"I feel like I'm constantly walking the edge of disaster in creating these pieces..." —Mary O'Malley
Mary O'Malley is a visual artist who, as she describes it, spends her time "creating ceramics out of a barn in Long Island." A recent-ish graduate of Philadelphia's University of the Arts, O'Malley has already started to make a name for herself in craft circles with appearances at events such as Craft America's juried shows in Washington, DC, and Palm Beach. For the last few years she has primarily made pieces for her Bottom Feeders series: delicate porcelain dinnerware, including tea cups, pitchers, and saucers, saucily encrusted with crustaceans and parts of crustaceans—starfish, barnacles, octopus tentacles. In the fall O'Malley will head off to school once again, this time to enroll In a graduate program at London's Royal College of Art where she looks forward to "[having] them break me down and build me back up again." We spoke with O'Malley about her seaside inspiration, the importance of binge-watching TV to her work process, and how, in her family, making art just may be a genetic calling.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of engaging with the arts?
MARY O'MALLEY: [My mom] went to Pratt [Institute] in the 70s for sculpture, and then dropped out,to marry my dad (laughs) and have babies, and then they started the construction business together, which ran for like 20 years. But if you're an artist, you're an artist, so she definitely raised us in a way that was, creative, and because my parents owned a construction company, we lived in a house that was under construction, and still is (laughs) … so we were allowed to draw on the walls, and … our mom would let us just roller skate inside, and... there were a bunch of neighborhood kids and we all ran amuck. and built Matchbox Car cities, and everything. So, I think that's probably where the creative thing happened, where it was cultivated, I guess, just having this time to play like that and be sent outside and to have to entertain yourself.
I work in a barn on my parents’ property where I grew up,...and the top half of the barn used to be their office for their construction company… I remember when it morphed into more of a hangout space, and my brother and sister were both musicians and they played in a band, and I would be up there while they practiced, just doing little art projects on my own. I remember when I was in middle school, I would lock myself out here over the summertime and just create epic art projects for myself. Like I decided I was going to learn how to bind books one summer, so I watched like all the Star Trek movies, and figured [it] out. That's always been a theme, keep binging on some sort of TV show or movie while creating art projects , and I still do that now. Fifteen years later I'm making a living at doing these epic art projects out in a barn, in the same space, which is very much mine now, and watching X Files and stuff.
So I guess growing up on this property and with the parents that I had, I think that's how the creative spirit was cultivated. And also extended family; there were a lot of artists among us. My dad's father was an architect , a church architect, and a painter, and my great-grandmother was a painter, and so tit's sprinkled just throughout.... A lot of my family went to Pratt, and we used to go there a lot.
And my mom, actually after their construction business went out of business, my mom went back to Pratt to get her degree in art education. And my sister and I were in middle school so we got dragged with her to class a lot, which seemed like a hassle, but now I realize how amazing that experience was. They had a thing called "Saturday art school" for the local community kids, and I think it was the dean of my mom's department [who] saw us around and gave us scholarships to go to that school, so that while my mom was teaching, we would be occupied. And that's where I took my first ceramics class, so that probably had a big part in things. And I remember I took that class, and I was way older than all the other kids, but I didn't care. I just fell in love with the studio, the ceramics studio. I loved the way it smelled, I loved how dirty everything was, and that fascination kind of held throughout my life, so I continued to take classes in high school and in college and everything.
NEA: Was there a moment when you decided or just knew that you were going to be a professional artist?
O'MALLEY: I think that only happened recently in the past few years. I decided to go to art school kind of on a whim. I was here at home, going to community college, and I knew that I needed to do something. A friend of mine was going to The University of the Arts in Philadelphia for theater, and she was like, "I need a roommate! Apply to this school!" And so I did. I always had an interest in ceramics and in glass-blowing, actually, and they had a glass-blowing department, so I applied. I [thought], "I'll try it out, and if I don't like it, I can always transfer and do something else, but I have to do something" … Their program's pretty in-depth, so once you're in, it's hard to leave. So I did that, and then I graduated, and worked for other artists as an assistant around Philly—ceramic artists, glass artists, metal sculpture artists. Then 2008 hit, and the whole economy thing happened, and all their work dried up, and it was kind of disheartening....
I ended up working in the restaurant business for a few years, and getting a salaried position there, and then realized I hated it. I got a position teaching at the University City Arts League in West Philly ... and a lot of my students were grad students, or professors, and professionals from [the University of Pennsylvania], and I was intimidated by them because I was just an art-school student--who was mostly a professional waitress--teaching them how to make mugs and plates and stuff. But they were really interested in what I knew, the knowledge I had, and it was [those students who] helped me to value my skills. It was around that time I ended up leaving my restaurant job and moving home to reate a career out of [my art] somehow.
