IT WAS SCARY, BUT LETITIA Eldridge knew what she had to do—head for New York. Just leave Austin in
January and light out for the territory of art and theater, straight over the Mississippi, around the
Appalachians, and right across the Hudson River where so many young artists had crossed before her.
Let the insidious ice-rain pierce the ratty fur coat and freeze the muse-struck marrow of the bones;
let the cabbies laugh and drive on when they see the jumble of paper-box luggage; let the nose forget
the stench of urine in the shot-gun apartments that shored up every wave of immigrants. It had to be done.
So Letitia packed. She zipped her ceramic sculptures into the motley colored wool bags
knit by her mother. Then she carefully checked the contents of her matched set of cellulose
luggage—sculpture, script for her play, Moonlight/Obituary for Dreams,—grabbed her fur coat
New York received her well. Last January, she wangled a private showing in the
Trustee Room of the Museum of Modern Art and a June production date at La Mama Experimental Theater
Club for her play. In less than a month she conquered two of the most important bastions of culture.
She had done it. Gone straight to the top, Texas fashion. Straight to the top, twice. But to
understand what Letitia does in ceramics and in the theater or how she managed to lay siege to those
bastions you need to see Letitia on her own ground. In Texas.
Row upon row, wall upon
wall of ceramics line her East Austin studio, waiting to be dried, bisqued, or glazed. Everything is
miraculously in its place, the Renaissance atelier you’ve always imagined. Where the finished ceramics
leave off, the clay takes over. Clay, everywhere, clay being modeled, clay on the floor, clay on the
counters, and clay in the living quarters. It can be a shock to realize that the source of all this
work is only one woman.
Until she speaks she could probably pass for a carhop from Waxahachie.
Then, as she talks, sitting on the edge of her table, her hands take on a life of their own and shape
clay. Her delicate porcelain-skinned face reflects the surrounding blaze of coppery hair. Suddenly she
changes before you. She’s making ceramic sculpture.
She’s not making cut little pots or
objects to hold cigar ashes. Nor is she making cups, plates, bowls, or vases. She’s making masks,
hundreds of masks when no one else in the country is making masks, especially out of Louisiana clay.
These masks were preceded by a series of landscape balls and are complemented by a series of
sculptured objects, such as divining rods, toys, and animals. Yet Letitia manages to transcend all
prosaic ideas normally associated with clay. Clay in her hands is no longer a building element, like a
brick, or a utilitarian object, like an ashtray, or a decorative object like a vase, or a theraputic
event like occupational therapy or arts and crafts.
Every object she creates begs to be
handled. You don’t approach her work as a passive spectator, but as an active participant in any game
you want to create. The game each spectator creates is limited only by the imagination. Her landscape
balls must be picked up, held, rolled around, or held close to your eye to transport you to the meadow
of your mind which matches the meadow on her ball. Watching someone don and doff her masks convinces
you that a kaleidoscope of personalities has glittered before your eyes. You can no longer make the
distinction between mask and face. Letitia suspends your disbelief, liberates the player in you, and
enchants your imagination. Once you see and participate in the magic of her sculpture you are ready
to see Letitia’s play.
Her theater piece Moonlight/Obituary for Dreams, is loosely
called a play, but there is no real word for its presentation of urges, movements and intuitions; it’s
not a conventional play with plot, characters, setting and costumes. Letitia’s play evolved from her
life of the past year and a half. By combining the poetry from her 2,000 page notebook, her ceramic
sculpture, and her characters with their ritual movements and interactions, she creates a multimedia
theater which rides the non-existent line between ritual, drama, dance, poetry, and sculpture.
Letitia uses masks in the play to localize her intuitions and to name them. The intuitions are not
just stream of consciousness fobbing itself off as Theater of Clay. The sculpture, ritual, and dance
are not just ornaments in a formless play about a person who makes sculpture, but a fusion of verbal
and visual images in a highly structured abstract sequence. This fusion of imagery is Letitia’s play
begs the spectator to play along, even if only to leave the theater.
Through the interplay of
characters, actions, ceramic objects, visual and verbal pictures Letitia manages to suspend disbelief,
liberate the player and enchant the imagination. “There’s so much information in this play that some
people can go on different levels and try to figure out what’s going on. Genevieve [a character in the
play] loved Ploom? Big deal. People can go listening to the poetry and the metaphors and watching the
visual imagery, the interplay of masks, or they can just go sit let it happen to them then waltz
out and go uuuupp. And just use it as propulsion.”
Letitia did not, however, sit serenely in
Austin, then propel herself to New York. What made the trip to New York possible was the appearance of
her ceramics in the Cleveland Museum of Art. There she won a prize for ceramics and was immediately
sought out by the most important museum directors in the country. In her home town of Fort Worth,
long-time supporter Henry Hopkins included her work in his collection. So did the director of the
Guggenheim, so did the Catherine Reswick collector of the Cleveland Museum. Yet her own professors and
colleagues at the University of Texas Department of Art ignored her. Here she was, included in the
collections of the best museums in the country, and the university thought she was crazy. Delay
followed delay when Letitia tried getting her instructors to fire those ceramics in their kilns.
Finally, she plugged her own kiln into their wall socket and fired her own pieces. So much for the art
department. While their mouths were