Intuition and Politics

Mara Superior's Porcelain Sculptures

If there’s a tenet artist Mara Superior has held to, it’s this: she wanted to make beautiful objects, ones that tend to be “joyous inspirations.” To that end, most people have known her painted porcelain work to feature fantastical elements—mermaids—or the natural world—fish and flowers—and always her themes have been decidedly not political. And that’s how she wanted it. Words that might best describe her work—some sculptural, other more functional—include whimsical, celebratory and also delicate. 
 
 
So, fast-forward pretty far into the Bush administration. Superior explains that she didn’t so much change her mind about making political statements through her work, as found herself unable to do anything but follow her intuition where it led, which was toward making some very political art. Superior says, “I’ve always worked intuitively. I’d been listening to the radio for years, into war, into financial crisis, and I was so upset—practically driven crazy—at the global situation. It was as if this work practically started to make itself.”
 
 
A series of her porcelain sculptures depicted the collateral damage from enduring the Republican Bush administration as she saw it, Bushwhacked (2008). The characteristic Superior vessel shape on a stand featured things in need of mending, including Iraq and the US economy. On the porcelain surface, with her bold lettering and deft, at times dainty and other times whimsical and other times bold hand, Superior sketched a broken world, detailed through issues and places, an artistic road map of her bewilderment and grief.
 
 
And she didn’t stop there. Superior went on to create a series about the financial crisis—Piggy Bankers/The Great Recession of 2008 (2009), spurred on by news of Lehman Brothers’ fall. She says, “I wanted to portray Main Street and Wall Street, the bankers taking those toxic assets and the golden pig topper sniffing its portfolio, unable to see beyond its own interests.” Her Tuliopomania (2009) draws upon and chronicles the history of the tulip bulb in Holland, when growers demanded a bailout in 1633, a moment she sees as eerily comparable to the recent mortgage crisis in this country. Reflecting upon the term “irrational exuberance,” Superior ponders how the phrase pertains not only to tulip bulb gluts but also the housing market early this millennium. Smart Planet (2009), the globe topped with Mother Earth, takes on climate crisis with the message to take heed and seek alternative energy. She also started to work on American Villains, a vessel shaped like an altarpiece, the altar the almighty dollar, with characters like Bernard Madoff and ancillary villains, folks like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck featured, but she never finished that one. Superior shakes her head, and says, “It was too negative. I put it in a box.”
 
 
For all that gnawed at her about politics and the global state of affairs during the Bush era (and beyond), Superior freely admits that she’s an unabashed Obama fan. “The fact that Obama was elected, to my mind, is nothing short of a miracle,” she says. Her view is that the country and the world, for that matter, are in crisis and that positivity is going to move us further from harm and toward change than being critical of the pace or way change is being sought. “I can’t remember a more critical, pivotal time,” she says. “We must refrain from so much negativity and provide more encouragement to this President, extend the honeymoon. So much is being changed, if not perfectly, if not as fast as we hope for, still, there’s so much change. We passed health care reform,” she adds. 
 
 
In that much more uplifted vein, Superior has created The Obama White House. This piece features an inspired replica of White House with President Obama’s head on top, his family and the crises he faces represented, and it’s not done. Superior continues to set additional small plates out upon the porcelain lawn with his accomplishments listed plate by plate. She says, “This is live action artwork. I’ll add plates throughout the time he’s in office to honor each achievement.”
 
 
She’s also making a limited edition of tributary Obama pieces. Here’s how Superior describes them: “The busts are small, on tiny gold bases, say to put on your desk and remind you of President Obama. They’ll say something like ‘humanitarian’ with the dates of his Presidency.” She hopes to need to include dates for a second term.
 
 
When you start to hear more about the way so much of Superior’s career and her passions came together, the story of how she first became aware of candidate Obama falls easily into context. She says her husband, artist Roy Superior’s 80 year-old cousin, read Dreams of My Father, (Barack Obama’s first memoir), and supported the nearly impossibly young, fledgling candidate straight away, declaring him an articulate, intelligent, inspiring man. Impressed by that passionate declaration, Superior read his book, and was equally swayed, although she found it hard to believe his candidacy would prevail. In her Obama White House, she uses a quote from Obama’s father in a bubble over his head: “Finding the right words can change the world.”
 
 
How does this anecdote tie into Superior’s larger story? Having completed her undergraduate degree in fine arts, she and her husband were living in the Hartford, Connecticut area, where she found arts-related work, including designing store windows at the G. Fox department store in downtown Hartford and helping to repaint and restore the city’s Bushnell Park carousel. Because jobs like window designer were more commonplace in New York, Superior was imagining a move back to the city where she grew up, when her husband was offered a teaching position at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. As she cast about for work, Superior noticed that porcelain artist Jane Hillman was offering what turned out to be her one and only class ever given, a six-week course at her White Dog Pottery studio.
 
 
For Superior, porcelain provided a real a-ha moment and she ended up in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts in order to study ceramics, her newfound passion. Superior explains, “Roy’s advisee at Hampshire College, Leslie Ferrin, was also studying ceramics. She and I were graduating at the same time from our programs. She found a studio in a building that was opening in Northampton, called Thorne’s Market and Brink Thorne gave her the space in the building’s basement with the stipulation that it not only be studio space but also a crafts market.” Thorne’s, formerly a department store, was being broken up into smaller retail shops and restaurants. She says, “Leslie agreed, and so we started out studio and launched into business at the same time. We dreamed up what might sell—little pins, things like that—and we sold our friends’ work on consignment. In the studio space we had a weaver, a stained glass maker and a woodworker. Eventually, we just had the weaving and the pottery.” 
 
 
Characterizing the business growing “in baby steps,” it became clear that Ferrin made the business side of things her “art.”  Superior explains, “Leslie has the talent to grow a business, and that’s what she gravitated towards.” The commencement of construction on a parking garage adjacent to Thorne’s, a project that would take some years to complete, precipitated Ferrin’s decision to move the business from its original space. Superior says, “We moved to a Main Street retail space in 1987.” That gallery, Pinch, is owned by Jena Sujat and Superior praises Sujat for its continued success.
 
 
These days, Superior is moving back to her “own” work, mermaids up first. She says, “I have to shut the radio off” in order to move forward. She can’t tune out entirely, though. After all, she plans to keep track of President Obama’s continued accomplishments, so she can make the plates to document each one.
 
 
To view more of Mara Superior’s work, please visit the Ferrin Gallery at www.ferringallery.com
 
 
 

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