Reflecting on Mattes' 'Evaporation Pools XI'

Category:  The Arts
Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020 at 7:25 PM
Reflecting on Mattes' 'Evaporation Pools XI' by Livia Homerski & Ben McCullough
Photo: Ben McCullough

Three large masses of clay, containing varying amounts of clay-water mixture, make up EU alumna Danae Mattes’ Bruce Gallery exhibit, “Evaporation Pools XI.”

Until March 4, the water in her pieces will slowly evaporate and leave behind new structures and sights throughout its lifetime. “An evaporation pool is a permeable object, a temporary structure existing within the fluidity of change,” wrote Mattes in her artist statement.

The opening reception was held on Friday, Jan. 17, with EU professor Dietrich Wegner introducing Mattes. He also thanked her, as well as thanking the graduate students who helped Mattes mix the clay-water mixture and carry over the eight-thousand pounds of clay comprising the pools when she started setting up on Jan. 9.

Mattes earned her bachelor’s in ceramics in 1980 and expressed her thorough enjoyment of her time at Edinboro during the reception speech.

She stated that not only was her art education important, but that the philosophy and literature classes she took continued to have a large impact on her body of work. This, along with the evolution of natural landscapes by forces such as water and air are reflected in the creation and appearance of the piece. 


Everyone is connected at an exhibit. We are all seeing the art from our own personalized perspective, interpreting it and feeling our own ways.

Yet for this piece especially, we are intimately connected. As noted in her artist statement, observers of the exhibit are breathing the same air that will be the catalyst for evaporation and observing the changes as they occur. Because of the changing nature of the piece, Spectator writers

Livia Homerski and Ben McCullough wanted to explore and capture their experiences with the evaporation pools, along with how they will inevitably change from week to week.


As I walked around the pools, I could feel an energy in them. Although peaceful and physically still, the textures and shapes of the clay had much movement to them. A cluster of kneaded thumb impressions transformed into an organic landscape, perhaps trampled by a herd of deer upon closer inspection. One comes into the exhibit knowing practically that the art was created by a person, but the movement of the lumpy protrusions of clay mimics stalagmites or mountainous lumps of earth deposited by glaciers.

The energy transfer of this piece is two-fold: first the pools themselves are created by the force of Mattes’ hands placing and shaping the clay.

But it also comes through when pouring the water-clay mixture into the pools, and then letting the natural forces of gravity and evaporation change the piece over time. The initial creation and formation of the pools is just a vessel for the way the drying-up of the water will shape and change the piece over the next six weeks. 

Mattes cited the Daoist concept of impermanence, as well as poet and philosopher Lao Tzu, as influence on the creation of the evaporation pools. According to Tzu: “The softest of all things drive the hardest of all things. The non-substance penetrates the non-crevice. Hence, I know the value of action without striving.”

The serenity of the evaporation pools also invited a desire for disturbance. The vast majority of the time, I’d rather not indulge in the sloppiness of mud, but I fantasized about what it would be like to unleash my inner alligator and thrash around in the largest pit. I imagined shrinking myself, so I could slide down the chutes where Mattes’ heel smooched into the doughy swamp of clay in the second pool, or lounge with the turtle-like lump of clay rising out of the largest pool.

This playfulness reminded me of the time I’ve spent outdoors, frolicking in nature and exploring the forms earth has to offer. To me, the call of nature in the evaporation pools mirrored a larger human desire to interact with nature, and be a part of “the way.”

“Evaporation XI” is not just lumps of clay stuck to the bare floor of Bruce Gallery, but a replicated experience of what the earth does; a microcosm of a greater natural experience that just is.


When I examined each of the three different pools, it did not feel like I was looking at something man-made. Rather, it looked as if a massive natural landscape somehow was shrunk down to fit inside the walls of the gallery.

Without thinking about it, I got as close as I could to the different pieces so that different parts of the pools were the only thing in my frame of vision. Even with all the voices echoing in the room; I felt as if I was alone with the pools.

The only thing my brain could process at the moment was what I was looking at. There was so much detail to examine; no matter where I looked, there was something that I had not yet seen and it was all exceptionally beautiful.

This distinct feeling comes to me often when experiencing extraordinary art or beautiful scenes of nature; I felt directly connected with the pieces.

Eventually, Livia would point out something specific that caught her eye and I’d break from my trance until I again began to scan the pieces up close.

This powerful connection between the pools and myself relates to an incredibly important theme of the exhibit, something that Mattes told the crowd and explained in more detail in a discussion with both of us.

For the pools specifically, she stated that she was influenced by ideas in Daosim, such as the “liminal space that exists.” She continued, “for me, it was this exquisite kind of touching of one phenomena to another, and it only happens during the first 24 hours of these pools because the clay sediment will settle; the reflection on the water will not be there tomorrow.”

We crouched down and Mattes pointed out the reflection of light on the liquid clay surface of one of the pools. She tried to recite a Chinese poem from memory that she said directly inspired the evaporation pools. The poem reads: “The geese do not mean to cast their image on the water; nor does the water mean to hold the image of the geese. However they are absolutely connected.” 

For those interested in participating in the experience of “Evaporation XI,” visit Bruce Gallery from noon to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. The exhibit will be open until March 4.

Mattes recommends visiting weekly to see the changes. Look for an update and further discussion of “Evaporation Pools XI” in Issue 15.

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