February 2024
A Natural Eye
Ceramic sculptor Thomas Yssel draws art from life

I’d say it’s unusual when a sculptor draws inspiration from the sculpture’s base. I met with Thomas Yssel at his home so I could see his studio and get a sense of his process. The first thing he showed me was a shelf system filled with blocks of wood. His community, Santa Fe Springs, has a common park area where residents walk their dogs and enjoy nature, and Tom serves as firewise chair for the community. He keeps the flammable undergrowth and dead trees cut back, so often finds nice logs and branches, which serve beautifully as bases for his work.

Tom’s sculptures echo his career in wildlife conservation, so there are crouching cheetahs, running wild dogs, elephants, mountain lions and many rhinos, about which he is very passionate. Born in South Africa, he studied ecology and zoology and began his career as a ranger in Kruger National Park, getting up close and personal with all the amazing animals we normally only see in zoos.

While still in his twenties he was attacked by a large crocodile, suffering injuries serious enough to keep him in the hospital for a year. (It’s quite a story.) During his recovery, still largely confined to bed, he took up sculpture to have something to do with his time.

His first piece was a rhinoceros, and, without any formal training in art, he began making sculptures of the wild creatures he’d studied and worked to protect. In the early years while working at Kruger, he would fire his pieces in rhino dung, easily attainable because a rhino always defecates in the same spot.

Tom has worked as an endangered-species specialist for agencies doing habitat restoration all around the US. Throughout his life he’s also continued to create ceramic sculpture, and now retired from his work in conservation he can devote his full attention to the art.

Many of his pieces feature wildlife, but in recent years he’s also done some human figures, often representing specific emotions or scenes from Native American history, like the Long Walk of the Navajo.

Studying the work of August Rodin brought Tom an appreciation for negative space. He keeps in mind an observation by David Hare on Rodin’s use of negative space: “The completion of a figure makes it static, while its fragmentation explodes it back into the movement of life.” Leaving negative space gives the mind a chance to fill it in, providing a lightness and the possibility of movement.

Tom’s process in beginning a piece is not one generally taught in art school. He’ll choose a piece of wood, probably cut near his home, and apply clay to it without a preconceived plan, but taking guidance from the base on how and where to put it. Then he’ll stand back and see what wants to emerge from it. 

For the most part he begins with no idea of what will come about. Over days, sometimes weeks, he will carve, spray, add bits of clay, carefully covering and uncovering to control the tricky drying process. If a thinner section gets too dry it will crack, and the main body must be dry enough to carve but wet enough to build on.

He is currently working on an eagle in flight, held within a spiral of clay attached to a wooden base. Tom uses no metal armatures for internal support, instead relying on his years of learning the physical limitations of the medium. Not having been told by ‘experts’ what he can or cannot do with it, he can follow his imagination and try things that he might otherwise have thought out of the range of possibility.

Tom refers to his wife Brita as his biggest fan. He goes to her for feedback on his work, and she has commissioned work from him as well. Brita is a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma work, and asked Tom to make a piece representing grief. The base was a chunk of scrub oak where the living tree had grown around a dead branch. Brita was wanting a physical representation of the process of grieving for a loved one as described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, paraphrased as, “When you lose someone you love you will never heal or ‘get over it.’ You learn to work your way around the grief. You will move forward, but you will never recover — nor would you want to, because of how big the love was.” The piece of wood shows the process of the living tree working around the dead branch, providing a symbolic element. Here again the base of the piece provided guidance.

Working in his tiny studio, where he can reach all his tools from his chair, Tom usually works five days a week on his art. He feels he has grown a lot in the last couple of years, now that he can devote his full attention to sculpture. He is completely ambidextrous, which comes in particularly handy in this work.

Tom is a member of Arts Prescott Cooperative Gallery on Whiskey Row, and enjoys being part of the group of artists who own and run the gallery together. He is also in a show at the ‘Tis Gallery on Cortez Street called “A Piece and a Poem,” which runs till February 20.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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