be interesting. Anspach’s explorations are always interesting — probably because they are interesting to her.
The last decade has seen those explorations converge upon organic materials and arcane or archaic processes. In the mid-2000s, Anspach began making sculpture from grass, dog hair, horse hair, wool, baling wire, and dirt harvested from her yard and neighborhood.
The dirt went into a series of glossy billiard-ball-sized dorodango (“mud dumplings”), a painstaking traditional Japanese art form. Shaping mud into perfect, polished globes requires delicacy, obedience to process, and a high tolerance for frustration. It is easy to see why the practice originated to preoccupy children.
Anspach’s mud dumplings present the viewer with a smile-inducing perplexity: here is a ball of polished local dirt. It’s humble, fragile, honors the earth, and it’s giving up no secrets.
The plant and animal fibers became wall sculptures. Anspach twisted grasses into narrow bundles, wrapping them with hand-spun animal-hair twine, sheep wool, and wire to create sinuous forms that hint at scaled-up micro-organisms, undersea creatures, or outer-space botanicals, all in motion. The final works are durable, lightweight, and easily hung from a small nail, where they cast shadows as fascinating as their forms.
“I’ll come back to the grass sculptures one day,” Anspach said. “I’m not done with it, but it was making a big mess in the studio and I had to get out the shop vac and clean it up.”
The organizing principles of Anspach’s overall practice are her family, the demands of the school year, and her creative explorations. She and her husband, a business owner, parent two children, both now teens. Anspach treads a fine line, indulging her studio work only after meeting the needs of family and breadwinning.
Anspach’s most recent endeavor is clay. It began a couple of years ago when she acquired a relative’s ceramic equipment and a windfall of studio space to house it. Yet she knew almost nothing about clay. Up to this point she felt comfortable only demonstrating pinch pots in her elementary classroom.
She jumped into the unfamiliar medium with characteristic gusto, and taught herself to throw, glaze, and fire functional ware: mugs, bowls, crocks. Then she sold them at art fairs. “Making stuff people can use,” she noted, “is fun.”
Having mastered the new material and techniques, she trapezed to ceramic sculpture/installation. Her latest series, “Dearly Beloved,” fills a room, a corner, or a wall with dozens of pinch pots fired in the obvara (Baltic Raku) method, a medieval process enjoying a revival of late. Anspach’s years of making lowly pinch pots with students enabled her to crank out multitudes of variable and quirky forms in her studio intuitively.
Obvara involves dunking pots hot from a second firing in a kind of sourdough slurry. The process transforms Anspach’s shell-thin, roughly formed pinch pots into organic relics, each coated in a lumpy blend of shiny and matte earth tones ranging from deep dark browns to blue-green and ivory. Pierced, torn, and folded before firing, the forms could be abalone shells, fungi, or recently-excavated primitive cookware. Anspach is still experimenting with their display. In a recent show at Pinedale’s Mystery Print Gallery, she strung them like today’s catch along a length of fishing line and suspended them from the ceiling.
Now that her children are older, Anspach’s life is changing fast. She is looking forward to more time and energy in the studio. Her artist friends anticipate more of her work, and hope it will be exhibited more widely in the region.
Cristy Anspach’s website is cristyanspach.com
Sue Sommers is a painter, book artist and printmaker on a cattle ranch near Pinedale.