There's little more difficult than figuring out one's voice as an artist. Talent can come with ease, but a voice, a voice requires a wide range of experiences, events that take you out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, one needs to be a bit selfish, a bit stubborn about their practice and research; for when one is being selfish about realizing one's true self, one is ultimately merely being selfish about being truly alive, about living the life that makes the most natural sense. And you've got to listen as much as you speak.
I've mentioned in these pages before, in a time when so many see art as a platform for fame, the most revolutionary thing one seeking self-realization/actualization through art can do these days is to simply focus on one's craft. It sounds simple, but when simply weighs the sheer volume of distractions floating around digital and IRL spaces, that persistent sense of FOMO that pulls one away from oneself...well, let's just say I don't encounter too many artists who embody that and those I do I try to speak with to see just how they've listened to their guts, followed their instincts to arrive just at the beginning of a path that has no end in sight other than the one we seek.
It was in encountering the artwork of a former classmate from my time at Grinnell College, Iowa-born artist Maggie Connolly that I was struck by a creation of a person I perhaps could have gotten to know better in the four years we attended college together...but this felt like the work of a person actualized, a person who had gone far outside of her comfort zone to find her voice. The work that first caught my eye a year or two ago evoked a cacophony of personal interests--computer circuitry and diagrammatic drawing, brutalist linework, the organic outgrowth of the natural and the mystical from timeless blueprints--can be found below and remains a piece that just hits me in that more blissfully ineffable of ways. It wasn't until seeing Maggie pop up on Instagram with her breathtaking ceramics work that I knew it was time to catch up and find out just what kind of journey she'd been on in the decade since we both graduated from undergrad. Having remembered her as a jovial, quintessentially midwestern soul with a strong interest in linguistics, putting the social media pieces together, I soon realized she had--much like myself--ejected herself from the comforts of the Midwest into China and then Japan. Speaking to her over the past couple of months, I've both recognized the person from my memories while feeling like I was meeting a more distilled version of herself. Someone who had more of a no-bullshit attitude than I remembered--which was a delight to encounter--while still possessing the patience and kindness I had so keenly remembered as she kindly deflected some of the emotional ricochet from what's be a motherfucker of a 2018 so far. She was also more than generous in her responses and thus I'll avoid too much of a long-winded intro to dive right into her world and work that jumps effortlessly and singularly across disciplines while retaining a explorational and open sensibility that's nothing short of inspiring.
Zurkonic: First, what up! I haven't seen you since college where, if I remember correctly, you majored in Russian and Studio Arts?
Maggie: I was a studio art major, Russian was my hobby class, I wish I would have majored in it.
Z: You're originally from Iowa, right? Were you exposed much to the arts growing up and what was your relation to nature? (considering that it seems to play a thematic role in your work)
MC: Yes, I was born and raised in Iowa. I never seriously left the state until after college graduation. My first memory of art things are art books that we had in the house; gifts from my dad to my mom in the early years of their marriage. They weren’t anything special or out-there, just your standard Picasso and Renior anthologies. The other thing that sticks out in my mind was a math poster my mom hung in my room depicting a fractal and a large font “Chaos” heading. I remember lulling myself to sleep as I imagined what it would be like to live inside that image. Other than that, I was just always naturally attracted to art classes; we stayed busy as children and I took a lot of extracurricular art classes in the summer growing up. I always hung up the art projects we did at school on my bedroom walls and got art supplies for Christmas and birthdays.
We have a pretty big yard for suburbia and a lot of my summer vacation downtime was spent in the creek that runs through the yard. Later, I was a summer camp counselor and lived in the woods for quite a few summers.
Z: How do you feel your major(a)/time at Grinnell shaped your voice as an artist (or perhaps made you aware that you could have one) What have you been up to since then and how have you ended up on your current path?
MC: Eh, Grinnell is not an art school. It was a major. My uncle was an art teacher/is an artist, I always knew art was a viable pathway.
After college, I moved to Nanjing, China on a fellowship to teach English for a year. I hated it (the teaching), but loved the experience of living in a foreign country. I stayed on for another year and that’s when the 2008 financial crisis hit. A lot of my friends back stateside were shit out of luck, but I was very well insulated by the Chinese economy. I knew if I returned, I would be in worse condition than many of my friends. I decided to study Chinese more seriously, stemming from the very real fear that I was unemployable beyond teaching English, which I hated. At the same time, I started going to the school’s ceramic studio twice a week to just sort of play around. It was through the studio hand that I received the contact information of a Ceramics Professor at Tsinghua University.
