Way With Fabric: Profile of Mary Little

When artist Mary Little talks about her upbringing in Northern Ireland, one wouldn’t think she was born and raised in a country steeped for three decades in sec- tarian violence. Instead, she describes an idyllic world: a lovely green landscape with drumlins, boulders, ancient hedges with moss peeking through; the sandy beach- es on the Eastern Shore and her family’s farms between the villages Greyabbey and Ballywalter on the Ards Peninsula. It was, Little explained, an environment in which she felt safe and protected; one that shaped her aesthetic sensibility. Her career, however, took her away from the rolling countryside, to Belfast, London and Milan. Later she moved to the US, living first in Connecticut, then in the Bay area, and for the past three years in Los Angeles.

Although Little studied design for seven years, she also considers herself a sculptor due to her early oeuvre consisting of furniture designed for more than just visual satisfaction. “I like to create objects that have some kind of relationship to the body and respond to the body,” she said. For The Blue Chair (1985), the Irish artist had three basic ideas in mind. “I wanted a chair that enhances how you feel when you sit on it, how you look when you sit on it and one that looks amazing as a sculptural object.” One edition of the chair is displayed at the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, the other at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. She keeps the original. Rudolf, Liz, and Margaret, descendants of the The Blue Chair, are much softer, more feminine, and pompous in appearance. Rudolf was inspired by the poise of dancer Rudolf Nureyev, Liz by the strange 17th century hats depicted in Hans Holbein paintings. Little enjoys working with wool, white cotton, iridescent silk and shibori. Her commissioned pieces are often named after her collectors and, because of her selection and treatment of the fabric, resemble their personalities.

After dividing her Downtown LA loft with a cloth wall, Little’s work underwent a radical change. Gone were the concepts of function and relationship of object to the body. Instead, she created decorative wall objects with soft white surfaces, experimenting with shadows, patterns, repetition and other small iterations, going back and forth between stretched and loose canvas, aiming for various effects. The result was Little’s sudden discovery that she creates work reminiscent not only of her childhood surroundings, but also of the patterns on the Aran sweaters her mother knit for her. Reflecting on how her work fits within the realm of contemporary art, Little said, “This is a pertinent question. I’m in the process of searching for an answer. I think of certain artists who’ve transitioned from design or the applied arts, such as Edmund de Waal with his serene repetitive ceramic volumes. Materially, it perhaps has a place beside the work of Sheila Hicks. At times, I work to evoke sensual feelings, though in a more abstract and subtle manner than Marilyn Minter does.“

Little’s work is featured in the group exhibit, Material as Metaphor, at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM), from May 28 to August 20, 2017.

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