Of Mind and Matter
The Art of Terry Maker
GALLERY-GOERS who stumbled unaware into Reckoning, a 2012 exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, could be forgiven for assuming that they were viewing a group show, not a retrospective of the work of Terry Maker. Nearly ten thousand feet of gallery space overflowed with dozens of varied works that, at least upon initial viewing, seemed like they could have been created by a dozen different artists.
Dominating the show were two huge, brightly colored installations that covered more than two hundred square feet of each of the gallery’s vast, opposing walls. Surrounding these large works were numerous smaller pieces that—at least from a distance—looked like they might have been standard-sized paintings on canvas. But upon closer inspection, the frames offered up complex compositions featuring mundane objects (Magic Markers, vinyl records, various kinds of documents) which had been manipulated and sometimes mutilated before being recombined in surprising and pleasing new shapes.
Look! Over there are big, buzzing houseflies impaled on some of the world’s biggest ento pins. And over here are three six-foot-tall, narrow, boney-looking items that were surely created by an artist obsessed with human anatomy. Elsewhere, other strange and wondrous objects populate the gallery and seduce your startled eyeballs. Oh! There’s a big, brilliantly white book, sitting open (it turns out not to be a book after all). And there’s a giant’s belt, hanging on a hook in the wall [see back cover]. Of course, it’s not a real leather belt, but more like the Guinness Book of World Records’ winner for the planet’s longest piece of taffy. Perhaps that’s why I feel like licking it? And out in the atrium there’s a suite of seven otherworldly suitcases that look like someone packed them for a journey to a sci-fi lunarscape. Unlike all the other vibrantly colored works in the show, these items are low-key and monochromatic.
However, those who have come to the Fine Arts Center specifically for Reckoning can see beyond the stunning visual diversity and grasp the unity, a unity that reveals something of the soul of their maker, a Colorado artist who is the subject of a growing number of shows as well as increased interest in the gallery market. That unity is revealed in her profound reverence for found objects (even as she repurposes them in ways no one else would imagine), her mastery of the demanding technical processes that transform stuff into art, and her simultaneous embrace of both seriousness and whimsy.
These characteristics come into focus as you examine the elephant in the room—or more precisely, the snake in the room. There it is, stretching 150 feet across the gallery floor. The snake is motionless, perhaps because it is still digesting the creature responsible for the large bulge in its midsection. Looking closer, the snake seems to be constructed out of thousands of slices of wheat bread, but looking again, you realize that it’s something else. Turning at last to the description on the gallery wall, you see that the work, Reptilius Consumerus Devourus, has been created from shredded US currency and other bank documents [see Plate 1].
Some artists are hesitant to offer detailed explanations of their work, perhaps fearing that the descriptions will overtake the images themselves, or lessen the sense of mystery. But Maker seems to delight in offering whatever background information she can. “I was thinking about how Jesus is the bread of life that sustains us during our journey,” she says, her five-foot-five frame dwarfed by the snake. “But then a trickster comes along, befuddling us on our journey. That’s how we find ourselves in this place of awkwardly struggling to be constantly in this world but not of it. We want the nourishment that comes from the bread, but we also want the money. We are conflicted, and we are constantly yearning for more.”
Reptilius Consumerus Devourus is in many ways a prototypical Maker piece. Superficially, her works are pleasing to the eye, but surface appeal is only part of the story. As they reel you in, they expose you to a deeper narrative, provoking metaphysical and theological questions that point to an underlying reality. Typically, materials and concepts take the lead, as in the case of the snake, which utilizes the detritus of our consumerist society to portray the venomous kiss of unbridled greed. In the best of her work, a tension is brought about by the juxtaposition of materials—one that evokes the conflicts we all experience between the material and the spiritual, or death and resurrection. When everything works, the visual allure and underlying dialogue create a transcendent beauty that leaves you both satisfied and destabilized.
As the Reckoning show clearly reveals, Maker has created her own long and winding road. “It’s been a journey of investigating all different kinds of art making,” she says. “It’s an investigation that asks: What is a sculpture? What is a photograph? How can I use all kinds of different media and different materials?” Stripped to its essentials, her creative mantra may be summarized as: Be honest. Avoid bullshit. Go beneath the surface. Cut to the core.
