I met Mary McCann two years ago when we began the journey of the Master of Fine Arts students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts together. Recently Mary graduated from PAFA, and exhibited her thesis works at the Annual Student Exhibition. Mary’s work evolved greatly over the two years that I have known her. During her time at PAFA, Mary’s work came in as one of the finalists of the prestigious Fourth Wall public jurying process. I was thrilled to get a chance to catch up with Mary in her studio and let her tell me a little more about her work.
J: Thank you Mary, for doing this interview today!
M: Thank you for doing this interview with me!
J: Mary, where are you from originally?
M: Well, I’m an army brat, so I’ve lived a lot of different places, but I have spent a lot of my life in Alabama.
J: In the countryside?
M: I’ve lived more in the suburbs, close to the country.
J: What was your very first exposure to art?
M: I think the very first time I remember taking an art class was in Korea, when I was in 1st grade, and we had Korean culture class. The teacher would wear traditional Korean dress, and taught us origami. We did tea ceremonies. It wasn’t just a regular art class, there was a lot of meaning to the activities and a lot of ritual. But before I went to PAFA, I went to the University of Alabama at Birminham, where I was mostly doing representational painting, but towards the end of my time there I was doing more sculpture. When I came here to PAFA, I wanted to keep exploring sculpture.
J: So you lived in Korea for a time before Alabama?
M: Yes. Well, I lived in a few different places: born in Arizona, lived in Texas, and somewhere in there I lived in Korea.
J: Would you say your time in Korea was very informative to the work you make today?
M: I believe so. I lived on a US Army base in Korea: so within the guarded gates, it was pretty much like a little United States. But once you leave the gates, it was a totally different atmosphere. That was pretty interesting. Like stepping into another world.
J: How did you enjoy your time at PAFA?
M: I enjoyed it very much, especially some of the critics that really fit with my work. But also hearing from critics and students who think very differently about my work, that was helpful too, just seeing things in totally different ways.
J: Do you feel like your work has changed a lot since you began the program here?
M: I don’t know if its changed a lot. I wouldn’t say changed, but maybe dug a little deeper and honed in on things where before I would try a little of this, and a little of that, here I felt like I really delved into the experience, and trying new things, but always within myself.
J: What does your process look like? How do you generate your ideas?
M: Past experiences, memories…I attach symbols to them, and make up a story or a myth about it, and then think about which symbols fit best with that feeling or story. Whether its animals, or something in nature like ivy or kudzu…it’s a story first.
J: Do you sketch things out before starting the sculpture?
M: I always sketch things out. It’s something I try to use as a base, but I don’t always follow my initial sketch too strictly. My sketchbook is a big part of my practice, because even when I am thinking about symbols I use the sketchbook as a tool in doing some research about the objects.
J: Do the objects have historical references?
M: I think they do. I think about Korea a lot, I think about traditions in Korea that maybe I am not exposed to but want to know more about, because it’s definitely a part of my identity. I am half Korean, half American, so there’s an American side of me I would like to explore, as well. Also geographically, since I have moved around to a lot of different places, and I have ties to different physical locations, I do like to do research on those locations as well. This can include research about the historical aspect of the place, but also about the people who live there.
J: Almost like your art is a personal chronology, using symbols?
J: Could you tell me a little bit about the rabbit ears?
M: The rabbit ears follows the process I was talking about. I associate rabbits with Korea, my mother told me that if you look at the profile of North and South Korea together, it looks like the profile of a rabbit. So I always associate rabbits with Korea. I made a lot of these sculptures, probably about 70 multiples, and it’s just the ears poking out of the ground. I kind of thought of them as ancestors from my Korean, because rabbits tend to have large families. They also kind of look like vegetation, and they look like they’re either stuck in the ground, or growing out of the ground–and that kind of reminds me of grave markers, too. And the way that I placed them I kind of made them try to look like they are in a little area–whther its a garden, or a family plot, and they’re kind of having these conversations with each other under the ground. So it’s kind of serious, but it’s also whimsical, which is a big part of my work–that it’s not too serious.
J: Could you tell me a little bit about the foot?
M: I’ve been obsessed with ivy and the southern version of ivy, kudzu. It’s just this plant that grows over everything, it can also grow over things and suffocate what’s underneath it. But is also has this beauty to it. It’s a big part of the Southern landscape. I like the idea of a person being stuck. There’s silver on this one that reminds me of the tin man in Oz. He’s stuck and needs to be oiled up, but there’s no one around–he’s standing there, waiting for someone to come by.
J: That is interesting. Does it have cultural relevance to the South?
M: It’s being frozen in place. I have roots in the south, and roots in Korea–but people in the South probably wouldn’t see me as a Southerner, and people in Korea probably wouldn’t see me as a Korean–so it’s kind of about being stuck in a middle ground.
J: Thank you so much for sharing about your practice today, Mary.
M: Thank you for coming to my studio!
Mary McCann’s work can be seen on display upstairs in the contemporary galleries at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the 113th Annual Student Exhibition until June 1, 2014. To see more of Mary’s work or to contact her, visit her website at www.marymccannart.com.