At the end of that academic year, I was burnt out on English teaching and couldn’t foresee any future for myself in Nanjing beyond teaching so I moved to Beijing and got a (very) modest internship at a Gallery in the 798 Arts district. At the same time, I was auditing a ceramics class at Tsinghua. One day, a professor I didn’t know came up to me and said my work was very nice and in case I didn’t know, Tsinghua had a masters program that foreigners could apply for and if I was interested I should apply. The gallery internship sucked. The gallery was clearly in its death throes doing terrible corporate shows, we had one sponsored by Toyota, all featuring cars. I decided I really didn’t have anything to lose by at least trying so I did. And because I had audited that class, the department was already familiar with me and I had their full backing with the recommendations and general helpfulness in filling out forms. Looking back on it now, I shouldn’t have felt surprised in the slightest that I was accepted for matriculation, but that’s older, wiser, jaded me. Me then was over-the-moon at what I felt had to be an act of god; to allow someone who barely spoke the language into a masters course of the best university of the country.
I spent three years at Tsinghua, but only about 6 months of that time could be considered serious studio time. The studio at school was more for undergrad use. The graduate students were expected to go out to the countryside to the historical ceramic production towns and work there. All in all, I went to five towns, each with its own specific style, living and working in factories alongside the workers, learning about the traditional methods of production.
Now, this was as awesome as it sounds, and I don’t want to knock the experiential education I received, but the problem was I didn’t really foresee my future as making traditional Chinese ceramics and I worried that I wasn’t getting a basic technical foundation that would allow me to develop an individual style. Through my advisor’s contacts, I met and had limited workings with the head of the ceramic department at Tokyo University of the Arts. So when I was preparing for graduation at Tsinghua, I had already discussed and applied to enter TUA as a researcher with the desire to then apply for the doctoral course, which I completed last year (2017). Currently, I am an independent researcher at TUA while I wait to hear the status of my post-doc application.
Z: Is art your primary source of income or are you able to rely on your linguistics knowledge to support yourself?
MC: Being a native English speaker has always been a way to market myself as more desirable and a form a leverage to have people want to work with me (read: want me to do work for them). I taught English on the side for a few years in Beijing to help finance my countryside trips, but I don’t do that anymore because although it is an easy way to make money, I find it insufferably boring and not really useful for anything in the long term. Usually, though, I’ll do a quid-pro-quo with friends for editing or translation help; I rarely take freelance jobs from strangers. When some sort of tangentially related project comes up in my periphery, like help with a conference, I do. I’ve written a few magazine articles over the years about my travels and experiences, which never paid much, but did apparently keep my name on someone’s radar because now I’m contracted to write two books about Chinese and Japanese ceramics which are slated to come next year.
Z: Ok, let’s move on to the art, starting with ceramics. What if any work had you done with ceramics in your schooling and time in America?
MC: Little to none, my undergrad was a basic art degree with no focus. I always enjoyed working with clay since from when I was younger, but college offered nothing more than a formal introduction.
Z: Have you studied ceramics in Japan and if so, how has the approach (both to teaching ans creating) differed?
MC: Ugh, I don’t even know where to start with this question. Both the Japanese and Chinese believe in experiential education, with the idea of a classroom being a foreign concept. The most basic way of describing their approach to education would be that a professor gives a demonstration, say throwing a cup on the wheel, or attaching a handle, and then the students are just left to their own devices to do it. It’s up to them to decide how much effort they want to put into it. If they have a question they ask other students first. Both have a strong material-based approach, with the concept being something wholly of the individual and not something to be discussed or critiqued. This would be the simplest way of describing the similarities between the two traditions. But both countries originally had an apprentice system which still continues.
Z: It seems you’ve managed to break through to some disciplines and schools that had been traditionally closed off to westerners, or westerners hadn’t bothered to engage with....
MC: I was the first American to graduate from my program in Tsinghua and the second at Geidai (another name for TUA), I don’t want to say that these programs are closed to westerners, cause they truly are not, both programs actively want students from different backgrounds, it’s the very real cultural differences and language barriers that create natural blockades that prevent others pursuing the path that I did. And it’s definitely not easy, there’s a lot of time and energy spent on trying to understand small, everyday mundane things that wouldn’t occur unless you’re in a fish out of water environment.