Ask Maker about her influences and she is quick to mention specific artists (particularly Patty Wickman and Tim Hawkinson—more on them later) as well as the post-World War I Dada movement and three movements that blossomed during the 1960s: Fluxus; the conceptual art movement; and arte povera. Marcel Duchamp (aka R. Mutt) and the other artists associated with Dada combined radical ideology with the visual arts, theater, and literature to create provocative works that could be either myopically self-referential or broadly critical of the larger world. Fluxus, which migrated from Europe to the United States during the 1960s, was a full-fledged “intermedia” movement that mashed up the traditional visual arts with poetry, film, graphic design, and avant-garde performances to transform viewers into participants, forever changing our perceptions of what art could be. The conceptual art movement rejected the formalism and commercialism of the art world, valuing concepts over aesthetics. And arte povera, which was born in Italy, combined a radical critique of the status quo with a love for found objects. All four movements have at times been perceived as more anti- than pro-anything: anti-war, anti-bourgeois convention, anti-commerce, even anti-art. And at times, these movements seemed more successful at generating manifestoes than masterpieces. But for artists who are inspired by spiritual motives, the DNA of these movements offers models for transcending the traditional limitations of art by challenging and confronting viewers, grabbing them by the lapels to shake them up a bit and, ultimately, unsettling their preconceptions and perceptions. As Roger Lipsey said in his book An Art of Our Own, “The spiritual in art confronts us with what we have forgotten. Humorously, solemnly, gently, heroically, mockingly, resplendently, it confronts us.”
For Maker, her retrospective show is truly a reckoning. As she surveys her own body of work, she recalls the early days when she made art by rolling up canvases, covering them with house paint from Home Depot, gluing them together, then cutting them apart with various saws to see what would happen. It’s exciting for her to see what has changed and what has remained constant. Where others may see mainly diversity and variety, she can detect themes that have repeated themselves over the years. “This has been a journey of wanting to get inside,” she says, “inside my life, inside my processes as an artist, and inside the works themselves. I have always been an experimenter, inventing new processes and investigating what a painting can do. I want to reveal the core of things inside the art piece. I no longer want to look from the surface, but from the edge. I want to get down to the core of something, its DNA on the cellular level, and ask: Who are we as people? Who am I? And why do I want to make art?”
Maker is quick to credit her many artistic influences, but the two people who may have had the greatest impact on her life and work were her parents, Red and Corky. Born in 1953 in Abilene, Texas, Maker says that though her parents loved each other deeply, they couldn’t have been more different, and their differences ensured that their daughter would not experience a humdrum childhood.
If you were around Abilene in the 1950s, you probably would have known about Red Maker, an eccentric inventor and successful entrepreneur perhaps best known for Maker Air Park, the city’s first airport. Those who knew Red talk about his unusual personal style. Even though he had plenty of money, his preferred outfit was an old pair of striped overalls and scuffed thrift-store shoes—a wardrobe mirrored by his idiosyncratic manners, which led some to consider him a wacko. “He was eccentric,” says Maker, “but I loved him and admired his unusual take on life. His approach was that if you want to do something, you can do it. If something doesn’t exist, you can make it. He had his own way of seeing life.”
While dad was wild, mom was milder, more conventional. A classy lady and a sharp dresser, when she ventured out, she sported tailored dresses and plenty of rings on her fingers. It was mom who introduced Maker and her sister to Christianity, taking the girls to the local Methodist church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night while the irreverent Red stayed home and tinkered in his workshop. “It was the Bible belt,” says Maker. “We were at church a lot. That’s what you did if you were a Christian.” Mom also nourished Maker’s creative instincts, encouraging her to draw whatever came to her mind, and to take art classes with a private teacher.
Maker undertook her first major “project” when she was about six years old. While dad was out in his warehouse-sized garage working in his overalls, she started a project of her own. “I was wearing my own overalls, and I thought I wanted to invent something myself. So I got some plywood and started constructing a platform and walls for my pet turtles.” Although her Turtle World wasn’t beautiful, it worked, and it led to more projects. “I was living in a child’s world of fantasy and wanted to create different worlds. I wondered, what’s going to happen if I throw all these things together? For me it was always about amalgamating objects into my projects, not about being a landscape painter.”
As Maker grew older, the family traveled to Europe and visited museums. This only increased her desire to be an artist. “I was very into creating and making, but the fruit of traveling in Europe as a young girl was that I saw all these amazing and gigantic pieces on the walls. That sealed the deal for me. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to impress someone with my work. I wanted to make big impressions.”
Her mixed feelings about family, creativity, and legacy are revealed most fully in two linked works inspired by “Ozymandias,” Shelly’s sonnet on a ruined, half-buried statue of an ancient Egyptian ruler, on whose pedestal he imagines the lines, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” The poem “is an ode to a long-dead king with a large ego and a strong desire to leave a legacy of his worth and power in a monument to himself,” wrote Maker in an essay for a recent exhibit. It tells “the story of the weight of human will, knowledge, and judgment in a state of disunion with God.” Two of Maker’s works explore the poem’s portrayal of hubris, as well as her own struggles to determine how she would leave her mark on the world: a short film loop called Ozymandian Tree—Roots and a seven-by-sixteen-foot collage of plaster and pieces of sixteen-millimeter film called Ozymandian Tree—A Silent Film [see Plate 2]. (The way to keep the two works straight is to remember that the film loop is not subtitled A Silent Film.)
