Ceramic artist and native Californian Mary McGill strikes both a symbolic and aesthetic balance between humans and nature, and beauty and time-induced flaws, as seen in her sculptures of the female figure and anthropomorphic cats. In one of her most powerful pieces, a glazed and shining female torso is paired with dark, twisted branches, and in another piece, butterflies lifted up on wires emerge from the chest cavity with a subtle yet energetic force. And although these textured forms stand with a significant, weighty integrity, close inspection reveals text cut into their clay surfaces, and their weathered skin peels back and curls like the edges of burned paper. These are imperfections with meaning – marks earned like wrinkles on the faces of those who have laughed much and loved hard.
Mary doesn’t always want you to know what she has written on her work, but sometimes, bits and pieces of text come through. For example, in the final piece of her “Winds of Change” series, she added a somewhat obscured yet incredibly profound quote: “You cannot change the wind, the seasons, or the circumstances…you can only change yourself.” How true it is, that we have a choice to react positively and maturely in any difficult situation, and in this case for Mary, it was how to cope with losing a dear friend to cancer.
Fortunately, Mary has found her true passion in the process and practice of ceramics, and finds herself on a never-ending quest within her work, always learning and experimenting, and using her artwork as an outlet to tell her stories. Her sculptural works, which are “representational of the struggles, joys and journeys of life” feature recurring symbols such as butterflies, birds, and houses, which evoke emotional responses in the viewer and initiate a dialogue about what these symbols mean to the gallery attendees, studio visitors, and collectors who experience her work.
With titles like “A Head Full of Fears Leaves No Room for Dreams” and “Bend Don’t Break,” Mary explores many issues faced not only by women, but by humanity as a whole, and she hopes that her work will start important conversations and that her figures will speak to each individual viewer in a unique and powerful way. The artist often looks for and collects quotes and poems that inspire her, and will use those excerpts to inform her sculptures. In her sculpture of a cat skirted by hundreds of handmade porcelain butterflies, Mary was inspired by the William Blake poem, ‘Eternity:’ He who binds to himself a joy; Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies; Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
In her Artist Statement, Mary writes that her sculptural work “continues to be female figures and feline figures within pottery vessels, and how they relate symbolically, narratively, and emotionally.” “My head,” she writes, “is full of the reasons and meanings behind each piece, usually a convoluted combination of an experience with a myriad of emotions and thoughts that could be many words, but instead is this one piece.”
Mary, who has raised three children, began to develop her talent for ceramic art in 1997. She learned to the throw on a wheel while attending Moorpark College in California, and to this day continues to explore her unique and recognizable style with a focus on hand-building. Mary began with a backyard studio, which served her needs until she began to yearn for a more comfortable workspace with heating and air conditioning. In 2010, she fulfilled her wish and became an Artist In Residence at Studio Channel Islands, a vibrant artist collective in Camarillo, California, boasting 40 working studios and a large gallery.
On December 3, 2016, Mary’s current solo show, Art of the Story, opened at Blackboard Gallery in Camarillo. A few days after the opening, Mary participated in an Artist’s Talk with Blackboard Gallery manager and artist, Katherine Cooskey. The insightful talk is featured below. Art of the Story is on view through January 21, 2017.
Artist Talk With Mary McGill @ Blackboard Gallery from 12/10/16
Katherine Cooksey: Hello Mary, and thank you for meeting with us today. Can you start off by telling us a bit about your studio?
Mary McGill: Years ago I had a studio in my backyard and during the summer when it gets hot it’s super hot, and when it’s cold you shake, because your hands are in water. I knew I always wanted to have a studio but it just never worked out and then when this became available at Studio Channel Islands I ﬁnally went for it.
Are any of your children artistic?
I wouldn’t say that they are not artistic, but they need to make a living. I have 2 sons in ﬁnance and my daughter works for Facebook. As a matter of fact, my friend Charles, is taking a live video here for Facebook.
Can you give us a quick summary of your show The Art of the Story?
Art of the Story is about stories, and they are my stories. Each piece was made at a different time, and as an artist, I don’t know how you can’t tell stories with your work. I think whether you are painting, drawing, or sculpting, a little bit of what is going on in your life is naturally going to show up in your work – I don’t know how it could go any other way. I don’t necessarily want you to know what the story is, but I want you to recognize… it is always a journey, and that all we are really guaranteed in life is that journey. What I like is for the art to resonate and for the art to ignite a conversation. I like it when I have a piece in a show, and I’ll ask the viewer …what do you see it in it? That person will tell me about what they see, and I love that, that’s perfect. I love the conversation and I like that my art starts it.
In your statement you talk about your sculptural work continuing to be female and feline ﬁgures as vessels. Can you talk about why these ﬁgures are important to you, and do they connect, or are they completely separate?
I am comfortable sculpting women, I just really enjoy it. Take this piece for example (she gestures toward her female torso sculpture, “Flutter,” (which has butterﬂies coming out of the top of it). The symbolism of the butterﬂy is that it starts as a caterpillar and as it goes through a metamorphosis, it accepts all the changes with beauty and grace. I enjoy that symbolism. I use butterﬂies a lot, I use them in my bowls as well. And regarding the cats, the cats are mostly men, you see here the crown, they can think they are kings. This cat in particular, the one called Carnal Thoughts, you can see that his head is wrapped in birds, and rats ….his carnal thoughts are symbolic of different thoughts that we all have in our minds.
When you start out with a cat, is it a person you are thinking about or is it a made-up creature?
