Fine Art Craft | Terry Rumble


By Wolf Schneider

Even though it was more than 20 years ago when Terry Rumble visited two islands where herds of horses run free—Maryland’s Assateague Island and Virginia’s Chincoteague Island—her memories of those horses continue to motivate her artwork. “It was the freedom they seemed to have. They ate and they wandered around. They were smaller than the horses I was used to,” recalls the clay artist, who is originally from North Dakota. “I love them. There’s just something about them. I’m a Virgo, very earth-related, and the horses are so earthy. I’m fascinated by horses, but I’m afraid to ride them.”

Rumble’s reluctance to establish a real-life relationship with her equine muses is perhaps the reason her sculptures are so stylized and possess such a universal spirituality. Chunky and sturdy, these thick-legged horses with their haunting, carved-out openings for eyes look Icelandic or Japanese; they are not the powerful quarter horses and elegant thoroughbreds on which the American West was founded. In fact, they’re not really realistic horses at all; they’re more like spirit vessels.

Besides the wild island horses, Rumble’s biggest influence is the Japanese tomb sculptures of daily life called Haniwa: These cylindrical terra-cotta clay figures with deep, hollowed-out eyes were made for ritual use and buried with the dead. They were thought to be containers for souls. Rumble’s horses’ eyes are similarly hollow. “The eyes are actually empty, but they’re lively and sweet,” she says. “That’s the Haniwa influence—the opening where the eye is. The whole piece is something you can see up into. You can see up into the columns of the legs, and the whole inside is connected by an inner structure, which is essentially a lot of absence. The eyes are part of that, by just being an eye shape formed out of the clay.”

Rumble has also sculpted goats, lions, towers, and horses lying down, but mainly she sculpts standing horses. “No stallions,” she specifies. “These are mainly wandering horses.” She takes days to shape them, then paints them with colored designs she creates with a ceramic painting material. After spraying a glaze over the piece, she fires it in her kiln. Most of her sculptures are about a foot and a half tall and almost as long. Her designs, like her horses, come into being in an un-researched, freeform sort of process. She may meditate on how mer, the French word for sea, may be related to the word mare, or how the Celtic horse goddess Epona could have ridden sidesaddle. Mainly, Rumble lets her hands lead and stays open-minded.

“I’m pretty much a hand-body oriented person,” she says. “My forte would be getting a certain look out of the sculptures that has a life in it. To me, they look like they know something. If they don’t look like that, I have to keep working on them.” Specifically, she says, “I feel like in the making process I’m able to have them come to life. I find it very magical: I’m rolling out clay, and at a certain moment, usually with the ears, all of a sudden, it’s got that pizzazz. A-ha! You’re there!”


Sometimes the horses have blackbirds perched on their backs. “The birds are companions,” Rumble explains. “And blackbirds are my totem. When my father died, I had this dream that a blackbird came through the window and talked to me, and told me about everything. I was so moved by that, that afterwards I did these performance pieces in which I dressed as a blackbird,” she laughs.

Of Scottish-Irish heritage, Rumble was born in Fargo, ND, in 1939. She grew up surrounded by family, often visiting the bakery that her grandfather owned where the comforting scent of rising dough permeated the air. Her parents, who sold appliances, eventually moved the family to Minneapolis, MN, where Rumble attended high school.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA, in 1961, then married her first husband, with whom she had three children. He was a teacher, and his work led them to Bridgeport, CT, where she studied sculpture with Susan Reinhart and ceramics with Gabor Gergo at the University of Bridgeport, completing a bachelor’s degree in fine art there in 1973.

“I became an artist because of Susan and Gabor,” acknowledges Rumble. “Susan was just not afraid of anything. She was the most straightforward woman, and very demanding and very kind. She became a role model for me.” From Gergo, Rumble learned about “the life in the clay” and how to eliminate air pockets so the clay wouldn’t explode while being fired.

She couldn’t become an artist quite yet, though—she and her husband divorced, and she had three children to raise. So Rumble brought them with her when she relocated to central Massachusetts to do administrative work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and earn her master’s degree in fine art. By the 1980s she was teaching and sculpting her horses and had married her second husband, Bill Walker, a sculptor and woodworker. In the ’90s, when Rumble was in her 50s, her art career finally came together with gallery representation. Today she and her husband share a studio behind their home in Belchertown, MA—he downstairs, she upstairs.

“I feel like my life as an artist is very natural and nature-related. I don’t socialize very much. Maybe it’s an escape world. It’s like the garden for me—so compelling,” muses Rumble. “For me, it’s all a matter of the feel of it. The felt-ness. I make the horses’ legs by rolling them out with rolling pins. Then I hand-build the lower part of the body, and then the head and the rest. So it’s a felt-ness that takes it where it’s going to go. I count on some inspiration coming along that will lead me somewhere.”

Featured in July 2008