Mary Little: A Talk with the Artist
Los Angeles is home to artists from around the world. Each artist has made a journey to be here. Once here, the freedom of LA and interacting with other artists helps artists grow, expand and find new horizons. Such is the case with Mary Little.
Mary grew up in Northern Ireland on a farm surrounded by gentle rolling hills. She and her husband, designer Peter Wheeler, moved to Los Angeles four years ago after living in New Haven, Connecticut. As an artist and a furniture designer, Mary felt like she had to explain herself to her suburban CT neighbors. She was an anomaly. But now, life in a DTLA loft space is inspiring. The building is inhabited by other artists who respect and enjoy each other’s work. “I feel very normal living in a loft surrounded by other artists. We get each other’s work. You can be whatever you want to be here. It feels better, people get it.”
The loft Mary and Peter occupy is airy and spacious with floor to ceiling windows. It is an adaptable space with moveable furniture that can be rearranged depending upon Mary’s projects. Its minimal aesthetic and Mary’s work displayed prominently on the soft grey loft walls is very much the atelier. There is space for a sewing table, fabric cutting work tables, a large dining table, a large platform bed that Peter has designed and disguised as a crate and several of Mary’s custom designed tables and chairs. It's a practical space but an inviting and inspiring one.
One of Mary’s earliest memories of textiles was of her mom Betty knitting. An avid knitter, Betty knitted and sold one adult sweater per week in the local market town. Mary did not take up knitting herself, “It’s really hard, Mom may have tried to teach me but it wasn’t for me. My younger sister’s a good knitter.” When Betty died a few years ago, Mary discovered one of her hand knitted baby sweaters in a small bag. Betty always had a small sweater on hand to give to the newest baby in the family. It was then that Mary realized her work, created in natural artist canvas, related very much to the traditional dimensional Irish Aran jumpers (sweaters) that her mother had spent a lifetime knitting. That sweater, a poignant reminder of Betty’s generous spirit, has just been given to the newest baby in Mary’s family, her nephew’s baby daughter (aptly named after her mom, Rita Little).
Thinking about where and when artistic inspiration emerges, Mary reveals that she dabbled in paint at a young age. But Betty thought painting was too messy an activity in a large family. So, Mary developed her hand sewing skills and learned to applique. “I remember mom hanging up an applique of a horse that I made in primary school. I loved working with my hands.”
Mary studied design at the Royal College of Art in London. She was an acclaimed furniture designer before she started sculpting in artist canvas. What is so compelling and delightful about her furniture, in particular her chairs, is the attention given to the exquisite details and to the bodies that will sit in them. Her chairs must feel comfortable and yet at the same time take on the personality of the owner. No two chairs are alike.
Her work is in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Vitra Design Museum in Basel, and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, as well as private collections.
Mary says she, “thinks as a designer.” “I'm a planner. And I like to stand back and think about wider implications. I like to analyze. I'm a critic – I love to think of the bigger picture.” The debate about form and function still resonates. “Yes, it's an interesting one. In my furniture I'd start by asking what the goals or criteria are – function is a core part of that. In all, the goal becomes complex. Then I would work to meet this complex mix in a sculptural way.”
Evolving into her current work with artist canvas, Mary considers herself a sculptor first and foremost. She creates soft sculptural, evocative works that hang on the wall or are suspended from the ceiling. The artist canvas is cut into precise multi patterned shapes. These motifs are then meticulously sewn together. The edges of the reliefs are left raw, creating a sense of drama and energy, while the overall surface effect is perfectly smooth and crisp like a fine tailored suit. These motifs are her own creation of varying iterations of scale and shape. They undulate in relief, moving in and out, and drape with gravity’s weight. They are evocative of the body as well as the landscape of Northern Ireland. They interact with light and cast subtle surface shadows creating movement of changing dimensions. They are as elegant and meticulous as Dior couture and have the emotional presence and resonance of the Irish landscape. They seduce you and draw you in. Mary states, “My sculptural work relates to the body, a sensuous fleshiness.” One derives so much pleasure being in their presence. Depending upon one’s age and experience, they evoke the body’s capacity to absorb time. Ultimately, timelessly, her work reflects upon and connects back to her mom’s hand knitted cable Irish Aran sweaters.
Mary is finally doing the work she loves and that other people respond to as well. She frequently works in series. One particular series of six pieces have titles from her maternal lineage, from her grandmother, great aunts, and mom’s cousins. These women had a strong presence in her life. “They were farmers, very practical. If something needs to be done, do it." Most of her titles come from the Scotch-Irish surnames of family members, local farmers, and the soft and gentle loughs of Northern Ireland.
Living in Los Angeles has provided Mary with opportunities to build relationships with interior designers and art consultants. She sees them as partners. AD on-line featured her work in their July 31, 2015 issue on their website. Mary says that marketing takes an enormous amount of time compared to making the work. During a recent frank discussion with art students on the campus of San Diego State University she encouraged them to be realistic and understand the importance of “Taking responsibility for their own work. If you want a career exhibiting your work, make that decision and figure out how to do it. Artists need to be brave about pricing their work. We undervalue ourselves in the market and yet we’re unique, we have value.”
Living in the Arts District, Mary enjoys frequenting eclectic merchants such as The Good Liver and Artist and Craftsman Supply LA. Two of her favorite galleries are Blum & Poe and David Kordansky. She doesn’t have a favorite artist but finds the work of Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Caro, Martin Puryear, Alison Wilding and designers, Alexander McQueen, Jill Sanders, and Rei Kawabuko inspiring.
Mary Little is a perfect example of how an artist can continually discover new horizons when it comes to art. In her recent talk at Craft in America in LA she said she is as excited now as she ever was about all of the new ideas she has yet to explore and express.
Mary will be giving a professional Practice Talk at the Craft in America Center on September 9.
You can hear more about Mary's work in the exhibit the Shape of Cloth at the Craft in America Center – the show is up until June 2.