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Mary Little

Interview by Alessandro Casagrande
Portrait courtesy of Elena Dorfman
Photography courtesy of Mary Little

Mary Little explores the interaction between light, surface and gravity. Her works take the form of rhythmic, undulating hollows and rises, suggesting images of landscape or bodyscape. Sensibilities are rooted in a childhood among lush rolling farmlands of Ireland and its wild rugged coastlines. The work is ritualistic in its process: cutting, then sewing cotton canvas; much as a tailor would make a suit. The completed works are an interplay between precision planning, her emotions and the unpredictability of the canvas.

Alessandro Casagrande (AC) – “Reflections” is the title of your latest exhibition and it is in digital view. What do you think of this current situation dictated by the pandemic in relation to your work as an artist and so how you see your work being received by others right now? 

Mary Little (ML) – Since the beginning of the pandemic, the shock of our new worldwide condition has taken my thinking back to the past. Memories have been surging back. I live and work with my husband, and our workplace is our home, our home is our workplace. Day to day I am more focused in my studio as there are less distractions. While being more solitary, I have been able to fall deeply into making a new body of work for a show next year. It will be digital, I’m sure of that, but what I’m less sure of is if it will be analogue too. Will you want to go out to a public space next spring?

A few months after the Governor’s ‘Stay at Home Order’, I would say around May, I began to get inquiries about my work from both regular and new clients. I found I was getting into deeper discussions with many of them, on what the work means for them and why they wanted to have it in their home. A common theme they spoke of is the calmness of the work, its sense of tranquility.

(AC) – From your own words: “At age 10, February 7, 1969, my sisters and I are picked up after school and driven to a new home. In just one day, my family had moved from a farm by the sea, surrounded by our wider family of farmers – to Belfast”. Those early years of your life spent in the countryside have highly influenced your work; I feel that there you gained that sensibility we can see through your works. Tell us why that connection with the past is so important to you and what from the past comes up in your works.

(ML) – My environment on the east coast of the north of Ireland had a deep effect on my sensibility. The landscape is of softly rolling low hills. The fields are small, divided by a fine network of hedges – an organic mix of dry-stone wall and low Hawthorn. The sea softened my sense of this landscape even further as I was also surrounded by coastline. To the east there are long sandy beaches onto the Irish Sea, and 3 miles west along Strangford Lough is a pebble beach with a few 12’ high boulders. There are practically no straight lines, at least they are not significant. All this has seeped into my sensibility and the gestures I make in the cloth.

Farmers are practical people; they work with their hands. They’re versatile in their skills and are problem solvers. Me too. I learned from growing up among my extended family, to be resilient and self-reliant; to be creative. This pragmatic culture directed me towards studying and practicing as a furniture designer, rather than say a sculptor. Hand and the brain working together – that’s my history and culture.

(AC) – How was the transaction of moving to a big city as Los Angeles and how your creativity and work was impacted by this big change of scenery?

(ML) – Haha, I arrived in Los Angeles from the farm via years of living in Belfast (proud city), London (a big diverse city), Milan (an intense sophisticated city), London again, West Oakland (a proud city too), San Francisco (a costly city), New Haven, Connecticut (a city struggling with itself). When I moved to Los Angeles six years ago, I was really returning to California; by then I felt I was returning home. I feel so at home in the mess that is California.

Los Angeles is not a big city to me. My Los Angeles is mile after mile of single-story stores and warehouses. Behind this are square miles of single-story suburban houses. I live in a converted furniture factory. On a good air day, I can see the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance, above bland warehouse buildings in the foreground. Where I live downtown is a little the worse for wear. L.A.’s contrasts, contradictions and chic alongside shabby make it an exciting city. There is always something to discover or stumble upon. It’s a creative city. I love the diversity of the creative venues in Los Angeles. L.A. has people who love art and support artists. I’m fortunate I have space to work, diversity of views on my work, and appreciation for what I do. It’s stimulating and encouraging.

I want to bring it to your attention that it’s critical that individuals who love art, buy it and have it in their homes. This happens here. It means artists can create with confidence, sell, and continue to make more with more confidence.

You asked about my work. When I arrived in L.A. my work focused on how we feel and look when seated – the sensory side of sitting. With my move I was looking for a fresh start, to re calibrate. I wanted to understand what was at the core of what I’m about – what I’m interested in. I took time to explore this eventually realizing that it is the emotional effect an object can have on you, that’s the driving force of my work. Whether it’s a chair you sit on and live with or artwork that hangs from your wall. Somehow, I don’t think I couldn’t have had that insight elsewhere.

(AC) – From your own words: “I’ve spoken before, about the gentle nature of the countryside where I grew up and how that sensibility is revealed in the aesthetic of my work. Until now I haven’t talked about why serenity and tranquility in my work are so important to me: I need to focus on the good; in my heart and environment. I claim the right to make beauty, to allow inner calm, to give peace. I want to show you the strength of beauty, and order.” Your work as you mentioned it is strongly influenced by the nature. Nature has its own ways. Sometimes it is sweet and delicate, other times it is strong and impetuous. Its phases are part of a constant rhythm. Describe your modus operandi, where your inspirations come from and how you develop it to arrive at a finished project.

(ML) – It isn’t so much inspiration, as an exploration.

I layer elements. I’m laying something down in the way sediment is laid down over millennia, becoming something bigger and developing its own character. These strata with their interferences are what I work on daily. I’ve chosen to limit myself to the simplest of fabrics – cotton canvas – and the process of pattern making. From this simplicity I can focus on ideas. Working alone on this at my table is mediative.

That’s my modus operandi.

(AC) – You are creating pieces that interact with light, surface and gravity. What do you want to communicate with your pieces to the public?

(ML) – I’ll say first that I don’t think about the public, about groups of humans. Instead I think about engaging with individuals. When someone makes a studio visit or sees my work on exhibition, I watch and can see that person being drawn to one particular work above the others. Each individual is inevitably drawn to a different work. When we engage in conversation about the work, the conversation becomes about them. I learn about them, about what the work made them feel, what memory it evokes, what period in their life it reminds them off. It’s a moment of joy. I don’t know what I’m communicating; it seems to be more about them.

The fact the work is made from cloth and is sewn is significant. We wear and have worn clothes which are sewn together every day of our lives. Many of us have never thought to wonder how they are made. The rest of us know how to sew, to some degree. Whichever and whoever, the abstract nature of the work in its mono-color cloth, fascinates and brings out questions.

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