NEA: Was there a moment when you knew you’d made the right decision to pursue making art full-time?
O'MALLEY: Multiple times. Just this past year. 2013 was pretty big. It was definitely a struggle at first when I came home and built this studio. I moved home with a definitive business plan in mind: I wanted to make custom cremation urns. The urns on my website are from my senior thesis… and I wanted to run with that and do urns to order. I learned how to build a website brand and really try and get that off the ground, and I started making the Bottom Feeders collection at that time, just for fun. And I put it online, and it started to garner some attention from the online community. But I wasn't making any sales, and the urn business wasn't taking off, and I was almost considering just giving up and going to nursing school. It was hard because I'm here on Long Island, [New York]. There aren't any other artists around; a lot of the people I went to high school with here are cops and teachers. So it made it even harder to value what I was doing. [Then] little things started to happen like getting press online, getting accepted to the American Craft Councilship… and those tiny little things kept giving me hope and keeping me going, and it's just kind of snowballed from there.
NEA: Can you please tell us about the inspiration behind the Bottom Feeder series of tableware embellished with sea creatures?
O'MALLEY: While I was still in Philly and teaching at the University City Arts League, it was forcing me to kind of play around with clay and make work again. A friend up here, his parents have a beach house on Fire Island that we used to go to every summer. They used to just give it to us for free to hang out for a week so I wanted to make them a piece for their beach house. There is an artist in Philly called Adam Wallacavage [who] makes these big octopus chandeliers, and I always loved them. So I kind of borrowed from that imagery, and put an octopus handle on a pitcher to give to them. And then a lot of my students loved it, so I decided to make another one, made it a little bit more elaborate. Then one of my students had National Geographic magazines that he brought me that were, you know, sea life oriented, and I started perusing through them, and then creating imagery that I saw there. And I was just making pieces once every couple of months, here and there.
When I moved home, and I needed to get back into the practice and get a working studio I decided to play with that imagery.... I'm down the block from the bay, and a few minutes from the ocean. I grew up sailing on the Great South Bay, and so it was always a big part of my life in the summer. Moving back here, I just felt really nostalgic for that imagery and it wasn't hard to replicate for me. From looking at it all my life it seems kind of innate to create it. I found success in applying it to these forms that kept me interested in pushing it further. [I] was working with porcelain which can be really finicky, but if you can get it to work, it can really do amazing things like be very, very delicate, and very strong when it's fired. The process in creating these pieces is really painstaking, and I have a lot of failures, but the success was so worth it that it kept me working.
NEA: In the artist statement on your website you talk about one of the things you do in your work as working with that play between total control and inevitability. Would you say more about what you mean by that?
O'MALLEY: Oh man, this is an interesting week to ask me this, because I had a huge catastrophe that happened. I had a teapot fall off my tabletop and just like smash into a million pieces. It was rough, but it happens, sometimes. And I think that that's part of the Zen practice of it. The time and process are pretty tedious, and fastidious, and I have to know when to let go, and let things break, to know when to work with it. Like the first pitcher I made, one of the first pitchers I made, I built it and then I had used too much water, and the form was too dry, and so the whole thing disintegrated. I left it to dry, and came back, and it had all completely fallen apart, you know? And so I had to learn how to tweak that [process] and also things like the tentacles will warp a lot when they're firing, cause they're just kind of hanging off of the pot, which is kind of a no-no, but I like the way that it turns out sometimes, and it changes the way the teapot will sit on the table. I could have scrapped those pieces, but instead I found that it gave them more personality and gesture, and seems more animated, and it was some of those pieces that other people have liked the most. So there is a lot of control, but I have to know when to let go a little bit, too, and just kind of run with it.
NEA: There also seems to be another tension in your work between beauty and humor.
O'MALLEY: I would call it more like using humor to communicate. I come from a really big Irish Catholic family on both sides, and humor—really biting sarcastic sense of humor—is how everybody communicates with each other. And that came out in the urn series in particular because I had had some losses in my family and with my friend group the summer before my senior year so I was confronted for the first time with a lot of death first-hand... Irish funerals are pretty cacophonous. There's drinking, and everybody's just telling stories about the person that passed away, and it's usually the most embarrassing and funniest stories about them. So II think that's a coping mechanism for my family and I think it's also an Irish thing, having humor and death, or humor and beauty, it all goes hand-in-hand.
