How a creeping clay sculpture shows that we’re all connected

In February, Magdolene Dykstra (MFA ’18) was installing her latest work Polyanthroponemia at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. It’s a hulking mass of clay, intended to resemble an infectious ooze, and after its opening Dykstra planned to add to its sprawling presence over the course of the exhibition. But two months later, the Gardiner Museum closed and Dykstra was working out of a refurbished barn in Ontario—all because of a global pandemic.

The irony isn’t lost on her—but she does see resonance between social distancing and the greater theme of her work. Dykstra, who earned her MFA from the Craft/Material Studies graduate program, creates her art by forcing clumps of clay through press molds. In moments, one mass of clay becomes hundreds if not thousands of smaller cells. Though they may seem like individual bodies, in truth they share a single origin. In the same way, to combat the highly contagious COVID-19, we’ve had to collectively recognize how our actions can protect or harm others.

“The significance of an individual is based in the fact that we are connected,” she says.

Magdolene Dykstra

Much of Dykstra’s work, and Polyanthroponemia specifically, explores this idea of the global human body. She moved to Richmond to attend VCUarts in 2016, during the heated election that saw Donald Trump win the presidency. For Dykstra, who was previously living in a predominantly white city in Canada, it was a shock to witness the racial divide in Richmond and the United States at large. Against such enormous civil problems, she felt her influence as a person and artist had been diminished.

But it was also humbling, and it motivated her to analyze that experience through art.

“I want to understand my place in that big picture,” she says. “When you look at the fact that you are just this one tiny, tiny unit in an incredible vast field, your problems get smaller, your anxieties get smaller.”

Polyanthroponemia first took shape in September 2019 as a series of sketches drafted at the Gardiner Museum. When Dykstra installed the work, she wanted a powerful presence that could draw attention and provoke questions, but also leave room for expansion.

Her sketches became scale drawings (or “scale blobs,” as she calls them). Back at her home studio, she built the work on armatures of wood and wire, building up the clay on each module before transporting it back to the museum. There, she added more clay and pigments around the edges to integrate the piece into the walls.

Polyanthroponemia by Magdolene Dykstra. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

This was all to imbue the work with movement—“to suggest a sort of living seepage,” she says, to show “that these growths were moving through a liquid of sorts, and that liquid was continuing to spread over the gallery walls as they drip down.”

Dykstra’s original plan was to have the piece crawl all over the gallery and even out the emergency exit. She hopes to revisit the piece someday, when in-person exhibitions resume.

It’s been difficult to share her work during a pandemic. Her art is intentionally material; it defies the way we view art digitally in photo galleries and social media feeds. But losing access to a stimulating art community has been a bigger challenge.

“I very much enjoy being a full-time artist,” says Dykstra, “but I really do crave the opportunity to talk with other creative people on a mature level about what it means to be doing what we’re doing, and the struggles and the joys of a creative life.”

Lead image: Polyanthroponemia by Magdolene Dykstra. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.