The Positives of Negative Space

Sculptor Anita Funston uses her science background when scouting material for her ceramics. Photo by Tim Robison.

Science and art have always enjoyed a cozy partnership, rooted as they are in form, proportion, and pattern. Painters from Da Vinci to Dalì and Mondrian are said to have embedded mathematical principles in their work; the repeating patterns found in natural forms from seashells to rock formations underlie the tenets of sculpture and architecture.

It’s a fruitful marriage that has proven especially productive to Henderson County artist Anita Funston, who began her professional life in the sciences before turning to sculpture and the distinctive pieces she fashions from clay, metal, and found objects.

Funston earned degrees in botany, particularly the study of mushrooms and other fungi, and in rehabilitative medicine before she took up an artistic career. “Studying science taught me how to do research, to investigate details and examine critically,” she says, referring to her laboratory training. “One of the important elements of drawing and painting still life is being able to see positive and negative space, and science taught me how to see those differences in nature.”

Drawing on the vernacular of folk art as well as the metal constructions of Alexander Calder and the surrealist whimsy of Magritte, Funston’s body of work includes both figurative and abstract pieces made from locally sourced materials. “This region is fortunate to have good resources for using repurposed and recycled metal in making sculpture,” Funston notes. “I’m attracted to using what’s available locally.” Her “Portrait of a Lady,” a 17-inch-tall female bust, includes bits of recycled kitchenware along with glass beads, a wooden cutting board, and wire that Funston found at local shops featuring recycled items. It’s a playful take on classical portrait busts. “In my youth, I studied and practiced craft, and antiques and handmade items were valued,” the artist recalls. “In addition, I enjoy working with found objects that are weathered and have aged with a natural patina.”

“Portrait of a Lady”

Materials found in nature work their way into pieces like “Chief,” Funston’s version of a tribal mask formed from kiln-fired soda ash, that took the gold medal in sculpture last year at Raleigh’s SilverArts competition and is selected for this month’s ArtFields juried competition in Lake City, S.C. Western North Carolina’s biodiversity inspired an installation of clay salamanders incorporated in one of the holes of the miniature golf course designed for Raleigh’s inventive Art Putt exhibition last year, during the city’s First Night celebrations. Noting that North Carolina is famous for its 60 species of salamander, Funston’s offering included a large painting of three of the creatures, along with a recreated natural habitat in which Funston placed a number of smaller examples made of clay.

Her more abstract work incorporates an even wider variety of materials — granite, bone, sand, glass — worked into the glazed clay. These freeform sculptures, with their dark browns and ochres, combine rounded forms and flattened shapes that suggest the fungi Funston studied earlier in her career. “Abstract work is a fun and freeing experience,” she says. “I use it for experimentation, and the process is organic, working with elements of color, texture, space and movement.”

A Virginia native, she was first introduced to sculpting at Ramapo College, just across the Hudson River from the arts culture of Manhattan. She studied with the well-respected sculptor Judith Peck, a founding member of the liberal-arts institution known for her large-scale metal sculptures. “I took one of her new courses on figure drawing and sculpture, which was my first introduction to clay,” Funston says. “She was a very supportive instructor, and it came at a time when I’d just finished my very first art course in figure drawing. Dr. Peck’s course was a natural next step in my visual-arts studies.” Since arriving in Henderson County five years ago, Funston has continued her education at Asheville’s Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts and at the renowned Penland School of Crafts near Burnsville.

She intends to spend the summer working on a series of outdoor sculptures for the annual Sculpture Celebration in Lenoir in the fall. As she creates new pieces, some of her previous work will be on display in San Francisco this spring as part of a traveling exhibit of women in the arts called “Women Do It!”

But it’s the beauty and tranquility of the mountains that inspire her. “I love the vitality of the area,” Funston says. “The open space and the quiet of Western North Carolina continues to be attractive.”

Examples of Anita Funston’s sculpture can be found online at

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