OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Mary Black

Makeup (detail)
Midrange porcelain, glaze, decals

MARY BLACK creates compelling, beautiful, complicated ceramic forms that evoke fleshy human bodies, despite their hard surfaces. Floral decals and carved drawings on the surface of her sculptures employ two classic, but often over-looked functions of decoration: to hide and to highlight. Mary earned her BFA in 2011 from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and went on to earn her MFA in 2015 from University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Her work was recently exhibited in De La Naturaleza at Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio and Materials: Hard & Soft National Contemporary Craft Competition and Exhibition in Denton, Texas. Mary currently makes work at Mudflat Studios in Boston. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your abstract ceramic sculptures evoke bodies in folds and bumps that are both familiar and resist recognition. What looks like a hip crease meeting a fleshy belly from one angle, looks like a bicep pressed up against a head from another. Are your sculptures as abstracted representations or total abstractions?

Mary Black: I consider my sculptures to be abstracted representations of the human form combined with human emotion. I choose to showcase the female body in a way that creates a connection with the viewer, while also leaving moments of unfamiliarity or curiosity. Intrigue plays a large role in drawing me more closely to other works of art, and I think others have this same experience. Giving the viewer a hint of torso or a trace of an arm crease helps to start a dialogue as to what this form may represent.

Midrange porcelain, slip, glaze, pearl powdered pigment

OPP: You talk about insecurity, vulnerability and acceptance in your statement. Could you expand on your use of surface decoration as a way to mask “imperfections?”
MB: I focus on volume and abstraction to evoke the physical truths of the body, which also speaks largely to the emotional distress that comes with those truths. I seek to balance the physical and emotional weight of my sculptures; I couldn’t have one without the other. Showing volume through folds, curves, gravity and scale conveys the literal nature of physical heaviness, yet this is also how I express emotion and self doubt. The sculptures are reflections of my body and my physical, emotional and mental insecurities, but I abstract the body in the hope of connecting with other females who have their own set of insecurities. There is a constant push and pull between cultural ideals of beauty and beliefs about how one should feel about them.

My soft surfaces and layers of detail make the folds and crevices attractive at first glance. I create 'beautiful' layers of floral elements, detail and delicate line-work on the surface in order to entice the viewer to come in for a closer look. When I choose to carve directly into the form, the decorative, floral shapes reference tattoos and scars, which represent physical and mental permanence. These surface details are a buffer created in the hopes that the unappealing and, at times, hidden aspects will be appreciated. Through the process of making, hiding and/or showcasing, I accept moments in my work that I find unflattering and embrace them in another manner, whether that is from mark-making, glazing or final additions of decals and luster.

Late Bloomer
Stoneware, underglaze decals, glaze
16" x 8 1/2" x 19 1/2"

OPP: For those of us who are not well-versed in ceramics, can you explain briefly the different processes you use in your work in creating the forms?

MB: Volume is a way for me to bring a sense of life and weight to ceramic forms. The way that flesh curves and folds around the bone, leaving points unnoticed within the larger, supple areas is stunning and also under-appreciated. I hand build my sculptures to be voluptuous, using thin slabs of clay that I have cut into different shapes. I then piece slabs together in what might seem like a nonsensical manner, but this process is very natural to how I think and how I see shapes. Having a variety of pieces gives me the freedom to alter the form according to what I am feeling in the moment and to what makes sense from a compositional basis. I attach, detach, push, pull and carve the surface, mostly working from the inside to create a shapely, robust form. I tend to work with a light-colored clay body with a very smooth texture, which aids in the process of forming supple folds and later in the process of carving line work.

Balancing with myself
Midrange porcelain, glaze

OPP: And what about decorating the surfaces?

MB: The sensuality I render through each form happens in multiple steps. At this point, it may have become more of an obsessive habit for me as the maker, but I rigorously smooth and sand the sculpture's surface. After allowing the form to become bone dry, I then use at least two to three different grades of sandpaper to best eliminate any additional blemishes or angles.  A sanded, smooth surface is important for my work because it is one of my main attempts at creating an alluring sculpture and hiding any early stages of 'imperfections' that I am uncomfortable with. 

After the final stages of firing, small seams in the clay wall that pull through at mid range firing temperatures (2124-2264° F) have still compromised the surface quality. Textures such as these are not always considered beautiful, which is why I choose to embrace each curving line and each indention. These unconventional standards are ones that I choose to celebrate and appreciate just as much as the appearance of floral decorations. I use underglaze pencils, underglaze, waterslide decals—think: temporary tattoo application, but for clay—and in the very final stages I often apply a gold or white gold luster.

