Talking about stories of the past at a new studio with CAW member Mary Ann Crago

Mary Ann Crago just relocated her creative quarters to a newly renovated garage studio. From the inspiration wall to the shelves of bits and baubles to the finished works, the space is pure magic! As I listened to her reflect on past work, it seems that the studio has entered her life at the perfect time. After evolving her practice as a mixed media artist, she now has the space to build and expand her body of assemblage work. With an “installation-ish” piece planned for CAW’s Remnants in May and a solo show at Tacocat in September, this year promises to be one of exploration and pushing boundaries.

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After studying at CCAD you continued working at the library and attained your Master’s of Library Science. What brought you back to art?

I had been working on art all along, just not a lot. School and my library job had taken precedence over everything else, but I missed it. When I’m not creating, I’m just not as happy. I had a friend who did festivals and I would go see her at this one festival. I was kind of inspired by it. I remember leaving thinking, I should be doing this too. From that point I pursued that specific festival. I reached out to the organizer and expressed interest. I didn’t think it would happen, but she had a spot because someone had dropped away and I was in the very next summer, which is crazy. So that was some motivation to actually start creating and making some work and it was fabulous. That summer was really great.

Your work evolved from more painterly landscapes (first in watercolor and later in acrylics) to mixed media assemblage. What made you gravitate towards this new way of working?

I was in the same place for a long time with my work, especially with a lot of my paintings. At an Ohio Art League art talk I remember an artist pushing me a little bit in a really supportive way. He just kind of threw the idea out there that maybe I should try something else because what I had been doing for a long time was really safe. It stuck with me. I started exploring and looking at books – reading a lot about creativity in other artists. I’ve always been intrigued by fabric and collage artists. A lot of time people use collage as a way to explore creativity in a way that is less structured. This triggered something in me. So I just started thinking, what if? What if I added some cut paper elements to this painting? What if I would try this or try that? I experimented with gold leaf and with adding little bits and pieces. I drilled into panels and added grommets. I started adding painted panels to boxes or drawers that I would find. It has just evolved from there. I have tried to not worry so much about it being what I was taught in school that art needed to be. It sounds cheesy, but I felt like it was freeing. At some point, I gave myself permission to experiment and to try things. When I was painting I felt much more of a struggle than I feel now with the mixed media pieces. I don’t have these preconceived ideas of what it should look like. I have no idea. I just let it be.

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In addition to incorporating all sorts of bits as well as sculpted bird heads, you now scavenge old forgotten photographs to use in your work. How do you pick the photographs?

I try to stay away from extra creepy photographs. I think there is energy around objects, but I definitely think there is energy with photos. I am really drawn to pictures of women and kids. I have the occasional man photo too, but they just aren’t as interesting to me. I have refined what I look for. Early on I would collect or gather any old thing, but as I have started working with them I have a better feel for what I like and don’t like. I like actual photographs, not printed postcards. There is a lightness and darkness in the photos that I am drawn to. When I incorporate dots, the white against those lights and darks is amazing to me. There is something really special about their eyes, too. When I see it, I know it. Sometimes in photographs their eyes will connect with the camera as if it’s not even a photograph. It’s like you are sitting there staring at this person and they’re alive. Things that are atypical like groupings of people or family members are really interesting, especially when there is something odd happening in the picture. For instance, if not everyone is looking where they should be. Sometimes there is information about the person, like their name or the year, but often there isn’t. It is like there’s a story there, but you don’t know what it is. There are no real clues other than the image itself.

One of my favorite things about you is your love of books, which is totally fitting since you are Mary Ann the librarian. Words and narrative have entered your work in a very big way. Is this new?

Yeah I think it’s new. It has always been something that I’ve thought about. Sometimes I have hints of ideas that are just a glimmer of something that hasn’t quite solidified and I don’t know how to make it happen. The word thing has intrigued me for a little while, even when I was painting. Some of the earlier mixed media pieces I would incorporate a lot of numbers, which was a way to start playing with text. The photograph pieces are a perfect scenario for using text or words. Like I mentioned before, these people have stories, but I don’t know what they are. It is fun thing to figure out or create the story for them.

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You are going a step further and incorporating the public into the story-telling aspect of your work. You did this by crowd-sourcing ideas for Woman as Truthvia Facebook for your tile in the Woman As ___ exhibit. You also did this at the Upper Arlington Labor Day Arts Festival this past summer. Can you describe your booth?

[Along with my art,] I set up a typewriter and put a photo out. I asked people to come up with their own story or what they thought about the women and kid in the picture. It was amazing. It was really cool to see how people interacted with that photo – what they were thinking and what they saw in that picture. I have goose bumps just now thinking about it.

So the photograph and typed text was the impetus for a piece of art. Have you made it?

Not yet, but I will!

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Speaking of festivals, congratulations on your recent first place award at Upper Arlington’s Labor Day Arts Festival! You exhibit in both festivals and more traditional gallery spaces. Does the venue inform your work?

I don’t know that it does. I make the kind of work that I make. I personally like showing in all ways, but enjoy the festival setting more. I like interacting with people and observing them as they are interacting with my pieces. I love selling work. Obviously that’s awesome. It is cool to meet and talk to the people who are taking my art home. My work doesn’t really change depending on where it is. I enjoy both settings, but love knowing where my art is going at festivals.

You will be exhibiting in CAW’s upcoming exhibition Remnants at the Urban Arts Space in May 2015. The theme is perfect for your body of work. What do you have planned?

I have a plan and hopefully it will happen as planned. I want to explore the same path as my recent work with photographs and stories. I have thought a lot about the six degrees of separation. So I will have a big collection of pieces with photographs of people or animals and stories and how they are connected in different ways. I am still figuring out logistically what that will look like. I see red string. I see words. It is a little overwhelming to me when I think about it because it could be pretty massive. So I am trying to figure out how to make it manageable. Maybe there is a smaller set of these finished pieces and one bigger overall piece. Maybe kind of installation-ish which I haven’t really done.

Visit www.maryanncrago.com to view more of Mary Ann’s portfolio.

Interview completed by Allison Buenger.

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