It is a made-up creature. It’s not any person, other than myself. It is my mind, it is my emotion, it is nothing other than what I am going through at that time. The totems all are also telling stories. Two of them in this show… are part of a series. The top “beads” are from the “Winds of Change” series, which was all based on a picture I was shown from a close friend who was ill. I loved the picture of the hair ﬂying back and not having a care in the world and that was what it was all about. There were three pieces in the series and one is topping this totem, the other one in the series is here, and the other is sold. It was all about change, and it was what was representative for me at the time.
When you work, do you have in mind what you want a sculpture to look like, or does that evolve as you work?
A lot of times I have read something and that sparks the feeling inside of me but it never gives me what they are going to look like, it just sort of happens. The emotions from what I have read or what I have seen, or a poem, or a picture, just sparks that part of me and then I just go with that. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes they don’t make it out the door (laughs). Especially in ceramics. Ceramics is never-ending in terms of learning. With ﬁring there is always a surprise, I don’t care how many times you ﬁre, it is always different with the glazes and such, and it is always what is going on in the atmosphere of the kiln: I ﬁre with a gas kiln, an electric kiln, and a Raku kiln. Those are three different ﬁres that give me three different surfaces. My biggest kiln is a gas kiln can so I know that if the piece is going to be very large then I have to glaze it a certain way. Those are the only parameters I have in terms of what controls the outcome because if it is a really big piece than it has to go into my biggest kiln. Even then, sometimes I wish I had an even bigger Kiln, because then I could make it even bigger. I do, however, still need to be able to pick it up myself and get it into the car.
Can you talk a little bit about how the totems are constructed?
There is a piece of re-bar in the center. I have a couple of friends who help me. These pieces are able to be slid off the re-bar because the pieces need to be able to come apart so they can be moved. As you know, ceramics are extremely fragile, so all these pieces of the totems can come off, and then I pack them, and they go where ever they need to be going then I reassemble the totem. Even though ceramics are fragile in some ways, they are very strong in others. You can’t smash the pieces but you can certainly stack them. I’m always looking at balance, and in my head I’m always thinking about scale and just making sure they look like they are balanced to me.
What do the homes symbolize in your totems?
Family. As a mother, daughter, sister, wife…the home is at the heart of the roles we play as women.
Can the totems be rearranged?
Somewhat…they can because each piece is separate, they are like beads. But they won’t always fit. Like this bead here, the top of it is fragile, nothing could be stacked on top of it. They can’t be stacked until they are fired, so while I am making them, in my mind, it’s a bit difficult – I’ll always need to throw something else or make something else to fill in because it’s not always going to stack perfectly.
You have writings on the walls next to certain pieces. Can you talk about how you discovered these writings – are you always reading, or looking, or do they kind of discover you?
They discover me. As an artist I’m always looking at images, always reading things, and two of my kids live in New York, and sometimes I just can’t wait to sit on that plane for five or six hours when I go see them because nothing can interrupt me on the flight – there are no e-mails or texting or anything like that, I just save up the things I want to read for the plane, and I go quite often to see them, and I just read and look, and things just jump out at me. For example, with this piece “By the Book” I knew I wanted to put a book on this torso but I wasn’t sure what I wanted the pages on the book to say, but when I saw this poem or statement by an unknown author I thought it was perfect because like I’ve said, these works are telling my stories, and telling how I feel in my life, things I’ve been through and such, so this text worked for this piece, I loved what it said.
Do you do any writing yourself, and do you share it with anyone?
I do write, yes, and nearly every piece here has writing on it, and sometimes it’s inside of it and you don’t see what I’ve written or there are words on there but they are obscured. Yes I write a lot but I don’t necessarily want everyone to know what I write.
One thing I find interesting about your female figures, and I don’t think you have any functioning vessels here, but I know that sometimes you do a female figure within a working vessel. How do you see those in a feminism discussion?
If feminism is defined as equality, as in we are all equal, then I’m a feminist. The female vessels are the stories of all women everywhere as wives, mothers, every function you have as a woman, and they are me. I just enjoy making them and giving them life, I enjoy giving them a personality.
Do you see the vessels and bowls as decorations or as working pieces of art?
Some of them are very functional and some of them are not, only because their glazes are too chalky or it’s not a food safe surface, but you could put wrapped things in those ones.
Can you talk more about butterflies and the other symbols you use throughout your pieces?
The symbolic lesson of the butterfly is to accept the changes in our lives as casually as she does. The butterfly unquestioningly embraces the changes of her environment and her body. To take this analogy a step further, we can look again to the grace and eloquence of the butterfly and realize that our journey is our only guarantee. Our responsibility to make our way in faith, accept the change that comes, and emerge from our transitions as brilliantly as the butterfly.
Birds to me are symbolic of a rebirth or the beginning of a new idea. They are a gateway to new opportunities, and they refer to a patient outlook on life. Birds are also symbolic of growth in personal and spiritual life. Some of my women have open heads, and that’s because there is information that is still coming to you, you are open to new things that are coming to you. The piece over there is a woman who is carrying two vessels, and it’s not just water, she is carrying everything in life – because that is what women do. When I use circles in my work, the circle is universal, sacred, and divine. It represents the infinite nature of energy, and the inclusivity of the universe.
Tell me about the mask pieces over on this wall.
This is from a series called “Surgeon General.” One is smoking, and the piece shows what can happen to you when you smoke – your skin gets a little rough, and I love to make the clay have texture, and I love to see how far I can push it before it rips, and as an artist the aesthetics for me are extremely important. That’s what I’m doing with these masks, it’s a statement on the bad effects of smoking. I have another series of masks called “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful” and they are pulled, they are wired up, the faces are going every which way, and that’s a statement about plastic surgery, and what women started doing to their faces and how they looked better before. They are my personal statements about things.
You can follow Mary McGill on Instagram, Facebook, and on her website.