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Resident artist's nature-nurture work expresses memories in clay

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

As a young girl, CJ Niehaus would spend hours in the creek behind her house in Cincinnati catching crawfish and making creatures out of mud.

Her mother, Mary, encouraged both Niehaus' love of nature and her creative impulses.

"My mother was maybe not thrilled about the way I smelled when I came back from playing in the creek, but she was always really supportive of anything creative," Niehaus said. "She was always the person who would be asking questions about the little lumpy pieces I created."

Decades later, the memory of these childhood experiences - and the woman who helped make them possible - has found its way into Niehaus' clay art.

"I wanted to make work that was true, and so I think that was why I went back in time. Through that process ... I realized how much my mother had influenced me," Niehaus said of her most recent body of work.

Memory came to hold an especially important place in Niehaus' art after her mother was diagnosed with age-related dementia.

"Memories are what make us who we are. It's a little scary to think of what my mother's going through. (She's) starting to lose those memories, starting to lose a little bit of who she is," Niehaus said. "I wanted to do this (work) now, when I knew she'd be aware of what I was doing."

Niehaus said her mother had a chance to look at her work last year, during her master's thesis show at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

"She was, I think, surprised," Niehaus said. "I think she was really quite taken with it."

The artist hopes to bring her mother to Paducah to see her most recent exhibition, titled "Nature. Nurture: A Show Inspired by the Mother/Daughter Relationship," which will be on display at the Yeiser Art Center, 200 Broadway, from Feb. 15 to March 22.

Niehaus is the resident artist for Paducah School of Art & Design, where she teaches three ceramics classes. But when she first began studying art, she never thought she'd spend the next two decades working in clay.

She attended Xavier University in Cincinnati for an undergraduate degree in art therapy, which she received in 1988. Ceramics was the last required class she took because she didn't want to make "dishes," she said.

But she found the tactile nature of clay appealed to her, and has stuck with the medium ever since.

"I think I have to have my hands in the clay and make stuff for me to get more ideas about making more stuff," she said.

Maybe, she added, a childhood spent playing with mud and getting a little dirty had something to do with it.

A free opening reception for Niehaus' exhibition will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Yeiser Art Center.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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