Chronicle 001 - Maura Wright
We are so happy to open our chronicle with ceramicist and artist Maura Wright, who for the past year and a half has been a long-term resident of the Archie Bray Foundation at the foot of the Rockies. Based in Helena, Wright conjures earthenware designs that exemplify what we think of when we think of home: sensual, dreamy, and with a touch of nostalgia for things as they never were. She spoke to us of Montana and mosaics, about finding freedom in clay by learning to un-learn, and about whether the “last best place” will last.
Placed: Where are you from?
Maura Wright: I grew up in Missouri, exactly in the middle of the state, in a college town. My childhood was all about sports and… I don't know, there was no art really. I started drawing as a pastime. Then in high school I became more seriously interested in it and then went to the Kansas City Art Institute. My grandfather was a painter, mostly self-taught, or just hobbyist painting. He and my grandmother owned a floral business and an antique shop. I think there's inherited qualities there.
PL: You mentioned previously about getting to art school and feeling like you didn't know anything.
MW: I just remember during freshman orientation feeling so self-conscious about how little I knew and how little experience I had. I didn't at all know what I was getting myself into.
PL: In some ways it’s the beginner’s mind. There’s a sort of advantage to that. Do you think that's still in your practice today, even though you are now an art school graduate? You've got all the accolades, but your origins came from a different place.
MW: My first exposure to anything was through travel architecture—the ornament—and that still plays such a huge role in my work. But it took years to find a voice as a result of that, too, because at first it was just mimicking and trying to find my identity as an artist. The replica or imitation still plays into a lot of the still life objects I make. The imitation is now about humor and parody rather than copying to learn.
I'm not sure the beginner mindset is still as prevalent. Sometimes I wish I could undo what I've learned and get some of that back—particularly when it comes to clay as a material. I admire artists who use clay without the technical background. They're able to use clay in a more free and expressive way. I've learned a lot from those artists and it's helped me loosen up, and now I'm trying to find a middle ground that feels right for me.
PL: It’s a subjective balance, between the trained and untrained…
MW: I know. I think all of that influenced my early exposure. I really love folk art and that kind of “naïve” approach. I was just talking to a friend actually about the mosaic house in France. Do you know about this?
PL: Tell me.
MW: The people who lived there mosaic’d this entire house and everything's painted and ornate on the inside. It's one of my obsessions. I think those influences are starting to come out in my work more. For a while I got in the minimalist trap, thinking I needed to do that to have a career in design. And then I was like, yeah, this is not me at all. And it was such a misconception on my part, just thinking that's what could lead to something. So now I've gone fully the other way.
PL: You really have! Like ‘wise people’ say, if you worry about what you think people want, you're just going to miss out on what your calling is, what you have to share, what your point of view is. This brings up the art versus commerce of it all. I'm curious to hear your process and your thoughts around fine decorative art in terms of form and function or craft versus media.
MW: For so long, ceramic works were categorized as craft just because of the material. That’s such an outdated mindset. That difference is about the utility and the function and the repetition of tradition. We’re seeing so many painters starting to use clay in really different ways where they fully embody the expressive nature of it. And I'm definitely trying to take on some of that.
But also I don't think I can totally forget my traditional ceramics training. There are some things that are hard to forget. I am looking to the people that are less trained formally in ceramics and how they're using the material, because I find it really inspirational. I envy some of their freedom in using clay that I don't think I have anymore because I did have a thorough technical training.
PL: I’m married to an art professor who is by no means traditional, but we had this argument about an artist’s work. He thought it was too untrained. I think it’s good artwork. She’s bringing something that I really appreciate. That’s the whole point. You don’t have to have training. Especially since people can’t afford to go to art school.
MW: I love Montana. I love the community here. I feel I have a lot of friends and support, like direct artist connections. But the reality is that Montana is changing and rapidly growing. It’s going to be harder for any new people to continue [setting up shop here].
And the collector situation is that so many of them are older and not buying. And I'm not seeing a growth in the young collectors here. A lot of the longtime Archie Bray Foundation supporters, and I know this from working for the Bray—they're not buying that much anymore. A lot of the Bray collectors have gotten older but I’m not sure if there’s a new generation of local supporters to replace them.
MW: The houses here have gone up like 40% or something in a few years. That’s part of my desire to relocate, because I can take that money and get a lot more somewhere else.
I did buy a house here. I own a house in Helena. And I bought it before the pandemic. The problem is I can’t have a large studio where I am. My studio at my house is in my basement. Once my Bray residency ends, I don’t think I can go back to that studio and have it be viable for what I want long term.
PL: Sometimes I think I landed in an incredible place of opportunity. And then sometimes I think maybe it's already over.
MW: That’s the crazy thing about Montana. It’s so big. There’s so much space. And no one can have it. But also, that’s the beauty of this place.
MW: Artists are expected to do so much that's outside of their strengths. You have to have a personality where you can network and put yourself out there. You have to be a good writer. The self-image of the artist is being turned into a commodity as much as the art is. I see so much success from people online who are willing to put themselves out there in that way.
And it's hard because I hate that stuff. It's the worst thing for me.
MW: AGO Projects invited me to show with them at Design Miami. I wanted to work with them for years, so I was super excited when they reached out. I love their colorful, maximalist approach to design. I also feel they collaborate a lot and I’ve always admired that approach to their business.
PL: Way to go. What themes and ideas are you working with right now?
MW: I've been really embracing some of the folk art inspiration. I've been putting a lot of mosaic shards into ceramics, which I started doing eight years ago, but it's kind of come and gone in my work. When I used to do some of the more ornamental work, I'd keep the surfaces simple. And then when I would make simple forms, I'd make the patterns crazier. And now I'm like, why am I separating these two things?
The paper works that I've made off and on for years can be pretty unstable—just the nature of large paper works that are unframed—so the next iteration of that work is going to be a freestanding room divider that I'm going to paint on wood.
So it's not going to be paper, it's going to be wood. I'm working to get things off the wall and physically in the space with the ceramics. I’m still working with the wall currently but envisioning the next iteration—which hopefully I get to soon.
PL: You’re kind of playing with the intersection between design and art, because a room divider is a set piece or a piece of furniture, but it’s also a piece of art.
MC: Yeah, totally.
PL: You feel part of the zeitgeist. There’s a desire for origin stories. We want to be post-internet [but not Post-Internet], we want to be tactile. Colorful, textural. I think that people got lonely in the pandemic. And I love minimalism. But there's a time for texture and richness and tactility.
MW: Yeah. I had that show at Greenwich House in May. There was something about that show that felt lackluster. There were a lot of limitations [due to the space]. But I think doing that show made me realize I want it to go bigger. I want it to be more.
I'm just like, fuck it. It’s all coming out now.