Tinsely Wert's ceramic sculptures look like toy people trapped forever in states of anxiety or elation.
Two girls cry beside a twisted red wheelbarrow. A woman holds up a crustacean, as if to celebrate its capture. A person dressed in a black restraining jacket sits, twisted and trapped, on a large, black chair.
"They represent personal experiences and occurrences," said Wert, whose works are on display at the Lawrence Arts Center through Sept. 12. "I used little disturbances, little problems that inspired me."
The show, called "Questioned for Cause," comes at the end of Wert's residency at the center. A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Wert has served since January as a teacher in center programs and worked on the ceramic figures in a kiln at her home in Baldwin.
The title of the show, taken from a series of three figures showing a man escaping and ultimately bowing to some fate, is supposed to suggest the artist's own questioning of the reality around her.
"They're questions to myself as well as to others," she said. "It's not to confront other people, although they are trying to deal with the thoughts I do have."
THE FIGURES themselves don't represent any kind of unifying narrative; instead they take moments or ideas from the artist's perception and play them out on a static stage. Some of the figures show a bleak outlook; others seem designed to make viewers smile.
"I struggled with the positive much more than with the negative, because the positive themes are a lot more difficult to do," she said. "There's a part of me that's always leaning toward the negative, and it's hard to make a positive statement without making them sugar-sweet. It's a hard line to draw."
Each figure was fired in the kiln and painted with any material Wert got her hands on. But these aren't ordinary ceramic figures. One of the bleaker figures shows a white, pristeen mannequin wearing turn-of-the-century clothes. But part of her head is smashed in.
EACH OF the figures shows a face that is just a bit distorted or oblong out-of-kilter with reality. And the wheelbarrow is a piece of twisted clay.
"That piece is an irony," she said. "They're making a big deal over a crushed wagon, when in fact it's a very insignificant kind of thing."
After the Lawrence show, the figures may go their separate ways, Wert said. She already has shows scheduled in Great Bend and Iowa; she'll divide the figures between the shows and add others still at her home.
Wert said the center's residency came at an ideal time for her: She was just about ready to begin a series, and she plans to continue the series even after her residency.
"I don't like the fact that it had to end," she said. "It was a wonderful opportunity to pursue work. This is the first substantive body of work I've done since graduate school."