Kathleen King: Curtis, you have done so many things, and been so many places, but I’ll start at the beginning and ask where you are from.
Mary Curtis Ratcliff: I was born in Chicago and grew up in Birmingham, Michigan, outside of Detroit. When I was in junior high we moved to Toledo, Ohio. After that I went away to school in Europe for a couple of years. I went to college on the East Coast, going back and forth to Europe for a while. I finally ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design. I came out to California permanently in 1973.
KK: Were you always interested in art and studying art from an early age?
MCR: My brother and I always did art; drawing and making things. My parents were really interested in culture and they exposed us to marvelous experiences with art, and took us to lots of places even when we were very young. We grew up near Cranbrook Institute, so we would go up to the art museum there, to the Art Institute in Chicago, to the Met in New York. We went to Detroit Children’s Symphony.
KK: Can you remember any art that moved you when you were really young?
MCR: Once we went to Cranbrook when I was maybe about 8. I came across this big thing: it was horizontal, it had holes in it, had a sort of head-like form. I didn’t know what it was. It was interesting and attractive to me, and I kept saying, “What is that thing?” Well, they told me it was a Henry Moore sculpture.
KK: Sounds like you were interested in natural forms, abstracted form. Even though you didn’t know what this piece was, it drew your attention.
MCR: It’s not too surprising that sculpture was the first type of art that I made. I did sculpture for about 25 years before I started the mixed media on paper work I do currently.
KK: Did you do sculpture at RISD?
MCR:Yes, I majored in Sculpture and then Art Education my senior year. I really got into sculpture after I left New York City.
After college, I was into the early video scene in New York City. I was one of the 3 founding members of VideoFreex which later became a collective. I had spent 4 years in Europe, 6 on the East Coast, and with VideoFreex, I came out to California to document the avant garde movement of the late 60s on assignment for C.B.S. News. That’s when I knew that there was someplace else to explore if I ever left New York.
I came back out here in ’73 and I thought, OK, I went to art school, what did I major in, oh yeah sculpture! I’ll do some sculpture now. (Laughs) But the important thing is that once I started making art, even with all the low paying or teaching jobs I’ve had since that time, I never stopped making my art. I always found a way to do it.
I wanted to make large sculpture, but I made a rule that I had to be able to pick them up myself. I didn’t want anything to do with a forklift, Cor-ten steel, stone, big chunks of wood, or having to ask someone to help me. So, I designed these large sculptures that were very light weight.
KK: What were they made out of?
MCR: Hoops and ribbons. They were about 12 feet long and kinetic. One of the biggest, a triple hoop piece, was called Hollywood Car Wash. They were made from Japanese ribbon, which was the cheapest material I could find; it came on huge rolls. Then I went to fabric ribbons: satins, taffetas, rayons. The sculptures went from being suspended in the air to being wall mounted. I hung them all over the place, at the Oakland Museum, the Legion of Honor.
After that, I began doing large abstract goddess sculptures, about 6 feet tall.
KK: How did you get into making goddess figures?
MCR: In the mid-70s there was a beginning of the Goddess movement in the Bay Area and I was very interested in it. In 1978 there was a big conference at UC Santa Cruz. Carol Christ from Harvard was one of the keynote speakers, and she spoke about the re-emergence of the Great Goddess and its importance as a development in the history of religion. One of my sculptures hung over the stage at that conference.
My sculptures were also used as part of Goddess ceremonies, in processions and various performance pieces. I did performance art myself at that time, and designed sculpture to be used in ceremony and performance.
KK: I know you travel extensively and I think you went to Malta to study the goddess culture there.
MCR: I went with Jennifer Berezan on a pilgrimage to the 6000-year-old goddess temples in Malta. First, I had to look on the map because, gosh, we had these tickets and I had to say, “Where is Malta?”
KK: (Laughs) Really, just exactly where is it?
