Profile of Joyce Utting Schutter

Joyce Utting Schutter creates sculpture inspired by the things she finds outdoors

Published in The New Bedford Standard-Times on August 03, 2007

To discover what inspires paper sculptor Joyce Utting Schutter, just take a peek at the shelves lining the wall of her New Bedford studio. There are rows and rows of jars and boxes containing the stuff that gives the artist ideas for the shapes and textures in her work. It's all the beautiful refuse of nature, picked up by Ms. Schutter in the woods and along the beach — acorns, pine cones, pussy willows, seed heads, feathers, butterfly wings, pine needles, seashells and egg casings.

Ms. Schutter was born in Boston and raised in Guilford, Conn. Her parents' home was situated on 5 acres of undeveloped woodland, and this unspoiled expanse of nature became Ms. Schutter's playground. She loved running alongside the meandering brook behind the house, floating acorns down the stream and plucking out fallen leaves when they blocked the water's flow. She would curl up on soft patches of moss, daydreaming that she was a tiny creature engulfed by the forest. This direct observation and intense interaction with nature had a profound influence on Ms. Schutter's future as an artist.

A recent work, "Daydream Sailing," is a direct reflection of this experience. It is a small sailboat, about 20 inches long, that looks like a hollowed-out half-nutshell, crested by a sail inlaid with a pattern of baby oak leaves. The cockpit of the boat is lined with moss and scattered with more oak leaves. Constructed of hand-made paper pulp sprayed onto a structure of fiber-covered steel rods, the small craft seems to call directly to the child inside, inviting us to climb in and set sail. "Often artwork comes from the deep place inside you that is wordless," the artist says. "It comes out in the wordless image."

Ms. Schutter spent a year studying art at Boston University, and a semester at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, where she studied bronze casting and taught leather-working. She later spent four years at Bethany Fellowship, a missionary training school in Bloomington, Minn., where she met her husband, James F. Schutter. After the couple spent time overseas together as missionaries, Ms. Schutter's husband attended seminary in Kansas City, was ordained and began his ministry in Iowa. Ms. Schutter gave birth to her two daughters, then returned to her art studies at the Des Moines Art Center, where she molded the figure in clay.

When her husband's ministry relocated the family to a town near Iowa City, Ms. Schutter enrolled at the University of Iowa, where she earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees in fine art. As an undergraduate, she continued her studies in casting, this time working with cast iron. But the university's foundry was closed down when safety issues became a concern, just as Ms. Schutter was finishing her undergraduate studies. So she turned to paper-making as a graduate student and decided to combine this material with her previous experience in metalwork. This brought her to the techniques of her current work — paper surrounding a metal structure.

The temporal nature of paper appealed to Ms. Schutter. She had been concerned about the environmental toxicity of working with cast metal and by a sense that metal sculptures "were going to be around for millennia." Paper's comparatively short lifespan was reflective of nature itself, "more like life." She was intrigued that the work "could become part of the earth again," that it had a "mortality." The issue of mortality is one that Ms. Schutter frequently considers as an artist. "You have to reconcile to death as being not only possible, but inevitable," she says. "And that's not a bad thing." She cites the life of a leaf as symbolic of the necessity of death as part of the cycle. "No two leaves are alike," she says. "Yet in the autumn they die, becoming part of the earth again and replenishing the soil."

While Ms. Schutter's sculpture explores memory and time passage through reference to nature, it also identifies nature's visual splendor in its infinitely complex designs. "I want it to be beautiful," she says of her work. One of her sculptures that particularly describes the intricacy of natural forms is "Arcidae's Purse." An arching, swelling shape, textured along its sides in shell-like rows of striated ribs, sits on four curving legs that end in elegant points. Through the narrow slit along the top, we can see a cluster of pussy willows perched on long stems like pistils in a flower. As with so many designs from the natural world, this artwork is delicate in appearance but structurally strong.

Her working process is similar from one piece to the next, although each one is completely unique. First she details her intentions for the design in a sketchbook, working out the exact dimensions and writing down her conceptual aims. Then she welds rods of carbon steel into the skeletal structure that will support the piece. The strength of metal, she has found, is necessary to stand up to the outer paper layer, which has surprising force when it shrinks and hardens as it dries. Next a layer of jute string, cotton thread or cheesecloth is wrapped around and woven across the steel structure in a complex web.

Ms. Schutter makes paper by placing raw flax into a machine called a Hollander beater, leaving the fibers to flow beneath a rotating steel-bladed roller in water for hours until they become pulpy. Then she sprays the runny pulp onto the web of twine or applies sheets of it over the form, depending on the degree of translucency she is aiming for or the texture she wants to achieve. Occasionally, the artist paints areas of the finished sculpture with dry pigment, but usually she leaves the natural faint brown of the flax, as it contributes the gentle time-worn feeling that reflects her artistic philosophy. The artist notes that she pays careful attention to archival concerns as part of her working process, and that her pieces could last for centuries, with proper care.

Those found objects in the jars and boxes on Ms. Schutter's studio shelves are often encased between the layers of paper to add visual texture, or incorporated into the structure itself to add literal texture. Sometimes they simply serve as a design reference for the shape of a piece.

In 2002, Ms. Schutter's family relocated to Massachusetts and she moved into her current New Bedford studio space the following year. She has shown her work at a number of SouthCoast venues since that time, including a solo show at Artworks! in New Bedford in 2004, and a three-person show at Bristol Community College in Fall River in 2003. She received a prestigious Artist Award from Boston's Society of Arts and Crafts in 2006. Currently one of Ms. Schutter's pieces can be seen in "Pulp Function," an exhibit of works of art containing paper, on display through Jan. 6 at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.She is also a participating artist in "Tree-mendous," a national juried show of artworks featuring trees, on exhibit from Aug. 7 to Sept. 30 at the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit. She will be participating in this year's third annual New Bedford Open Studios, scheduled for Sept. 29 and 30.