When Out of the Ordinary, Flotilla opens at Spalding Nix Fine Art Gallery this Friday (through September 10), the exhibition will give visitors a chance to contemplate recurring motifs of ladders, boats, nets, trees and nautical celestial images that have dominated the metal sculptures, paintings and installations of Corrina Sephora for nearly 25 years.
“My intention is for viewers to find themselves in my work and leave with some kind of awe,” says the multimedia artist whose practice includes art-making, teaching and executing public commissions. Her Sun, Moon, Nautilus Passage gate has enchanted guests at the Atlanta Botanical Garden since 2003. Her monumental The Promised Land, a forged and fabricated steel gate, has pride of place at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. And other works of hers are included in permanent collections at MOCA GA, King & Spalding’s law firm and Elton John’s private collections.
When Sephora came up with the concept for her solo show two years ago, instead of painting a visual picture for Nix, she presented a 3-D model of his namesake gallery that incorporated miniatures of her artwork. Nix was so impressed with the vision and unconventional pitch that he green-lit her proposal on the spot. In addition to Sephora’s work, an array of realistic and surrealistic imagery by Atlanta surrealist painter Guy Robinson, New York artist Jordan Baker and Atlanta painter Jim Wise will be on exhibit in three adjoining galleries. Spalding Nix will host opening receptions from 12 to 7 p.m. Friday and 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday, as well as an Instagram Live Artist Talk at 11 a.m. August 3.
References to the natural world reflect Sephora’s attempt to establish order while embracing the chaotic. She considers creativity a form of meditation, and says that repetition allows for a rhythmic and mind-opening experience, which is where the magic occurs.
Her fondness for juxtaposing incongruent imagery is evident in pieces like Celebration do Cinquante, a constellation of fold-formed, forged and fabricated bronze boats that resemble seed pods aloft on an airstream. (The title of the piece is a nod to the 50-plus oval shapes that Sephora water-jet cut from a 182-pound plate of bronze, as well as her desire to “celebrate and luxuriate” over turning 50 this fall.) “I was thinking of how dandelion fluff floats through the air or how leaves fly through the air in a windstorm,” she says when asked what inspired the configuration.
Femme, Casting the Net Into the Future is a prime example of how nets have captivated Sephora’s imagination for decades. Initially inspired by Hawaiian fisherman casting their nets, the woven forms represent reaching out into the mysterious space of the water, not knowing what you’ll bring in, allowing for the space to keep some of what comes in and releasing any unnecessary elements. The metaphor applies, says Sephora, whether considering material objects, relationships or ways of being.
The lyricism and arabesque lines of freestanding installations like Vague de Cuivre and one larger-than-life sculpture of a boat riding a roiling ocean wave telegraph her fascination with water. Three magical oars — which incorporate signature elements including a ladder, bird, tree root and bird’s nest — acknowledge her ongoing exploration of the spirit world.
“I was looking at scepters [from West Africa] on a visit at the High Museum in 2019, thinking about oar sculptors I wanted to make,” says Sephora. “The scepters reminded me of a book about ancient blacksmithing called The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power and Art in West Africa (Indiana University Press, 241 pages). This is where I learned that blacksmiths were seen as a diviners, healers and sorcerers in other cultures — and that the scepter was seen as a connector between the Earth and the underworld.”
Works on paper and a large-scale painting, Vesica Piscis 1, Elation, round out the collection. The title is a nod to Sephora’s interest in sacred geometry and a type of lens, or vesica piscis, a mathematical shape formed by the intersection of two disks with the same radius, intersecting so that the center of each disk lies on the perimeter of the other. Using the bronze plate (from which her boat sculptures were cut) as a stencil, Sephora applied acrylic and aerosol paints to three wooden flats, as well as pigments composed of residual copper, bronze and steel dust gathered from the floor of her studio. The minimalist canvas is a study of air and water — with a hint of sparkle — that maximizes expanses of white space.
The overlapping oblong shapes represent several things to Sephora, primarily feminine energy, the goddess, a union of connection, mothers and daughters, and givers of life.
Sephora’s origin story is arguably as mythic as the mysticism that has always commanded her attention. Her mother — who was a midwife, musician, herbalist, poet, psychotherapist and artist — was very pregnant with Sephora when she jumped into Mirror Lake in New Hampshire and felt a distinct voice saying, “My name is Corrina. You have to name me Corrina!” Sephora likes to say that this was where her soul met her body. Certainly, the fact that her mother was suspended in air between land and water when the premonition occurred might explain her daughter’s ongoing interest in in-between spaces. (In a recent Instagram post, Sephora revealed another startling backstory about her name.)
Sephora says she feels like an alchemist in the studio. She remembers watching her dad, a Yale-educated theater and set designer who could build anything, alter the molecular structure of metal with a blowtorch. Back then, the 5-year-old had her own welding mask, and thought of the flying sparks as “electric lightning.” The entire process was magical and instilled a confidence that she could turn abstract ideas into concrete forms.
That informal apprenticeship also fortified Sephora’s stoicism and work ethic. The forge in her studio runs a bit below 2,000 degrees. The racket generated by her power hammer (which weighs 175 pounds and runs at 160 pounds per square inch) can reach ear-spilling decibels. The twisting of metal and swinging a 2-pound hand hammer the same way hundreds of times in a row can cause repetitive strain injuries. And long sleeves, long pants, gloves and steel-toed boots (to protect her feet from molten pieces of falling metal) are all de rigueur despite the scorching heat.
Ironically, for all the physical punishment Sephora endures in the studio, the idea of putting herself out there as a painter is what makes her break out in a sweat.
“With metalworking, I tell the materials what to do and have a real command over the process,” she says. “With painting, I don’t have full control of the materials. The painting is often talking to me as opposed to me telling the painting what to do.”
Ever the student, however, Sephora is enjoying the exploration and inquiry that comes with getting acclimated to a new art form, and learning to enjoy the discomfort that comes with not having total control.