Makeup (detail)
Midrange porcelain, glaze, decals

OPP: Most—if not all—of your sculptures have cavernous holes. The holes simultaneously nod toward the vessel, a staple of ceramics, and reference body orifices, making several of your sculptures strangely sexual. How do you think about the holes? Are they different in different pieces?

MB: I appreciate when moments in my work (and any artist’s work for that matter) allude to more than one specific reference. There is the slight nod to vessel work and traditional ceramic pottery, but I am more concerned with the holes and crevices as metaphors. As I stated earlier, I love a good intrigue. The deep pockets pull the viewer in for a more intimate look at the form and surface details. The first step in experiencing my sculptures is formal. The second step is more conceptual; the viewer yearns for a connection between the abstract and the representational elements. The heavy folds and deep crevices are dark and empty, akin to the sensation of insecurity when one is unhappy with one's own attributes. They also cannot be fully seen, even when peering inside, which works well to tell the story of how we choose to cloak aspects of our lives. There is always more beneath the surface, the unseen and the unnoticed. It is about taking that second glance to get a better understanding.

A Part of Me
Stoneware, slip, underglaze pencil, glaze
14 3/4" x 15 1/2" x 15 1/2"

OPP: As someone who makes both functional ceramics and sculptures, does the distinction between Art and Craft matter to you?

MB: As an artist,  this is a constant discussion. In my early years of making, I was a painter, which automatically falls into a fine art category. No one questioned whether what I was doing was art. After shifting to ceramics, everyone questions this very same thing. It was an on-going debate in grad school because my program fell under the Artistansry category. Never heard of it? Yeah, me neither. Ceramics, wood, metals and fibers were grouped separately from the Fine Arts category (painting, sculpture and printmaking). We all ended up with the same Master of Fine Arts degree, so why was there a need to separate us during our studies?

I think the main distinction between art and craft, even though I hate making a distinction at all, is that craft is more about community. Not to say that the fine arts category doesn't have community, it's just different. Painters tend to brood in a studio by themselves, it's a singular experience. In ceramics, we rely on each other for support with loading and unloading work, sharing glazes and glaze recipes, firing kilns. Firing work together is one of the oldest traditions- and holds true even now. A high fire gas kiln load requires a full days work (if not two days), so firing by yourself is brutal. Sharing space in the kiln with others helps lighten the load of babysitting a kiln from 8am-9pm. There are also plenty of times where you just have one or two small things to fire, and more often than not, another artist will have room where you can get your work in with theirs.

A few times a year, ceramic artist Chris Gustin (a UMD alum) conducts wood firings at his studio near by and allows the university ceramics club to be a part of it.  Artists from all over the country come to join in on the fun.  It takes days of preparation, a week’s worth of constant firing and dedication from each artist to sign up for shifts throughout.  It is one of the best experiences an artist can have, in my opinion.  It gives you the chance to meet new people in and outside of your field of study and learn and share with each other.    

My friends and family often asked how my “pottery is going.” I'm making art. This shouldn't have offended me—and doesn't now—but at the time I couldn't grasp why the understanding of ceramics to outsiders is so skewed. It wasn't pottery to me. It still isn't. There is functional and nonfunctional; that is the only distinction I feel needs to be made. It is all art under one large umbrella.

Cup & Cloud
Porcelain, glaze, salt fired

OPP: Do you think of the functional objects on your website as different than the sculptures?

MB: My thesis body of work revolved around sculptures, but I was teaching wheel throwing and taking a tableware class on the side because I wanted to expand. I wanted to push the boundaries of what I could make and how I could make it. This is true for any artist in any medium.

It is so exciting to see sculptures or paintings by an artist, and then also realize you may be able to own something from them, only on a smaller scale. I think of my functional pieces (mugs, cups, vases, plates) in the same way that painters or photographers think of their prints. An admirer can share their love for someone’s work within the walls of their home. I have yet to be able to afford a massive sculpture; I can't even afford a large tea pot from some of my favorite makers.  What I can afford is the small tea bowl or yunomi that they also have up for grabs.

Art is about sharing. Sharing viewpoints and opinions, color palettes and line work. . . everything. There is no better feeling than sharing the love we have for art. The art vs craft debate matters only because they are treated different in our society. You cannot have one without the other. Regardless of categories, we are all artists.

To see more of Mary's work, please visit maryisthenewblack.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago).  Most recently, Stacia created site-responsive installations for Form Unbound (2015), a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and SENTIENCE (2016), a group show at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (Chicago, IL).