I'm definitely a big fan of comedy, and I think that comedians are like our modern-day philosophers, you know? Or at least the ones who are observers and making comments on society and stuff. And so I think that it's the way I communicate, it's the way my family communicates, so that's why it comes through in my work. And I think there is a process from an observer's point of view, when I look at art and I see something satirical, it's how it catches my eye. If I'm walking by something and I think it's funny, I'm going to stop and look at it, you know? And then if I think, while I'm standing there and I see that it's technically proficient, then I look at it a little closer, and now that it has my attention I can start to think about what it's trying to communicate, and I think that's the best way to get a message across, whether it's a message on purpose or just somebody's experience when looking at a piece of work. It's the way I like to communicate.
NEA: We just did an issue of NEA Arts in which we asked various artists how they defined "inspiration." How do you define it?
O'MALLEY: I guess I can tell when I'm inspired, and it's when something sparks a dialogue in my head. It's hard to know when it's going to happen. A lot of times, I like to read or Google or Wikipedia and just let myself get into something, and want to know more about it. It usually starts when I have a technical issue in my studio, and I'll go to this potter's dictionary that I have that has really in-depth, detailed answers for everything: it goes down to the molecular levels of things. So I'll go there for an answer and I'll have to look stuff up. And I'll end up on Wikipedia, and I'll end up on Google and learning new things, and I think that's kind of how my inspiration works. And I guess it's just needing to know the answer to something or being consumed by a question or, and I think that my manifestation of inspiration is working that out.
NEA: What do you think the question is that you're working out or that you're asking with the Bottom Feeders series?
O'MALLEY: I think that [when] it started off, it was more like, "How far can I push this?" I feel like I'm constantly walking the edge of disaster in creating these pieces, and I'm always [asking] "How intricate can I make this? How delicate can I make it? How much more sea life can I add to it? Am I making this realistic? Does it need to be realistic?" All those things. And seeing what the material can replicate, I think. And what I can come up with... I have started removing the service-wear aspect of it, and just kind of creating sculptural pieces. You said there was a lot of humor in the Bottom Feeders series, and I think it's also cynicism. I'm a little cynical as a person (laughs), because when I first started using this imagery, I was really worried about it looking kitschy. A lot of sea life-inspired decor has pastel-colored dolphins and stuff all over it, and I've never related to that stuff. It's not the seaside that I know. So I learned to make it really real and true to the imagery that I knew.
I've recently started to cast garbage, like bottle caps, cigarette butts, lighters, and plastic bottles, and cinder blocks, and stuff, cast and then plaster and then make replicas in porcelain. It's not one big question that I'm trying to answer, it's constant little questions along a path that I'm taking, you know, and when you're creating, the creative process is a decision, it's like constantly making a decision. And so I decide which way I want to go and it just happens that way, instead of keeping an overall big picture. I mean sometimes I'll stand back and be like, "Wait. Why am I making this?" You know? "Why does this have to be circular? Maybe I'll just take cinder block and cover it in creatures," and then "why am I making that?" And sometimes it's good to ask those questions, and then I think sometimes they'll hold me back, and I'll be like, "Then why bother? Why am I making ceramics at all, if it's not functional?" It's like no, just make it, and see what happens there, see what questions come up as I create it and as people respond to it. And so I think that's the process.
NEA: And then I just have one final question for you: what does "art works" mean to you?
O'MALLEY: I looked at that question [when you sent it] and I did what I usually do: I Wikipedia'd the word "works" (laughs). I had so many technical issues that happened for me this week; I was like, "Art's not working for me this week!" So then I went to Wikipedia and looked up the word "work," just to get an objective point of view and inspiration from there. So I found that there in the physics world, the definitions are "the transfer of energy over distance," and then they listed "karma" as a synonym, and apparently karma is the word for "work" in some Buddhist and Indian religions and spirituality, and it's kind of that constant cause-and-effect and back and forth, in doing whatever you're doing. So I think that it's just more of like the work of communication, you know, either within yourself along the process or between a finished work of art and the viewer, whoever it may be, and so that's kind of how I thought about it. And then I kind of liked the idea... of art work within the economy because I think a lot of people need an economical aspect of things to value it, and to give it purpose. I think that I needed that in some way too; I needed someone to buy a work of art from me... for the practice to become validated, which is maybe not necessary and a little shallow, but I think that it is an important part of our economy and society in the sense of work as in labor, and work as in communication and dialogue.