An Oregon coastline, rolling patches of Ohio grass, a shooting star in flight.

Drake Gerber’s exhibition, “The Warmth of the Sun,” imports and preserves memories of moments outdoors in ceramic sculptures in the University Center Gallery.

A native of northwest Ohio enamored of the landscapes he’s seen out West, Gerber thinks of them as a way of freezing those experiences. He realized he can’t replicate them in sculpture, so he went in the opposite direction.

“The form has been kind of abstracted, because I get to go visit these places but I’m only there for a short amount of time, and I have to come back,” he said. The specifics start to fade, he reasons, so the work takes on its own life.

Gerber grew up in northwest Ohio and started making ceramics in high school. For college, he headed to Bowling Green State University. He came to the University of Montana for post-baccalaureate study in 2019, and now an MFA in sculpture that he’s completing after three years.

The geographic move allowed him to travel to the West Coast for the first time, including Oregon and California.

When he first arrived here, he was making work that was more related to Robert Rauschenberg’s combine sculptures. He began to transition into this mode of thinking, with inspirations like David Nash, a sculptor and land artist.

Earlier in his grad career, Gerber constructed an installation with wood, metal and clay that represented a hike up the Rattlesnake. The mountains and clouds on the wall were clay, while a stagger-step form making its way from the floor to the wall represented the trail. When Gerber reached the top of a trail in real life, he carved a "snow stove" in honor of Nash, and posted Polaroids his partner shot as a part of the piece.

Our favorite photos of the week from January 30 to February 5.

Shooting stars

As you walk around, a subtly shifting loop of ambient synth fills the room. He composed it himself with a Roland synthesizer to help conjure some of the atmosphere of those spaces, and eliminate the “indoor” quiet of a white cube gallery.

You might assume that “The Radiant,” a row of five stars, which assume a jagged popping shape, were made of metal. Their surfaces are either a deep, shiny blue, matte gray, or both.

Gerber sculpted them from slabs of clay, including the time-intensive process of hand-wedging the material to remove air bubbles. He was “definitely feeling it” after all that work.

Now that the stars have shrunk during firing, the largest is about 3.5 feet wide, about 300 pounds, and took four people to move from the sculpture annex a few buildings away. 

Now set up right, they have ample negative space, so the view changes as you move around.

Not long before starting the project, Gerber had taken a trip to Mackay, Idaho, and had the chance to star-gaze. Back in the studio, he wanted to make “something that takes me back to that place without actually going there.”

By arranging these sculptures in arch shape, where the tallest is the middle, he found a way to translate a fleeting moment. And, as he pointed out, he’s doing it with a medium (clay) that’s also ephemeral.

UM sculpture professor Trey Hill, who’s worked with Gerber since he first got to UM, said that the student's art is well-considered and reflects his work ethic.

Those stars are “hard things to make," Hill said. "They’re not the most complex forms, but to get those all the way through the firing process, and to stand up and not crack and not warp, that’s tricky.”

Gerber had to build them laying flat, and then fire them that way, too. Hill said that's risky, too, as they can slide around and shrink in the kiln and potentially crack.

“Current, Wave and Wind” is a large floor piece, comprising 96 tiles of molded Oregon sand. Gerber carved a set of four tiles that could be repeated to create an expanse of beachfront. Atop the surface, he arranged a locally sourced piece of driftwood, a metallic ball and a bright set of blue feet.

He wants them to be enigmatic – he made casts of his own feet (glazed in blue in honor of the freezing nature of the water) at the suggestion of a friend, which adds a cryptic narrative element.


In the rear of the gallery is “Making Earth,” which in part pays homage to the grassy plains of the Midwest. Each blade in this case is 25 inches tall, cast in a mold. He brought in top soil and neatly arranged three plots in which to plant his grass, with its rough surface that keys the viewer in that they’re earthy, not “real,” but also not plastic.

It’s titled in honor of a 1970 project by the Harrison Studio, an artist duo, who mixed and made their own topsoil after learning that there was a shortage.

He thought about reserving the back end of the gallery for it, but the scattered plots allow the viewer a chance to wander through the 125-some blades. 

The grasses had to be fired at a relatively lower heat so the tops didn’t begin to lean — he’d like to experiment with getting them to lean consistently to emulate wind passing through, and incorporate an unseen element of the environment.

The goal isn’t to be too obvious in any sort of message, but to encourage people to “try to see the landscape in a new or different way.”