Ozymandian Tree—Roots is a five-minute film loop that played repeatedly during the Reckoning exhibit. The film consists of two kinds of footage: home movies shot by Red Maker showing a young Terry, her sister, and other family members having fun at the family’s Abilene home; and shots of Maker—armed with a glue gun and strips of film—creating the other Ozymandian work. She says that Ozymandian Tree—Roots is “a reflection of my father’s need to express his own mark through his numerous films of our family.” (The film is viewable at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center’s website: www.csfineartscenter.org/exhibitions/OzymandianTreeRoots.asp.)
To create Ozymandian Tree—A Silent Film, Maker first built eight seven-by-two-foot panels. Next she indulged one of her favorite passions: repurposing existing materials and giving them new life. Specifically, she embedded strips of sixteen-millimeter film into a layer of plaster covering the panels, painstakingly manipulating and positioning the acetate strips to form the image of a tree, from whose branches sprout letters, then words and phrases from Shelley’s poem. Strips of film are reborn as script. “This powerful, popular, and bigger-than-life medium of film is now silently embedded in plaster and resin—where the viewer is asked to contemplate the tree, the film, the sonnet, and quietly consider the amalgamated meaning of their own legacy,” writes Maker.
As I walk through the Reckoning show with Maker, peppering her with questions about her work, it’s clear that the two Ozymandian pieces sprang from some deep inner well of lived experience, and that the themes she was trying to explore there continue to have a powerful hold over her. “We all have this tremendous need to be remembered,” she says. “That’s part of why my father constantly took photographs and shot film of my sister and me. Now I want to make my mark, to keep something going in the face of my own inevitable passing. As an artist, that need is expressed through my own ambition, and through my desire for acknowledgment of my work. So in a sense, the Ozymandian pieces are a kind of confession. I am acknowledging my own hubris, my own desire for fame. I want to be known, but someday the sands will wash over my works, just as they settled over the statue of Ozymandias. I am asking the viewer to look at this tree made of plaster and film, and also to look at the human condition. This is not a silent film you watch while eating popcorn. Instead, you need to slow down. You need to look at it carefully. It’s about the whole idea of legacy.”
It’s one thing for a six-year-old girl to dream of being an artist. It’s an altogether different thing for a woman in her twenties and thirties to discern and pursue her artistic vocation. Maker is the first to admit that her journey has been both dark and difficult. “I had been raised as kind of a wild child, making art, exploring life, and indulging my sense of imagination,” she says. “But as an emotional person, I also had a hard time in life. I was not rich or famous, I had no children, and I found myself asking, What am I worth? What is the essence of me? How am I valued?”
Wanting to overcome her inner demons and figuring that her artwork wouldn’t sustain her financially, she got a master’s degree in educational psychology at Texas Tech. “I got the degree I thought I would need to take care of myself, but didn’t want to do this kind of work. I’m an artist!” She also “pitched out the Christian thing,” concluding that the lessons she had been taught back in Methodist Sunday school wouldn’t offer much help in charting her future course. The wild child was becoming a wild woman, one whose liberated lifestyle was failing to deliver the promised sense of joy. But her commitment to becoming an artist was becoming increasingly clear, so she set off for the University of Colorado in Boulder to pursue a master’s of fine arts.
While studying at Boulder, she met Patty Wickman [see Image issue 25]. After the two women graduated in 1983, they kept in touch, with Maker making regular journeys to Los Angeles to visit Patty and her artist husband, Tim Hawkinson [see Image issue 46]. These visits to the couple’s LA loft and the friendship that developed had a profound impact on Maker. “I became pretty enamored with this particular family during my journeys of exploration,” says Maker. “Here I was, busily being a wild person, but I found myself becoming increasingly attracted to these two people who were wild in their art making but balanced in their lives. They were outstanding, risk-taking artists, but all the while they were Christians, and the way they handled their faith was so good for me. The kindness they showed to me, and the way they did little things, like the gentle touch they had when they helped a homeless guy, struck me and planted a seed in me that was so slow in growing.”
Around this time she met her husband Chris Rogers, a photographer. Today Rogers works as an industrial designer, making remote-controlled, robot-like vehicles used by the Environmental Protection Agency to snoop out hazardous areas, and, outside the US, to fight fires. Their relationship gives Maker a sense of security that is essential to her work.
