Mary Button Durell

sculptor, San Francisco // May 2012
Artists create holes and openings in the universe. They sidestep the conventional, conditional, predictable and habitual, and they illuminate and connect different worlds.

Mary’s studio is in the Mission District in Project Artaud, an arts complex that includes three theaters and is home to over 80 artists and writers. I had briefly talked to Mary on the phone before our visit, and her exuberant, jangly voice prompted me to make a few pre-visit conclusions: I figured she’d be a bit of a character with a healthy dose of nervous energy and a propensity to laugh easily and heartily. I have to say, I pretty much hit the mark. Mary’s a lot of fun to be around— she’s totally unpretentious, gesticulates wildly, and swears like a sailor. Somehow people who swear make me comfortable— maybe it’s because I assume they aren’t holding back and they’re coming at me just as they are, without obligatory formalities weighing them down. Mary’s unaffected way of being comes through in her art practice as well. There’s a rawness and simplicity to her materials, she essentially only uses tracing paper and wheat paste, and her inspiration often comes in the form of singular, unexpected visions. Though her process can be incredibly time-consuming it is decidedly straightforward, and yet it produces layered, imaginative, amorphous pieces that hint at the complexities and fragilities of humanity and the natural world. Mary’s been working with tracing paper and wheat paste since 1998— that’s a long time, and part of me wonders how she hasn’t gotten bored, or stuck, or indifferent along the way. Yet despite knowing her materials so intimately, Mary is constantly renegotiating the terms of her work, implementing new strategies and tactics that test where and how far she can go. Because Mary deals with just the essentials, pushing her materials is crucial, and every tweak, stretch, and pull makes all the difference.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
The materials I use are tracing paper and wheat paste. In the past some of my work has included selected natural objects such as dried pods and pine needles, and recently I’ve added acrylic paint and foil. When I first started using this material I included wire but thought it would be more interesting to strip it down to the essentials, just paper and wheat paste, and build pieces that were structurally sound by design and reinforced by adding layers and layers of paper.

I like the challenge of pushing the limits with one material, it forces you to always think about what’s next and how to continue to reshape, redirect and transform that chosen material. I have an interesting and long-term relationship with this paper, and when you work in tandem with your materials and with such intimacy, the give and take is an important part of the work. Tracing paper has its limitations and breaking points— there’s a certain amount of time I have to work with it before it disintegrates and tears, which creates an interesting tension in my process. It’s like working on the edge of a cliff. My process involves working at different paces— sometimes I have to work expeditiously and other times I have to move painstakingly slow, plodding along, layer by layer, inch by inch.

As for my subject matter, I’ve chosen to work with the properties of light and translucency, biomorphic forms and patterns. The work has been compared to natural worlds: subaquatic, celestial and cellular. Depending on the process and the light, the individual pieces can take on the characteristics of different, more solid materials such as wood, bone, shell or marble.

Fundamental ideas explored in my work relate mostly to the mysterious quality of translucency— the ways in which diffusion of information, lack of clarity and distinction can pull you in and stimulate questions and curiosity. The concept of repetition and recurring events also fascinates me— our habitual patterns, our attachment to safety and comfort through repetitive actions, regardless of their benefit to our lives.

With regard to pattern, I always trip on the fact that there’s seven billion people out there on the planet, each one different and each one doing something different at the same time, creating this beautiful writhing pattern of movement and color. I’m drawn to the questions that layers bring up and the possibilities for meaning, whether it’s single layers or multilayers. There is so much to consider: the extent of layering (psychological and physiological), the realities underneath, the history, the texture, the thickness, the construction, and how to uncover those layers. Themes of contrasting forces also carry through my work: fragility and strength, opacity and translucence, heaviness and lightness.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I work part time with my sisters managing a commercial real estate investment company. Real estate is a left-brain world, which is a challenge for me and a direct contrast to the right-brain art world, but it supports me financially and for that I am extremely grateful. It allows me the privilege to work on my art almost full time and oddly enough, I still feel that there isn’t enough time. This job also gives me the opportunity to connect with my sisters— we’re fortunate because we have a rare and wonderful personal and working relationship with each other.

For many years I was in the advertising business working as a location scout and a prop and fashion assistant stylist for photographers. It was great from the standpoint of flexibility and money, but the hours were long and unpredictable. I built up quite a bit of resentment against not having enough time for my artwork until I figured out the antidote: 4am mornings, work before work, work in the dark and quiet before the rest of the world gets up.

Have you had to make sacrifices in order to live your life as an artist? Do you encounter misconceptions about that life or choice?
There’s a certain amount of discipline necessary in protecting your art life, ensuring enough time for your work. It means saying no to a lot of invitations and activities but it has never felt like a sacrifice because of the value and importance it has in my life. I am currently more focused and streamlined in my work, but that took time and practice.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
There are a few things I’m excited about and currently exploring with my work, which include the use of color, kinetics, placement in space and two-dimensionality.