But I would like to add, I think it’s necessary that we, as Americans, leave our comfort zone and actively experience other cultures firsthand. I just read a psychology paper about how our co-workers know us and can describe us more accurately then we ourselves can. This is because of our implicit bias to want to present our best selves. I think the same could be said on the societal level. For there to be an accurate and constructive cross-cultural dialogue, both sides need to be actively engaged. We can’t be passive listeners to the world at large, but need to get messy to understand the true nature of the lives around us. Honestly, we have so far to go in order to reach a deeper understanding of other peoples’ lives, cultures.
Also, as a female westerner, I'd imagine you’ve maybe experienced a different set of responses but I really do not know...have you seen gender coming into play in ways you perhaps didn’t expect or anticipate?
I remember a few years back listening to a streamed talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where she talks about the idea of “bottom power.” That is, where a female uses her traditional role as inferior to a man in a way that allows her some degree of control and power over him, or the family, for her advantage, or at least leverage for some degree of equality. All without leaving the defined gender role. This is very much a thing. Japanese men often make allusions to their wives having more power than them, even though the majority of Japanese women are housewives and rarely re-enter the workforce after having children. Chinese men won’t be considered marriable until they meet basic economic requirements, home ownership, car etc., which his family usually supports and invests in. I would like to add these are considered more survival tactics of the contemporary era. Homes are usually the only reliable source of investment, that will most likely provide shelter for both sets of parents, in addition to the main family unit. This is to say, when a female is looking to improve her quality of life, she has to find the best male that is willing to provide that for her.
I was recently unsurprised to learn that Chinese women don’t necessarily mind a domineering, over-controlling man, cause they take it as a sign of being cared for, of being looked after and that means safety. I don’t want anyone to think that this is how I advocate ordering society, but I do think it’s important that we recognize there is a sensible logic in this line of thinking and that fifty years of modern society isn’t going to overturn thousands of years cultural truisms. This way of life is still true for the majority of China, although it is slowly changing with the burgeoning middle class and females able to attain higher education.
Of course, when I am added to the equation, I can just completely confound them. I mean this very literally: my modes of behavior and consciousness are without a frame of reference (that is, other than “foreigner”), and in cultures where a lot of inference is unspoken and guided by one’s actions other than words, they can just be at a total loss at what it is I am trying to say or do. There needs to be a standard watermark for comparison and analysis to happen, I don’t have that. For example, when I help with what would be considered a male’s task in the studio, it could be inferred that I think they are weak, or incompetent, and aren’t “man enough” to do the task without me. But they know I am a foreigner, so then they can guess that I am not trying to ridicule them, but still don’t understand my behavior. Overcoming these sorts of differences take long-term, sustained contact and the understanding on my part that I am not going to change anything. That “bottom power” is where Japanese women find their space of freedom and equality and they aren’t going to give it up. Another way to frame this would be transactional, both parties have the guidelines for how they are supposed to act and what they are supposed to provide; they act accordingly and negotiate within these sets of rules. I will say, that sometimes the way I see women yield this “bottom power” is terrifying in its effectiveness.
It’s easy for us as Americans to say, “let’s just blow the whole thing up”, but these have very real threats of identity to other cultures that many of us have never had to contend with. These are questions that we can not answer, so I just hope that my mere presence and the way I comport myself is example enough to provide an example to females around me and maybe show them another way. I just want to say that I think that the most radical thing one can do is to live their life according to how they see fit and not giving a damn what others around them think. I sincerely believe that humans are good and we are all trying to do what we think is right.
I’ve been more…disappointed in the western men who tell me they don’t think I get treated any different than them. The second most disappointing group is women who tell me that they don’t think women are as natural, nor effective as leaders.
Z: Do you see the Japanese art world as something that could sustain your career or who do you see as the audience for your work?
MC: No. If the Asian art markets want Asian Art they aren’t going to find an American to provide it, and I’m not interested in fulfilling that role. I’m 100% behind being “Asia-inspired and educated” because I am. And I’m lucky to have access to a larger field of people who might like my work, but I’m not interested in doing traditional Asian ceramics. What Joseph Albers said eighty years ago still rings true for us today, that we focus on and prize innovation. I do, however, immensely enjoy the comparative concepts, traditions, and history of ceramics...I think [it] is important for us to understand [ceramics'] structures, concepts, and cultural importance as we build our own art traditions. In human history, there were relatively few cultures that didn’t develop some form of clay art. Those that didn’t were usually located near the sea, but not always.I think that it is a field that really can unite all of us in our humanity to some degree.
My audience is anyone who enjoys my work.