MCR: It’s an island south of Sicily, east of Tunisia, in the Mediterranean. 6000 years ago there was a cult worshipping the Goddess there, and they built numerous stone temples. I did a series of 2-dimensional works inspired by my trip there. Prints and mixed-media.
KK: You did sculpture for almost 25 years and then you moved into doing prints and other 2-dimensional work. Tell me how that evolved.
MCR: Helene Aylon, an artist and friend of mine from New York, encouraged me to do this residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Sweet Briar, Virginia. She thought I’d really love the place, and she kept after me for about five years. I hesitated because, being a sculptor, I hated schlepping all my materials to a far off place to create work, and then have to schlep it all back. My partner Peter suggested that I apply for the residency and just simply do something different while I was there. That started a whole new way of working for me.
I was doing a sculpture series about cakes at the time. So, the first thing that I took up when I got to the Virginia Center residency was drawing. After about a week I decided I wanted to paint, too. I found some wallpaper sample books and began cutting cake shapes out of them and collaging those onto painted backgrounds. That was the transition from 3d to 2d right there. I was doing cake sculptures up to that point. It grew into the 2D painted collages of cakes, then it took off from there.
I went back for a second time a couple of years later, and I decided that I wanted to transfer images onto one another. I had met a wonderful artist Alice Harris from the first residency. I called her up the night before I was supposed to leave and I said, “How do you do this?” She told me the process over the phone from New Jersey. That really changed my practice from painting and collaging to begin to start layering images.
At one point, I did a 4 by 6 foot piece with a printed background. It took me about 5 years to figure out how that piece worked. I kept trying to paint the background but then I realized that I needed to print the background. I realized I could take photos of images for backgrounds. Then on top of that I could transfer, collage, paint and draw. That’s my present work.
KK: I’ve been looking at your recent work in the gallery and it’s interesting how you integrate the layers of imagery with the drawing and painting. You create a new, unique, and I think, mysterious image. It reminds me of that old process of hand coloring a photo, but you don’t just color it in, you work with the images, your coloring responds to them, joins them together…
MCR: That’s part of what I’m trying to do with this work, to evoke a sense of mystery and to not be obvious with what things actually are. I’m playing with abstraction and reality.
KK: The viewer can spend a lot of time looking, deconstructing the image in their mind, figuring out what it is.
MCR: I’m glad you are seeing it that way, because that’s what I’m trying to do. I want to get the viewer intrigued and engaged with the image. The fun of these images is that it’s not particularly obvious what they are.
KK: I feel like I can wander around the image visually. I’m thinking, “How did she do that?” “Where did that come from?” You are building an image from many images, collaging and transferring in layers, but also you’ve done other interesting things: you’ve transferred a rectangular photo, then added drawing off all four edges, expanding on the photo with drawing. Sometimes you repeat or mirror the image to transform it.
MCR: My father had a darkroom when I was growing up. I grew up watching him take photos with this big Graflex and printing them and seeing the results. I have this idea of how to make images from him. I started taking photographs when I was really young, maybe around seven or so, and I’ve never really stopped. They are my archive. Right now on my poor little Mac I have over 5000 images. (Laughs),
The other thing that was neat about my parents is that my mother made all my clothes. She even knitted our sweaters. About a week before she died, I told her, “Mom, you taught me to make sculpture.” And she said, “No, I didn’t.” I said, “Yes, you did!” We would go to the fabric store in Birmingham, Michigan, and we would pick out Butterick or Simplicity patterns, we’d get the fabic, buttons, lace. Then we’d go home, lay it out on the floor and cut it out, then sew it up. We actually made a sculpture—a three-dimensional object—that happened to be a dress.
Her father, my granddad William Curtis Carter (that’s where I got my name) was an engineer. I was surrounded by people making things on a very real level. I picked up on all that stuff.
KK: Tell me some more about the body of work that you’ll show in your upcoming show at Mercury 20, Chosen Terrain. I’m looking at this piece called Waterweb which is fascinating.
