Mary Autumn Roberts: Sparking Nostalgia

September 14, 2018 by

Mary Autumn Roberts’s work is full of color, creamy blues, soft yellows, and hues of natural clay. The forms have energizing movement and a clear hand—reminiscent of the flux of claymation, that at any point these objects could spring into life, hop up, and scurry off into the world.

Roberts’s surface treatment of the clay varies, her latest innovation was to wrap the clay figures in handmade abaca paper. The air trapped below the paper’s surface makes the clay seem light and airy. It also makes the surfaces soft. She likes that the pieces then “seem to be weathered.” The technique adds time artificially, bending it and reaching into the past. Her work reaches into our memories and sparks nostalgia.

Roberts’s work reminds me of all the objects in my home that store memories of lighter days, and that, with a moment of reflection, I can access those feelings. Roberts is working in ceramics, but a lot of her surface treatment disguises the fragile and heavy quality of clay. Why make something hard, brittle, and delicate seem plush, soft, and bendable? Is this a manifestation of a fear—that lightheartedness is in danger at all times? The freedom and tenderness of childhood is easily broken, easily lost. It is a balloon animal, ready to pop. But, even then, the pieces remain scattered and waiting for us to rediscover them.

It was with these thoughts that I entered a chat online with Roberts about her time at Women’s Studio Workshop, her process, and Virginia Woolf. This interview has been edited for ease of reading and clarity.

CR Cooper: Ok! So you had a Studio Workspace Residency, is that correct? Was it in ceramics?

Mary Autumn Roberts: Yes! I was the Workspace Resident in ceramics for six weeks in the fall of 2017. The last week or two I also did some work in the paper-making studio.

CR: Ah yes! It looks like you were pulling sheets of abaca paper? The colors in that paper are pretty amazing!

MAR: Thank you! Yes, that’s right. I used abaca paper as a surface treatment for one of my installations/table arrangements (the clouds, trees and airplanes). Having the paper studio close by seemed like a great opportunity, so I couldn’t pass it up. I work a lot in mixed media, so exploring a material outside of clay/glaze/slip was exciting for me. It also felt like a big experiment. I had a pretty good sense for how the work would turn out, but similar to working in clay, I allowed myself to be open to the process, and the way in which things change.

CR: Definitely! The way WSW’s campus is set up with studios for different media full of artists working in close proximity is one of the best things about working at WSW. Collaboration and exploration are always imminent. How do you feel the experiment went?

MAR: I think it went really well. I was lucky to have the technical support of WSW’s Studio Manager, Chris Petrone, and other people at WSW. Chris and I sat down and discussed how I wanted the paper to behave, how much it would shrink, etc. Abaca seemed like the best fiber in terms of taking color and appropriate shrinkage. I knew I wanted bright colors, and in the end I got what I wanted. Working with the pigments felt like one of the bigger challenges. At one point I dumped way too much red in one batch and then another. I needed to work on diluting. Once I had the sheets pulled and pressed, I really enjoyed the process of wrapping the fired ceramic forms. I stayed up really late and set up some fans so the paper could dry quickly on the ceramics. It was really cool. I’m glad the colors and shrinkage worked so nicely with the ceramic forms.

CR: The paper makes the pieces feel really soft, almost like plush fabric forms.

MAR: Yeah, it’s interesting because I’m currently working on a series of soft stuffed fabric forms for the wall.  The colors and shapes remind me a bit of this project.

MAR: I recently updated my website so the WSW pieces now have a materials list to go along with the image.  I know it’s abaca paper-covered ceramics, but I think it could be a range of things – like you say, plush fabric forms.  Or paint on ceramics.

CR: Are you talking about possibly listing the perceived materials alongside the “accurate” ones?

MAR: No.  I’m just saying, I realized it was important to list the materials, otherwise the viewer might not know what they are.

CR: Oh, I see! I was enjoying the idea of a mischievous materials list.  

MAR: Yes, that would be fun! I’m fine if they think it is something else, I just think it’s helpful to have the accurate information accompany the piece.