Z: Ok, want to get into some more technical questions but I honestly am lacking in this area so please feel free to supplement anything you feel I should have asked. Could you describe the overall methodology you’ve developed in your ceramics?
MC: My research at the moment focuses on my firing technique, so I’m going to skip my clay work because there isn’t anything special about standard throwing or hand-building. My firing technique is called “mid-temp saggar firing”, which is a name I just came up with cause I am unsure if it actually has a name, but that seems to reasonably describe it to anyone who does ceramics. A saggar is essentially a box made of clay that can withstand the high temperature of a firing. They were originally used to protect porcelain ware from the atmosphere of the wood fire kilns. Wood produces ash, which is a lovely effect, but to produce a perfectly white porcelain bowl it’s no good. So the potters of antiquity would use these stackable boxes to keep their porcelain bowls and cups white until the end of [the] firing.
The technique that I do essentially inverts this idea, instead of trying to keep particulate out and away from the piece, I use the saggar box as a way to create a controlled environment, a rich atmosphere of smoke contained within it that will stain the surface of the piece. This was initially developed in the 50s and 60s by American potters who had recently come into contact with Japanese Raku techniques but were unsatisfied with its effects.
So what I do before a firing is to put a piece in a saggar and fill it with combustibles that will either burn a pattern onto the surface, like rice husks or coffee. Or [it will] vaporize and produce color that will be absorbed onto the clay surface, like iron oxide or copper carbonate.
I say mid-temperature because I am lower than the normal firing temperature in Japan and China, which is about 1280 C, but probably higher from what I hear Americans usually fire at.
Where my research is currently at is expanding on the most commonly used materials, like copper carbonate, to find new ways of flashing colors as well as material to mix with the clay body that will react to the firing atmosphere in new and interesting ways. I have not produced much in the way of tangible objects this past year cause most of my time was devoted to experiments and testing, but oddly enough I feel as though I have made much larger strides in the direction I want to go in. I’m excited to see what this year will produce.
Z: What methods have you used from the Japanese tradition and what drew you to Japanese ceramics?
MC: When people ask me how I’ve ended up where I am, I tend to respond, with “Fate." Which I guess is a better way of saying, “Hell if I know.” Nothing initially drew me to China or Japan, I just saw a possible next step that I thought looked interesting and took it. I find the underlying anthropological concepts that built the traditions more interesting than the traditions themselves. I recently learned the Japanese technique of Kintsuki, which is a method of repairing broken or chipped ceramics with lacquer and gold powder; I think I’ll play with it for a bit and see if I find anything that excites me about it. The gold certainly doesn’t [excited me]; gold is such a tacky color.
Z: How has your work been received there and how do you hope to develop your ceramics practice?
MC: I’ve been a student up until last year, so my work hasn’t really been received per se. It’s just now that I am starting to work on getting the exhibitions, getting my work seen, and going through the basic motions of establishing myself to a wider audience. This will take some years, ask me again sometime.
Z: What forms have you encountered within nature or elsewhere that have inspired you?
MC: I don’t really look at art. But what I will do is spend hours scouring science websites, any kind, physics, chemistry, mostly biology, looking for images that pique my interest. It’s usually the form of things, but sometimes the patterning or color. One artist that I enjoy is [Santiago] Ramón y Cajal. He was a early 20th century neuroscientist who studied the cells in the eye. Most of his work was basic observation, but he drew just some truly beautiful images, that are so singular in their uniqueness for the time, I think you could probably put his work in a MOMA or MOCA right now and no one would know the difference, but he was just drawing what he saw.
Z: Let’s move onto the drawings...these for me were the real surprise as personally I’m stupidly obsessed with the similarities between ancient markings and design and circuit boards/circuitry...what are you trying to achieve with the quasi-mechanical drawings?
MC: Honestly, I have no idea what I am trying to achieve, these drawings are coming from someplace deep in my subconscious, I couldn’t say concretely what the exact point is that I am trying to make. I like to think of them as a contemporary abstract take on the traditional Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings, which are supposed to be a joining of the macrocosmic and the microcosmic, not a literal landscape, but rather a peak into the mind of the creator.
Initially, I think they were my way of dealing with the confusion on living in a new culture, a new language, but I think now they are my way of embracing the confusion, because I have come to the conclusion that the only thing I can be truly certain of in life is confusion. It’s my way of trying to find sincerity and beauty in that which makes me most uncomfortable, cause that is what life is, it’s confusing, never what we expected nor exactly the way we wanted and there is always something just eluding us, beyond our grasp.
