On April 13th, I had the pleasure of speaking about my work to an audience at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. I’ve given many talks, but this one was different. The arch of the story has shifted from a straight forward account of my development as an artist to one of personal transformation. Sure, I still gave a glimpse at my process and showed early work, but this time it was presented as a journey of discovery, with twists and turns that guided me to a place where I’m ready to take risks and be more outspoken with my art. I talked about how I found my voice and described what it’s like to go from the land of innocence into the real world. Not too long ago, it seemed like all anyone could talk about were my techniques and workmanship, but now people are commenting on the content, which is what I’ve always wanted. The audience was wonderful – they even laughed at my jokes! People who were there described the presentation as enjoyable and inspirational, with just the right amount of edge to keep things interesting.
My talk was not videotaped, but Rob and I are thinking about putting together a encapsulated version to share. As always, the challenge is to find the time to do it. Until then, I thought I’d offer the following excerpt of my opening remarks and a few slides from the beginning and end of my presentation. In my introduction, I refer to my exhibit, Liberty and Justice: The Sweet to Satirical Art of Salley Mavor, which just came to a close. I’m excited to say that a select group of pieces from the show, including the film and display case full of characters and movie props will be going to the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, ME for The Art of Cute exhibit (May 1 – Aug. 31, 2019). Two other pieces of mine, Displaced and Cover Up will also be shown. The large exhibition, which is curated by the Illustration Institute, takes a serious look at a powerful aesthetic that is often not taken seriously. From the little bit I’ve seen, it promises to be one of the most unusual art exhibitions you are likely to see this year. I hope to meet some of you at the opening reception on Friday, May 10, 5 – 8 PM.
Opening remarks before “Once Upon a Thread” by Salley Mavor
April 13, 2019 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
Before launching into my slide presentation, I’d like to share some thoughts about the Liberty and Justice exhibit that’s upstairs. Truth be told, I hate talking about politics. At a dinner party, I’m the silent one, watching and listening to the sometimes heated debate swirling around me. But when political forces invaded my safe little existence, I felt compelled to act. In the first days after the 2016 election, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before artists, writers, comedians, playwrights, filmmakers and musicians began using stories, irony and metaphor to help America and the world cope with what is happening. I think that all sides can agree that we’re in deep doo doo. My art may not help make sense of it, or offer solutions, but it exposes the elephant in the room.
2 years ago, when I posted scenes from the Wee Folk Players series on my blog and Facebook, there was a lot of reaction, both positive and negative. One person was so mad that I was making fun of the president, they threw my books in the recycling. Another told me that I’d ruined her hobby. My favorite was from someone who said I was not qualified to have a political opinion. But for every criticism, came many, many more saying things like, “You go, girl!” and “You made me laugh so hard, I peed in my pants.”
My fans have come to rely on my art as a safe haven from the viciousness of the world. I don’t blame them for wanting to stay in the land of innocence. My dolls may be revealing a darker political reality, but you’ve got to admit, they’re still adorable. I just don’t do ugly or grotesque. For me, it’s about finding the sweet spot, even in the scary places we don’t want to go.
People wonder how I can speak out this way, considering the potential for backlash. I can take a risk, because at this stage in my life, I don’t need the approval of others in the same way that I used to, nor am I invested in a certain outcome. I realize that this is a luxury that many people do not have. And that adds to my sense of urgency. I feel a responsibility to document and reflect what I see happening around us and to bear witness, like artists have always done.
I’ve learned that my art helps people process what is going on at a deep and emotional level. What started as my own outlet for managing the barrage of news, has turned into a way for others to experience their own catharsis. Someone recently wrote to tell me, that after seeing this show, she burst into tears, realizing that my art helped her deal with her distress and dismay over the state of the country. She said that she felt uplifted for the first time in three years. When I hear this kind of reaction, I know it’s been worth it.
Having my work deemed too divisive and labeled as controversial has led to a chain of events that brought it to the attention of many more people. The episode has opened up conversations within our community about the purpose of art, which isn’t exactly an everyday topic of discussion. And I can’t help thinking that it has revealed an undercurrent of fear that we all have. Fear of upsetting people, fear of other points of view, fear of losing a way of life and most of all, fear of what is happening to our country. This experience has taught me that art can be a powerful way to face fear. It can be seductive, unsettling, stunning and confronting, which spark conversations about what it means to be living in this beautiful and terrifying world.
I have worked hard to get to where I am and this latest chapter is the strongest and most satisfying so far. Stretching myself artistically makes me realize that I am not what I thought I was. I am transformed, and everything I make from now on, whether it’s political or not, will be influenced in some way, by this adventure into forbidden territory.
What I make and how I do it didn’t just come out of the blue. It’s been a slow and steady process, from early childhood to today. I come from a long line of quiet, but determined people. My late parents, Mary and Jim Mavor were my role models. They created an environment where art mattered, a lot. It was not an extra. Dancing, playing music and making art was our family’s way of feeling human and connected to our Woods Hole community. My mother was an artist and business woman who left me with the belief that making art is the reason to get up in the morning. My father was an engineer with a visionary streak, who followed his ideas, no matter how esoteric. I am grateful to my family, including my husband Rob, for helping clear a path and never standing in the way, as I pursue my passion.
Before I continue, I want to squelch a rumor. Some people have been overheard saying that I must use a sewing machine. That is not true. OK, I use one to make clothes and pot holders and that kind of thing, but my artwork is all stitched by hand. Period. Even in this day and age, machines just can’t do what I do. Now that that’s cleared up, let’s move on to “Once Upon a Thread.”
At this point, I spent 45 minutes going through my whole life up until now with photos and commentary, showing work and talking about the experiences that helped form who I am as an artist.
In the section about making our animated film, I showed the following time lapse.
With the slide below projected on the screen I said, “I will end by showing you what my work table looks like now. You can be assured that its surface will never be completely clear of thread. At a time when most of my friends are retiring, I’m just gearing up. For as long as I can, I will keep making art that reflects both the lightness and the darkness of the world, in my quiet, but determined way.”
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