The challenge of using color with form is the issue of balance between the two, the goal being not to have one override the other. Working with these neon bright colors is very different and very scary for me— it was a risk to be pretty. My style is usually more muted, toned down but the paper dictated the brightness, the colors were more effective with the translucent quality of the paper for my current project.

My decision to work two-dimensionally came out of a desire to create work on the wall and have it have as much impact and strength as the three-dimensional work. There were other practical factors involved too, such as storage and cost that come with three-dimensional pieces. This challenge pushed me to learn new ways to backlight the work without natural light, using different lighting techniques.

Larger sculptures innately carry weight and impact, whereas smaller work is challenging because you have to push it to have the same impact as the larger work, but you are working on a smaller scale. There are similar issues and challenges in moving from three-dimensional to two-dimensional. Three-dimensional form registers differently—it’s independent and all-inclusive whereas two-dimensional is flat and usually supported by the wall or another surface. For me the challenge is making it come alive. My solutions include the use of color, grid formations, repetition, additional materials and light.

What shifts have occurred in your work? Have there been any distinct experiences that have steered your work in new or significant directions?
The new direction in my work was the result of a tragic life experience in 2001. Unbeknownst to me, my boyfriend at the time was a con man. I lost everything: my entire world, my friends, my savings, my dignity, my mind, and my identity as an artist—all of it. It was the ultimate act of betrayal and a monumental loss. The experience completely stripped me of any inspiration to work on my art for five years, but through the encouragement of my friends and family I was able to return to my work.

This experience was very complicated and multilayered but rich with material and continues to fuel my work in many different ways. Coming back to my work was difficult; I was very lost and had never experienced a creative block before— I was never without ideas, without energy, and it was incredibly strange to experience a “void.” Tragedy always comes with a silver lining though; it gave me the courage to take new directions and risks with my work. Now looking back on this, I recognize the five-year break was extremely beneficial.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
In terms of my work, I don’t look for inspiration—it begins with a vision usually when I’m meditating or in a relaxed state. I work from an original vision, which then inspires or informs the next piece.

But of course inspiration comes in all ways. I stop. I sit, observe, absorb, and look closely and slowly at objects. I follow contours on the pavement during a slow paced walk. I pay attention to negative space, the space around, the gap, the mistakes, and the discarded. I get out the magnifying glass, I rotate, I nap. Travel, libraries, dancing, music, maps, hardware stores, my artist friends, huge gut-ripping roaring laughs— all of it inspires me, everything, the full catastrophe.

Right now the book by my bed is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and the movie in my DVD player is Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Space determines size and form. Large space gives you the opportunity to make both small and large work. When I was living in a loft I made my largest pieces— it was great to have that limitless, expansive feeling that comes with working in a bigger, more accommodating space. When I moved into a smaller place I had to downsize for practical reasons. I enjoy alternating between making small and large work. Large work allows me to sink into the day-to-day process of building something over a long period of time. It becomes more about the creating of something rather than the something. With small work, it’s immediate and punctual and very satisfying to see pieces completed in day or a week instead of 10 months.

What do you think is the function of art in society? Do art or artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular?
The basic answer: to wake people up, to challenge preconceived notions, to provoke, to create beauty, to encourage community, and to inspire imagination and play. Nick Cave’s Soundsuits come to mind—how wonderful it would be to be walking downtown, head down and suddenly look up and see his dancers in the street moving in those fantastic suits!

Artists create holes and openings in the universe. They sidestep the conventional, conditional, predictable and habitual, and they illuminate and connect different worlds. They’re responsible for keeping open, playing and infiltrating culture with newness, the unknown until now, the original.

How have you navigated the art world? Has your relationship with it changed over the years?
I engage in the art world as much as time allows. I go to openings, talks, dance performances, I read blogs, hang with my art buds, and volunteer at Creativity Explored where I work with disabled artists. I’m currently not represented by a gallery; I do think galleries perform an important function for artists as a home base, but now with the internet there are so many varied ways to promote your work, which is very exciting. Most of my recent work and shows are the result of being featured on several blogs.

A commonly held conception is that artists often make their best work during periods of personal turmoil, have you found this to be true?
I did create one of my favorite pieces during that difficult time in my life; it was a new and interesting direction for me. So my answer is yes to your question, but not always. Art arises out of our cumulative and sometimes dark experiences, but working from that place is not preferable to me.

What has been your biggest disappointment and greatest joy thus far in life?
Disappointments: I’m sad at how many incredibly gifted artists go unrecognized. I’m upset that our pets die before we do. I’m disappointed in our culture of greed and consumerism.
My greatest joy: my family, my friends, and the good fortune of time to work on my art.

Do you have a motto?
I never go out of the house without my lips being red.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
“Flash” on June 8th, 2012 at La Boutique Galerie, San Francisco.
I’ll also be in a show on August 18th, 2012 at Art Works Dowtown in San Rafael.
And it’s still to be confirmed, but I should have a show in 2013 at Galerie Maurer, Frankfurt, Germany.

To see more of Mary’s work:

Her work has also been featured on tons of blogs, here are a few:
The Jealous Curator
Erin Louise: A Curated Life