Down to Earth

Margaret Boozer’s ample Ford F-150 pummels the loose gravel near South Dakota Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE as she prowls a construction site. Bringing her pickup to a halt, she hops down, selecting a footlong, sand-colored rock. Boozer pronounces it iron ore. “If I ground this up, it’d make a really nice glaze,” she says.

It’s not obviously ferrous—or even distinguishable from the rocks around it—but Boozer turns it over in her hands before tossing it into the bed of the truck. She puts the engine in drive again, circling the lot and stopping every 100 yards or so to scrape clay from a backhoe-dug trench, pluck marble from drainage-rock piles, and otherwise scour the land for worthy artistic harvests.

Boozer, 40, patrols this unborn lofts development specifically for clay—her medium. An Alabama native, the Brentwood-based artist creates soil-centric artworks that have as much basis in the last century of painting as they do in the last millennium of pottery. She is the founder and director of Red Dirt Studio in Mount Rainier, Md., a warehouse space that for 10 years has housed artists working, however tangentially, in a ceramics tradition.

To the bemusement of area hardhats, Boozer gathers media on-site, driving into construction grounds as if she were a foreman. That’s not to say she’s above shelling out for good material: At the Vulcan quarry in Warrenton, Va., she spends $9 for as much basalt as she can haul in her truck. There she has the additional resource of Vulcan’s dungy puddles, from which she scoops slime.

“There’s a fine dust suspended in the sludge,” she explains. “It’s like a ready-made glaze.”

Boozer’s artworks tend to reflect whatever vein of earth she’s currently mining. Her output has taken a turn from “paintings” of dried, cracked clay dotted with ceramic shards and broken pottery toward floor-installed arrays of powdered dirt. “Some of this stuff I’ve tried firing I end up using for drawings on the floor, because the colors change when you fire it,” she says, referring to a rich raspberry clay that turns a dull sienna in the kiln. “So why fire it?”

Boozer received her MFA in ceramics from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where, inspired by the area’s Alabama-esque red clay, she began to work with nontraditional techniques. She and her Red Studio colleagues continue the experiment. In 2005, Conner Contemporary Art featured a performance by Jenna McCracken in which a team of lab-coated assistants bottled freshly made ceramics in preservatives. Laurel Lukaszewski’s agglomerations of porcelain and stoneware coils opened at Project 4 in June, garnering the artist a comparison to Dale Chihuly from one critic. Boozer’s fans have often likened her to another artist.

“People are always like, ‘That’s like Andy Goldsworthy,’” she says. “Well, no. It’s just like the ground.”

Well, the ground tilted 90 degrees, as is often the case. After visiting an archeological dig in China several years ago, Boozer decided to make her own wall-mounted historical dig site, 2000’s Eight Red Bowls. “[S]he replicated what she saw by making ceramic bowls and dropping them against a tray filled with a sludge of clay slip,” says Eleanor Harvey, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which owns the piece. “Dried and framed and hanging on a wall, the piece is like a painted still life, showing pottery clattering in slow motion to the floor or mud-covered relics recovered after rains.”

Earlier this year, Boozer was appointed to the James Renwick Alliance board. She’s now busy proposing a massive, 20-by-40-foot commission for a site in New York. But these inroads into the contemporary art market don’t seem to tantalize Boozer as much as those roads that lead her to exposed earth.

“It’s interesting to see what’s under the ground at all these sites in the neighborhood,” she says. “Some guys were fixing a water main out in front of my house. They dug a huge hole and I was like, ‘Can I get in there?’”

—Kriston Capps

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