Seated with her feet on the ground but catching herself as if preparing to rise, the woman in Touching Ground by Georgia ceramic artist Debra Fritts adds a three-dimensional form to a corner previously dominated by paintings of a soaring eagle and Coach Erk Russell.
Touching Ground is the latest work that Betty Foy Sanders has given to Georgia Southern University for the Georgia Artists Collection, which she inaugurated in 1967. Her daughter Betty Foy Botts presented the sculpture Saturday at the GSU Center for Art and Theatre.
"My mother is always trying to think of something that she has not given to the collection to expose to students because her overall desire is to ignite, to inspire, to give them a different vision because art is so multidimensional," Botts said.
During the past 45 years, Sanders, a Bulloch County-born artist and the wife of former Gov. Carl Sanders, has given the university more than 40 works for the collection. The Erk Russell portrait, presented in 2010, was commissioned by Sanders and painted by Steve Penley. The acrylic-on-wood painting "On the Wings of Eagles," by Botts herself, became part of the collection during the past decade.
The arts at Georgia Southern have the Foy and Sanders names written all over them. Betty Foy Sanders started her college education at Georgia Southern when it was Georgia Teachers College. She went on to the University of Georgia, but became an advocate of art and art education throughout the state, and especially at Georgia Southern.
As Botts related in an interview, her mother encouraged her father, during his tenure as governor from 1963-1967, to establish the Georgia Council for the Arts. She later defended the organization against attempts to eliminate its funding.
Georgia Southern awarded Sanders its first honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree in 1997 and renamed its visual arts department the Betty Foy Sanders Department of Art in 1999. The Foy Fine Arts Building, now the headquarters of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, is named for her father, J.P. Foy.
Botts explained that her mother, 86, is trying to hand her reins for continuing Sanders' work as an art advocate and patron. Sanders now uses a walker to make her way into her studio at her Atlanta home, where she continues to make art, her daughter said.
GSU President Brooks Keel thanked Botts for her and her mother's contributions to art throughout the state and Georgia Southern. He added that he likes the new sculpture.
"We live in such a rich state -- and I mean that in all the ways that you can define rich -- and you've had an opportunity to provide us with a chance to see some of that richness in this exhibit," Keel told Botts.
She and her mother discovered Touching Ground at Signature Gallery in Atlanta, owned by Carr McCuiston. Although Sanders did not attend the presentation, a university news release provided a statement.
"The new artwork is one of honesty, mystery and feeling," Sanders said. "I selected Touching Ground as the newest artwork for the collection because it is an exemplarily contemporary sculpture. This piece will bring another level of creativity to the collection as a whole."
Fritts' creativity as a ceramic artist, especially in representations of the human figure, is widely known, said Patricia Carter, the chairwoman of the Betty Foy Sanders Department of Art. Fritts lives in Roswell, where she teaches sculpture classes and hand-building classes at Art Center West. She also conducts classes and workshops around the country. Recently, her sculptures were included in "Form and Imagination: Women Ceramic Sculptors" at American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, Calif., and at the SOFA galleries in Chicago and New York.
The ceramic sculpture is a meaningful addition to an eclectic collection, Carter said. Fritts' vision fits the theme of the human figure, seen in several -- but far from all -- pieces in the collection. Other themes found in the collection include "the narrative, a sense of place, the aesthetic object and nature," Carter observed.
She describes Touching Ground as "intriguing," "a little playful" and "highly emotionally charged." Fritts' used three different glazes, and the figure has a rough, almost pebbly surface. The woman's head emerges from a halo-like structure rimmed with candle holders.
"I respond to the visceral quality of the surface," said Professor Jeff Schmuki, who teaches the art department's ceramics classes. "I see personal narrative and also mythology in this work."
Schmuki said he considers the collection a teaching tool and great resource for students. As he noted, it includes not only work by Georgia artists, but works using Georgia materials or themes. He described the varied, eclectic nature of the collection as a good thing.
"I like to see a lot of different things," Schmuki said. "I don't want to come into a gallery and see all one theme. I think it is important that the viewer make their own connections about the work."
The work is the 48th in the Georgia Artists Collection. All but three of the items have been commissioned, created or purchased for the collection by Sanders, Carter said. The exceptions are three John Abbott watercolors given to Sanders for the collection by Deen Day Smith.