CR: Definitely, that’s probably for the best.

CR: It looks like you spent a lot of your time building hairbrushes and combs. I really enjoy the whimsical way some of the bristles seem to spring out of the head of the brushes. What draws you to the hairbrush as a subject? Why brushes and not spoons. Or why not a mixture of tools and things?

MAR:  I like the versatility of a brush, the different kinds and range of uses. I wanted to replicate a series of objects found in the home, something that references function and domesticity. Hairbrushes, paint brushes, combs. Items that are used to clean and care for our bodies or our homes carry a history of use, a story of brushing a child’s hair, or painting the dining room walls.

MAR: As a ceramic artist, choosing a category as broad as “brushes” gave me enough room to play and explore a number of forms that have many functions.  I was able to create multiples, while not using too much repetition. I also included a fork, mirror, and a few abstract tool-inspired pieces in this installation. I was excited to explore the range of textures in a brush, perfecting the way I constructed the bristles, creating a hair brush from memory, and a still-life of utility brushes I borrowed from the paper studio.

MAR: There is something gratifying to me about making everyday objects that are recognizable, something you can put a name to.  

CR: On another note, from your statement: “There is a starkness, simplicity, and neutrality to the palette that is liberating for me.” Can you talk about this sense of freedom? What do you feel free from?

MAR: As a mixed media ceramic artist, I often feel conflicted about how to address the surface of a piece.  Sometimes glaze is the perfect solution, and other times I want to explore other possibilities. Going into my residency at WSW, I was excited to work in low-fire earthenware for the first time in many years. There is a richness to the color of red earthenware clay, and I wanted to give myself permission to not glaze the forms in “Combs & Brushes,” or add anything else to the surface. The rawness of the bare red (and white) earthenware clay was exactly what I wanted. It brought a sense of ease and simplicity to the process, and the finished work.  

CR: I also wanted to ask you if you’re a fan of Virginia Woolf, and if you’ve read To the Lighthouse by any chance?

CR: I’m asking because of a specific, short, and beautiful section of the book called Time Passes. It follows a family and their interaction with their summer home. Time Passes examines the house itself and the objects in the house as they were affected by 10 years without being visited by the family. It examines what happens to the objects and how they store memories. It reminds me a lot of your work.

MAR: I am so glad you asked. I love Virginia Woolf, and To The Lighthouse is one of my favorite books.  The history of objects, and notions of the passing of time play an important role in the content of my work.  Through my mixed media ceramic installations, I strive to evoke this sense of memory and history. I do feel there is a weathered quality to “Combs & Brushes” that speak of a time and a place. The objects are artifacts of a time that has passed, and hold the history of a lifetime of use — of the people who used them, and the house in which they were kept. “Daydream Dreamscape” is more abstract. To me it is a dream-like setting, potentially conjured by a child’s imagination. It strives to reckon with the way in which a child (your inner child?) might draw a tree, or the shapes you might imagine in the sky while lying on your back on a summer day.

MAR:  I realize I need to sign off in the next few minutes.  

CR: Sure! Thanks so much for taking out some time to talk.

MAR: Thank you, I’ve really enjoyed it!

CR:  Me too! Have a nice afternoon!

MAR: Thanks, you too! Take care 🙂

Mary Autumn Roberts is an artist living and working in Ithaca, NY where she maintains a mixed-media practice out of her home studio. With a background in ceramics, she creates mixed-media installations that incorporate ceramic sculpture, drawing, painting, cardboard, and fabric. Working in a way that is intuitive and playful, she pursues a child-like quality in her work, that is both whimsical and dream-like. She received a BFA from NYSCC at Alfred University in 2009, with a concentration in ceramic art, and a Post-baccalaureate degree from Colorado State University in 2010. She has been a studio assistant at Peters Valley Craft Center, a teaching assistant at Colorado State University, and a ceramics instructor at the Cornell University Ceramics Studio and the Ithaca Youth Bureau. In 2012, she was an artist-in-residence at Guldagergaard International Ceramic Research Center, in Skaelskor, Denmark.