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Up for Anything
Mandi King thrives on change. And in her 29 years, the glass artist has changed a lot.
As she moved from ceramics to glass and from the United States to Adelaide, Australia, King knew the fears of any young artist. "But I thrive on major paradigm shifts," she said recently, on one of her regular trips back home. "I thrive on putting myself in new contexts."
King grew up in Columbus, Ohio, with parents who nurtured her creativity from a young age, taking her and her two younger siblings to craft fairs, museums, and gallery hops. "I was one of those kids who did not fit in," she recalls. Ultimately, she found her fit through creative experimentation: from dance to jewelry making, photography, and pottery in her teens. "I made sculptures out of trash, painted on my clothes; I think I tried everything," she says.
As she finished high school, King assumed she'd be choosing between digital media design and ceramics for her life's work. So she enrolled in the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where she could pursue both.
Then came the first big surprise of her career, on a wintry New York day, when she snuck into a noisy demonstration at the university's hot shop, looking for warmth. On stage were visiting glass artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre (whom, as serendipity would have it, she would assist at Pilchuck Glass School six years later). Watching them work awakened something deep inside of King. "What I saw in the hot glass process blew my mind. Their [use of] the material was so interactive and intimate compared to anything else I had ever tried."
In that first glimpse, she admired the way the de la Torre brothers translated their sensibilities - "funny, loud, bold, and energetic" - into their work. When she enrolled in Alfred's glass program her sophomore year, she loved how quickly her aesthetic - sleek, high-contrast, informed by Saturday-morning cartoons and the 1988 movie Beetlejuice - took shape in exuberant glass pieces.
"I was hooked," she says. "I was in such a trance, I forgot about the ceramics entirely."
After she transitioned to a new medium and earned her BFA, she made another seismic shift, entering a two-year professional development program at JamFactory in Adelaide in 2006. (Read more about JamFactory) There, artists learn to run a studio, design for commissions, and create production lines of decorative and functional wares, in addition to making their own work.
Working at JamFactory was intense, King says. Here she was, having "never made anything functional in my life," and suddenly required to think about efficiency, consistency, and designing for the marketplace. But the baptism by fire was worth it: She emerged with "the skills I need to be self-sufficient and make a living off my own work," she says.
In 2008, King's playful Bubbleboxes earned unanimous recognition by jurors of the annual Corning Museum of Glass New Glass Review, cited for their "subtle, rich hues and soft organic shapes." More recently, King teamed up with fellow JamFactory alum Karen Cunningham on an innovative decanter that oxygenates wine while it pours. In 2010 the Illumini Decanter won the top prize in InDesign magazine's Launch Pad competition.
King continues to open herself up to change. Since 2009, she has worked out of a 70-year-old former timber factory housing an artist cooperative called Blue Pony Studio. Struck by how the elements have battered what was once a perfect industrial rhombus, King has increasingly incorporated the building's scruffy "surreal beauty" into her aesthetic. Her work, once sleek and graphical, is still colorful, but it's grittier now and more opaque, like sugar-encrusted gumdrops.
What's next, after two JamFactory shows in September? Who knows? But count on more change.
Monica Moses is American Craft's editor in chief.