Breaking the Surface

Breaking the Surface

Mary Giles, Grey Landscape

Grey Landscape, 2013, waxed linen, lead, copper, tin-coated copper, 13 x 23.5 x 9.5 in. Photo: Petronella Ytsma

An eye for new perspectives has propelled Mary Giles throughout her career.

The moment she laid eyes on the knotty-pine country house for sale, Mary Giles knew she’d found her dream home. “I drove up, and it was breathtaking,” the artist recalls of that day 15 years ago. The house had been built in 1901 on the shore of the St. Croix River, in a small town north of Still­water, Minnesota. Surrounded by woods and wildlife, it was a perfect haven, offering endless inspiration for Giles’ earthy mixed-media sculptures. There was just one problem, as she and her husband discovered after they moved in and experienced their first flood. “Water was coming through the floor joists,” she says. “So we hired a company to literally raise the whole house.’”

During the excavation, they discovered the home was sitting on top of a huge boulder. A backhoe dug it out, along with other big rocks, one of which broke in half. “The inside of the rock was a wonderful surprise, just a whole different surface,” Giles marvels. “It hadn’t been exposed before, hadn’t accumulated lichen and moss and corrosion. That idea of inside and outside became so vibrant to me.”

Giles has built her life’s work on a rock of sorts, the ancient craft of coiled basketry. This grounding in tradition has enabled her to break from it in innovative ways, find new dimensions of personal expression. Take Boulders, her series of works directly inspired by those split rocks. They’re landscape-inspired forms made of coiled waxed linen, with richly textured surfaces in somewhat surprising materials. (More on that later.) They come in tones of brown and black and gray and gold – “the colors of wood and stone and water and dirt and sunlight, all those good things,” as she puts it. They’re not quite baskets – none of her work can really be called that, not anymore – but for Giles, basketry is where it all began.

Born in 1944 in St. Paul, Giles grew up there in a family that valued nature and handwork. Her father was an outdoorsman and a cabinetmaker, while her mother knitted, quilted, and did Norwegian rosemaling, a kind of decorative painting. After earning a degree in art education from Mankato State University, she taught art in the Twin Cities for a couple of years, then moved to St. Louis, where she taught art in the public schools. She first tried basketry in the late 1970s, so that she could teach it to a high school class. “The students didn’t like it,” she recalls, “but I did.”

Basketry became her passion. A lover of indigenous art, she visited Native American basket­weavers (Apache in the Southwest, Ojibwe in Minnesota) to study their traditional techniques. She took workshops with some of the best studio artists working in fiber (Ferne Jacobs, Diane Itter, Jane Sauer, Lissa Hunter, John McQueen). From the start, she liked using “quirky” stuff, such as torn leather, feathers, linen mop-heads: “I was into material.”

Yet it wasn’t enough. Her early pieces lacked something, and she knew it. She had a moment of truth when fiber artist Walter Nottingham critiqued her baskets and told her she needed to find her “mystical symbol.” He meant a special quality, “so that when somebody looked at your work, they knew it was you,” Giles says. “And that takes time, a certain maturity; for me it did.”

Then one day her father gave her a handful of porcupine quills he’d found in the woods. “He said, ‘Maybe you can do something with these.’ I thought they were so beautiful. They had this wonderful translucence, varying thicknesses, gradations in size and color. Of course, the Native Americans knew all about that long before I did.”  She sewed the quills onto a bowl form, creating a spiky, subtly elegant surface pattern in creams and dark browns. That 1986 piece, Contrasts, caught the eye of textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, who purchased it for the collection of the Erie Art Museum. It was later featured on the cover of the February/March 1990 issue of American Craft

With that breakthrough, Giles hit her stride. Her mystical symbol, she realized, shone through when she let inspiration flow from things that gave her “joy and excitement” on a deeply personal level, such as childhood memories of the Minnesota woods. And as she explored the possibilities of the coiled form, her creativity blossomed. Simple vessels evolved into anthropomorphic sculptures and totems, sometimes in multiple parts. Circles and ovals gave way to irregular, convoluted structures, full of twists and turns. She developed a stylized geometric male figure that has become her signature motif, first as surface decoration, and later as a three-dimensional object in its own right.

Metal emerged as “a luscious material” for Giles, one she uses to dramatic effect on her surfaces. On her Boulders, for example, she practically paints with metals, creating highlights and shadows, peaks and crevices, stunning contrasts. She begins her laborious process (one tabletop-sized piece can take three months to make) by cutting wire – copper, brass, lead, tin, iron – into pieces a few inches long. Next she’ll hammer them so that they flatten into a sort of teardrop shape, then torch them to bring out different hues. This gives her a palette of thousands of pieces, in a variety of sizes, colors and finishes. She then wraps waxed linen over a core, slowly building up walls row by row, attaching metal as she goes along to create a thick, layered covering, like scales or feathers. “Over time, some of these metals are going to change, and that’s fine,” she says. “That’s part of all of our processes – nature’s process, the aging process.”

Around the time she found her mystical symbol, Giles also met her soul mate in Jim Harris, an architect and woodcut printmaker. He’d been president of Craft Alliance in St. Louis, collected contemporary baskets, and once even singled out a piece by Giles in an art review he wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (“I had covered a porcupine skull with a mask of embedded quills. He said it was the strangest piece in the show.”) They married in 1994 and moved back to her native Minnesota in 1999, following her retirement from teaching. They keep a pied-à-terre in St. Louis to escape the harsh winters, but she considers the river house her true, forever home.

At that house, Giles does her coiling and other handwork in a small studio addition Harris designed for her. (Her metal shop is in the garage.) It’s full of artful arrangements of objects she collects on her walks through junkyards and along the beach: metal scraps, driftwood, vine-wrapped sticks. She hangs them around the studio “to help ideas percolate.”

Recently she’s been enjoying a total departure from the basket form, making wall pieces of 4 by 6 feet and larger. Her “little men” – the geometric figures, rendered this time as tiny iron armatures wrapped with wire – are a major component of this work. She might attach them to a panel, or spray-paint over them to make negative images, or hammer a sheet of metal on top of them to make imprints. She likes the wall format for one of her favorite themes, the effects of overpopulation. She’ll squeeze multitudes of metal men between fragments of rusted metal in an abstract, bleakly beautiful industrial landscape, or crowd them in dense clusters that dissipate outward to a few solitary bodies, like a city dissolving into remote countryside. In one new, experimental hanging, she’s made the figures in knotted linen, but she’s not yet sure where that’s going.

“I have so many ideas,” says Giles, who celebrated her 70th birthday this spring with a trip to Paris. “I remember a long time ago I said, ‘I haven’t found my big idea yet. It’s going to be something that just hits me,’ ” she reflects. “Now, every once in a while I do something and I go, ‘All right – that worked, that’s good.’ So maybe I am finding those ideas, but they’re small. They’re not what I thought would be the big, final answer to everything.”

So she keeps her mind and hands moving, happily settled in the place she loves. The giant boulder that once lived under the house now sits just outside her back door (“It’s magical. It belongs there.”), reminding Giles that even a rock-solid foundation can have a different context, be seen in a new way. Out front, the river runs, a vision of constant change and flow.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.