When I first came to China, I was very judgmental, a real shit – classic just out of college 20 year old. Anyways, as we get older we understand that the classroom is not the real world, that we are not prepared and that there are very real forces in our lives that are stronger than us and don’t give a shit what we think.
My drawings are very severe, the black lines in a white purgatory, self-contained and without anything around it to give hints about scale or setting. I’ve also tried to create very ambiguous relations within the systems. In an earlier artist’s statement I said that my drawings are to be viewed with the same critical dispassion as a scientist who is observing a slide under her microscope. Any judgment about whether these are symbiotic or harmful relationships are completely from you. There is not enough information for you to come to any certain conclusion and there never will be. I think this uncomfortableness and uncertainty is necessary for us question our reality and grow.
Z: You seem to be brutally expunging any sense of humanity from their rendering, yet when one steps back and looks again, it’s like you’re a dot matrix Ernst Haeckel, capturing the alien within the natural and rendering it in a way to retain its otherness or primordial quality...what interest do you have, if any, in the intersection between nature and technology?
MC: "Brutally expunging" sounds awfully harsh, I’d prefer “distilling down to its bare essence”. I have very little interest in the intersection of nature and technology. I’m more interested in taking two polar opposites and not only finding the relation between them, but showing the parts where there is no difference between them and revealing that they were really the same thing the entire time.
Z: I sometimes sense that you're crafting your own visual language with your more mechanical works...how do you see language functioning within art?
MC: I assume you are referring to the “Untitled” Series. This was the series that really forced me to slow down and get things right the first time, so I think you can see that, the evolution of the lines becoming more complex and intricate.
In one of my more recent drawings, “Plough My Cunt…” I used ancient Cuneiform texts as the design for the circuitry patterning, but that seems almost too clever by half, hokey, I don’t think I’ll continue in that direction much more, or at least in such a literal way. I’d prefer to keep my drawings in the abstract realm and incorporating actual language is too much a solid visual cue.
I did immensely enjoy my research into Cuneiform though. Did you know that the “cune” of cuneiform is actually cunt? And that’s what the ancient Babylonians themselves called it; leave it to stuffy British academics to neuter the translation to make it more socially acceptable.
Z: The pieces that are more ovular, almost vaginal, feel almost as if done by another artist save for your eye for detail...with these, I get the sensation of staring into the abyss contained within knots of wood...how do you go about constructing these?
I think you are referring to these two? (Z: See below) I see these two as more experiments with lines and dots, seeing what effects I can create in order to expand my visual vocabulary. I really focus on how the two types of lines interact and what their relationship is. The strict geometric line with the organic ink lines can only create a cohesive bond in so many ways, so I am looking for ways to develop this in ways that still look convincing, that’s what these drawings are.
Z: Generally speaking, how do you feel you’re able to realize your vision as an artist and what role does Japan play in that?
MC: No, I don’t think I have realized all that’s bopping around my head. I’m getting there and both China and Japan have played roles in supporting me and helping me develop. The biggest obstacle at the moment is that lack of space that Japan is famous for. I work at my designated space, maybe 2 square meters, in the shared studio or I work in the spare floor space of my home, also around 2 square meters; neither are sufficiently large enough for what I am trying to do, but I am making them work at the moment.
Z: Could you see yourself establishing a similar practice stateside?
MC: Sure, when I am ready.
Z: What are your goals as related to your art and what has drawn you to the mediums you currently operate within?
MC: I’ve always been drawn to the tactility of clay, and for me, the magic of turning mud into art. Although I have moved away from it recently, when you first learn to throw and can create a form competently, it’s a lot of fun to see the form emerge on the wheel and know that you are creating it and controlling it and it can go in any direction that you will it to. Right now, I’m really digging understanding the underlying chemical and physical transformations that happen in the firing process and playing with them. It’s like a mad scientist and the excitement of opening the kiln never fades; to see what comes out.
I really resisted drawing on paper for the longest time cause I always thought it had to be realistic life drawing, which was only to my own detriment. I’ve come to appreciate the speed and flexibility that ink on paper allows. Ceramics is about timing, probably the hardest part to figure out when you are a student just starting out is not how to build something, but rather the understanding the timing of the clay on when you can move onto the next step. There is not of that with drawing and that has loosened me up to explore more cause I am not worried about losing a lot of time with just whipping something out.
Z: Where do you hope to see your art in the next five-ten Year’s?
MC: In a healthy state of evolution, selling at a price and rate that supports me in the life I desire.