From Skin to Bone, Marshall Sculptor Nina Kawar Speaks to the Heart and Spirit

Feb 8, 2018

Nina Kawar’s studio is the former principal’s office of Marshall High School, but her artwork gives this room the air of a science lab.

Here, against natural light pouring in through a wall of old windows, Kawar makes eery, twisted, bone-like sculptures from porcelain. At first glance, you wonder what creature these could have come from. But step close to look at the stains, crevices and fractures -- there are human stories here.

“I found I was interested in our understanding of ourselves and maybe the difficult times we go through and how that helps us become a stronger individual,” Kawar said.

Nina Kawar in her Marshall Studio
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Kawar is in her early 30s, but she feeds her art with a dozen years of independent starts and stops, detours and u-turns and all the reflection that comes from them. Several of Kawar’s recent sculptures are part of a group exhibition on view through Feb. 23 at Blue Spiral Gallery in downtown Asheville.

“I was interested in our understanding of ourselves and maybe the difficult times we go through and how that helps us become a stronger individual,” she said.

Kawar grew up in Appleton, Wis., with two older brothers, an American mother and Palestinian father. With her family’s blessing, she was just 18 when she set off on her own for San Diego. She got married just a few years later but found herself outgrowing the relationship. She started college and moved back home to explore her fascination with the material of sculpture -- plaster, metal, wax and clay, woodworking and welding.

“And oh boy, did that open my eyes,” she said. “I was already at a place where I was having quite a bit of trouble with my marriage, and it was a release, an expression of myself.”

In art school, Kawar’s work explored skin and flesh, at times in the form of room-sized installations. But only after ending another relationship and finding her studio in Marshall did Kawar develop the core of her current work. Until this conversation, she hadn’t made a conscious connection of the evolution from skin to bone.

“There’s something there in a spiritual realm I’m trying to reach towards, and how do you do that in form? How do you explain that in material?” Kawar said. “If you look at the forms, there are places that are broken or there’s cracks and scars, but those fractures don’t leave us completely broken.”

That reflects a bedrock of resilience and positivity Kawar said she learned from her grandmother. Through breakups, job losses and the death of her cat, Kawar largely processed and healed on her own. She allows that there’s both a spiritual hardening and lightness that come through in her art.

Kawar first shapes and carves at the clay, then after one firing, she’ll take dremels to open up any cracks. She refires the sculpture to harden and whiten it, pushes a wire brush into the pores to lend texture and sands scrubs over it with that brush to stain parts of the surface.

“I do believe there’s something beyond me and my intelligence or knowledge that comes through in this work,” she said. “Allowing the spirit to speak through the work, I hope sharing this work with the public will help others, in some ways as it has for me in making it.”

A financial grant from a friend freed her to focus on her art over the past year. Now, she’s stepping back into part-time work, she hopes to find another detour that lifts her work to a new place.

“I’m turning another leaf in my life right now,” Kawar said. “Even in the last year and a half I’ve been in this work, I needed that year to heal and to find myself again and hear my own voice, and perhaps I’m ready to find some balance in my life.”