MCR: I’m showing a large diptych called Parting of the Plates that I made earlier this year. It’s 80 inches long by 30 inches high. It starts with a photograph that I made of some elliptical circles I found in a botanical garden in Maine. I photographed them in such a way that I created a third circle in the middle. I printed them very big and I started painting and layering all sorts of things on top of them, creating maybe 4 or 5 different layers.
KK: What kinds of things did you layer?
MCR: Other photographs—of birds, a Japanese garden, a reflection of a tree in a pond.
KK: Is that the image you used in Waterweb, the tree in the pond? I was not sure if that was a double exposure or how the tree got into the water…
MCR: I was doing a residency in New Zealand this February, and I took hundreds of photos, some of which resulted in pieces in the show. Waterweb uses a photo of a creek. On top of that I transferred a photo of a spider web in a fence. Then I drew in colored pencil over that. I had been trying to photograph spider webs for years but it’s a hard shot to get. One morning in New Zealand, we took a walk on the farm next door. Droplets of rain and dew had been caught in this web, illuminating it. Photographing it against a dark tree in the distance, I could actually see the web structure.
KK: I love the fence, which is also a grid and a nice counterpoint to the web. And it’s a hand-knotted fence which is so beautifully crafted.
The joinery of the fence is like nothing we have in this country. I had to draw each one of the joints in by hand. I had to really study how the metal was tied.
KK: It’s a lovely piece and I enjoy looking at it.
MCR: Part of my challenge with the residencies has been traveling with my work. In 2000, I was in a show in Osaka, Japan. I heard horror stories about artist’s work that never made it through customs, so I wanted to make some work that I could carry with me on the plane. I designed a sculpture that is about 6 feet high by 6 feet in diameter, which I will show at Mercury 20. This piece is called Debabalizer. It’s like a big tinker toy, made of wooden dowels and joints. It’s in the form of a four-tiered cake. I had the phrase The Dream of a Common Language, which is from an Adrianne Rich poem, translated into 5 languages—Japanese, Arabic, Hindi, Greek and Russian. Paper flags are hanging down from the dowels on the top tiers of the sculpture, with the phrases are transferred onto them. The third tier down has the words earth-air-fire-water on it. On the bottom tier, I photographed the hands of a friend who does sign language, spelling out the phrase.
KK: What is it about that cake form, or ziggaraut shape? Is it the Tower of Babel from the Bible?
MCR: It has to do with the circles and hoops. I know I’ve been influenced by experiences I had as far back as 1972 when I went to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. I met Leonard Crow Dog who was head medicine man for the American Indian Movement at the time. I witnessed a Sun Dance ceremony there, which is done in a circular form. After that I began to use a lot of circles in my work; it’s a universal symbol but the Native American culture has been most influential to me.
KK: You have really traveled a lot.
MCR: All my life I’ve traveled and lived in other countries. My next trip is to Quebec. I’m really looking forward to using my French. They are having their 400th anniversary, and there should be all kinds of great art to see.
KK: That sounds like fun. Of all the places you’ve been, what’s been the most life changing?
MCR: I think the experience of going to India was life-changing. It’s like going to another planet. I went around the world in 2002, and that was one of the most memorable places I’ve been.
KK: Many goddesses to look at in India.
MCR: For sure, so many goddesses (Laughs)
KK: What’s on the horizon for you after the Mercury 20 show with Jamie Morgan in September?
MCR: I’m busy! I have another travel challenge. I’m having a solo show at the Hess Gallery on the campus of Pine Manor College. That’s where I went to school before I went to R.I.S.D. Unfortunately, they have no budget for me to transport my work (Laughs). The gallery is large, too, so I was wondering what to do to fill it up? I thought I would try something new, have my background images printed onto canvas, which I can roll and transport less expensively. That’s what I’m working on now.
I’ll be in a show at the Berkeley Art Center in 2010. A group show with various artists who worked at the New Pacific Center in New Zealand. And, I’ll have a two-person show in a gallery in El Cerrito showing my paper doll series. Then East Bay Open Studios, and then in July another show at Mercury 20.