This dynamic automatically sets her at odds with some in the community. “Christians tend to be slightly skeptical of artists, and sometimes artists are outside the realm of religion,” she suggests. “I sometimes feel like a Renaissance anachronism [doing this work] but there are people who want it. For a lot of years, I stayed away from incorporating my beliefs in the work. But I need to use this gift and not worry about it. Now life exceeds my dreams.”
Her statues and carvings are based on Biblical stories and symbols. They are commissioned by churches, schools and individuals and created in her studio in Goochland County. When time permits, she makes smaller pieces, which are sold through her gallery and website, www.claudiarees.com. Nearly all of the work is narrative and representational, with distinctive elements that reveal the artist’s hand and sense of purpose.
Rees’ studio, surrounded by woods and water, is a soaring, open-windowed space that allows the artist to drink in country air while chiseling stone or firing clay. “When I’m here, this is a sanctuary because I believe the Lord is here with me,” she says, surveying the studio’s stained-glass windows and worktables loaded with religious figures. She named her business Maranatha Studios after a first-century greeting between Christians that allowed them to express their faith without being persecuted. “God is with us,” she translates, “or he is coming soon.”
Rees welcomes art students and other groups for tours and instruction, and she methodically explains the process of taking huge blocks of stone and carving them into finished pieces. She uses a gas-powered circular saw to begin the cuts, then wedges and mallets, and finally smaller tools to chisel a rectangle into an organic likeness. This involves a keen understanding of negative space, of being able to see inside the block to find the three-dimensional figure inside.
“With clay you’re building on, adding to the piece. With stone, you’re taking away. I almost have to have X-ray vision and see the piece in there,” Rees says, “and then approach the block from all angles” to arrive at the desired form. And while she has to see the bones of the body, she has to carve it clothed. These techniques are learned over many years of practice and experimentation, she says.
The work is physical, intense, and vigorous enough that Rees supposes she’ll get another 10 years out of it before turning to smaller objects and working more regularly with clay. “I’ve gained a healthy respect for clay,” she says, “and I want to get to a point where I can make life-sized or larger pieces, to solve the technical problems to do that.” A giant head formed of 850 pounds of clay sits in the largest kiln at the studio, evidence that her goals are being realized and that she can continue creating on a monumental scale.
Though Rees’ work has attracted a loyal following and commissions are steadily building, she is careful to maintain a state of praise and humility, to listen to the source of her gift.
“The church was the chief promoter of the arts during the Renaissance,” Rees explains. “I don’t think you should ‘decorate’ a church, but put things there that can inspire people, that they can discuss. Art can be a tool to bring people closer to God.” HS
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