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Paula Behm-Windle’s “On a Whim” Art Exhibit Brings Smiles to HCC Visitors

the owls exhibit

It’s hard not to smile when viewing Paula Behm-Windle’s art installation, “On a Whim.”

“There’s a real sense of humor in it,” she said.

The exhibit, located in the Richard B. Talkin Family Gallery at Howard Community College (HCC), features a thousand ceramic owls of various colors and sizes, each unique with their own personality. They’re perched on tree branches, tucked in a large nest, stacked in glass jars, seated on stumps, and lined up on shelves.

Behm-Windle featured her favorite – the largest of the bunch – on a bench, making him a focal point upon entering the room.

“I just love his expression,” she said. “He’s restful. People can sit with him and have a chat.”

 The journey began six years ago for the adjunct professor of ceramics at HCC. Behm-Windle fell in love with making hollow-form sculptures.

“It’s very therapeutic,” she said. “They have a round shape, and owls kept popping in my head.”

She recalled conversations she once had with two artists about how repetition of an idea changed the idea, and lead to interesting surprises along the way.

“I needed a challenge,” Behm-Windle said. “I tend to plan a lot, and I needed to just follow something. Hence, ‘On a Whim.’”

The construction techniques include pinching and coiling to get the basic hollow form. From there, she lets the form dry out long enough for her to shape it and begin to carve or add on features.

“The face is generally carved and molded,” she said. “Their eyes are simple balls of clay that are attached once the face is complete. If I want eyelids, I then carve the clay eyes to depict eyelids. The feathers and face ruffs are generally carved into the clay or pushed into place. Once I have the face and body the way I want, I add feet.”

At this point, the owls are ready for the first firing or bisque firing, she said. After the firing, she begins to glaze. The faces are, in general, left without glaze, except for the eyes. Behm-Windle then applies wax resist to the face so the glaze doesn’t adhere to that area. At this point, the owls are ready for final firing.

“In my mind, the repetition of the same form was truly beneficial to the outcome,” she said. “One of the things that happens to most of us when we’re working on a task of some importance to us is that it becomes hard to experiment – every step carries too much weight, the outcome becomes too important.

“By setting such a large number as my goal, I essentially negated that.”

It’s not that Behm-Windle didn’t get hung up on how each owl would turn out.

“Of course I did,” she said. “I wanted each to be as well-crafted as I could manage. What I found, however, was that I could relax and try different things – different glazes, textures, and attitudes. All the differences would eventually work to my advantage and make the ‘whole’ more interesting.”

The artist made the sculptures in spurts, creating a batch and then taking a break. Over the years, the basement of her Clarksburg home became a “canyon of boxes.”

When the exhibit was ready to be installed, the question was how to display one thousand owls.

Behm-Windle got to work, scouring her yard and surrounding woods large branches for the birds to perch upon. Smaller twigs were joined together to create a large bird nest, a cozy home for seven of the sculptures. Thomas Engleman, director of HCC art galleries, created 22 floating shelves, which house hundreds of the owls. And three large glass jars are filled to the brim with tinier versions, ranging from the size of a marble to a golf ball.

Those who enter the gallery are asked to guess how many tiny owls are in the largest glass container. The winner will get to keep one of the smaller sculptures.

Behm-Windle said she has been “tickled” by the response of her first art installation. 

“It makes people happy.”

“On a Whim” will be on exhibit through October 8, 2017 at the Richard B. Talkin Family Gallery, located on the first floor of McCuan hall at Howard Community College. For more information, visit howardcc.edu/galleries.

Topics: Arts & Culture
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