The seed planted through her friendship with Wickman and Hawkinson flourished after 1999, when Maker attended a New Agey event featuring various counselors and seers. Someone at the event had left a copy of Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace on a table. Maker grabbed the book and devoured it. “That book beckoned me back to my faith,” says Maker, who had finally become convinced that living a crazy life wasn’t a prerequisite for creating great art. “God plants various things in our lives, and that’s how I see that book. As I read it, I felt myself being wooed back to God after many years of living without faith and belief. I became a very dedicated Christian, attending church and traveling this road of learning and absorbing everything I could. Before, I had always felt that God didn’t like the wild side of me. But as I traveled this road, I could see that God embraced my creative wildness. From that point on, it was as if the wildness within me was sanctioned.”
That wildness is on display in two of Maker’s more fascinating installations. The Garden of Nineveh pieces, two large panels that face each other from opposite walls of the gallery, explore the cosmic battle between good and evil. Garden of Nineveh—Bitter is inspired by the biblical story of Jonah, who is summoned by God to deliver a message of repentance to the Babylonian city, but who decides that he has other fish to fry.
Sporting hundreds of spiky thorns, Garden of Nineveh—Bitter is both alluring and repelling [see Plate 3]. The tropical green and yellow colors make you think of the beauty of nature, but nature can also be harsh and brutal, like the work’s many protruding spikes, that might just impale you if you get too close. The work also invites you to get closer—at least close enough so you can hear it. Speakers built into the work feature an audio loop of human voices calling out the things they desire:
I want to pay off my credit cards.
I want to recover from my sickness and feel healthy again.
I want to lose about ten pounds.
I want resolve my anger toward my parents.
I want to be famous.
I just want someone to hold my hand.
Standing before Garden of Nineveh—Bitter, the viewer has mixed reactions (which is exactly what Maker wants). The work both pulls you in and pushes you away. It is beautiful but offensive, evocative but confusing. Like sin and temptation, it woos you while also warning you of unseen problems to come. “When you get close to the thorns,” says Maker, “they kind of whisper to you about desires, like the snake in the garden of Eden. You yearn for more, but there is this kind of pointy and dangerous side to your own wants.”
After being swallowed and spat up again by the whale, Jonah accepts God’s assignment, preaching a “turn or burn” message that got the people of Nineveh’s attention. Everyone in the city from the king on down repents in sackcloth and ashes, and God changes his mind and doesn’t destroy the city.
The goodness of life is portrayed in Garden of Nineveh—Sweet, which looks like it could serve as a billboard promoting the American Honey Producers Association [see Plate 4]. Warm tones of yellow, gold, red, and rust fill hexagons that cover the fourteen-by-sixteen-foot panel made of resin, plastic, and bubble wrap. The shiny surface of the work sports big drops of what looks like dark, sweet honey. “Honey is medicinal and healing,” says Maker, “which is the opposite of the spiky piece. When the two works are positioned across from each other, you can see the contrast. When the people of Nineveh were warned, they turned around. They changed their ways. That gives the works an element of hope and forgiveness.”
For Blake Milteer, the Fine Arts Center’s director and curator of American art, installations like Bitter and Sweet illustrate the multidimensional character of Maker’s work. As he wrote in the catalogue for Reckoning, “Maker’s art is fun to look at, but its layers run deep. Implicit in Maker’s art is us: we are graceful and violent; we are spiritual and materialistic; we are essence and excess; we are of nature and industry; we are present and absent; we are sensual and dangerous; we are transitory and, just perhaps, eternal.” When I asked Milteer to further explain, he praised her for bringing spiritual concerns to her art. “Underlying much of her work is a deep inquiry that connects viewers to Maker’s own spiritual journey,” he says. “This is something that is often missing from a lot of contemporary art.”
Having described the impact her parents had on her life and work, the debts she owes to artists affiliated with the Dada and Fluxus movements, and her gratitude to Patty Wickman and Tim Hawkinson, Maker also praises six other artists who have influenced her work: Gordon Matta Clark (whose “building cuts” and other site-specific works created in abandoned warehouses and office buildings recombined existing materials and artworks in exciting new forms); Lucio Fontana (perhaps best known for his spatial concept works, in which painted canvases or clay sculptures were cut, slashed, or drilled with holes to produce dramatic effects); Lee Bontecou (whose sculpture constructions incorporating welded metal and canvas often used found objects and were hung on walls); Sarah Sze (whose site-specific installations using found objects were hung from ceilings or partially buried underground); Jay DeFeo (who used a variety of materials to create drawings, paintings, photo collages and other works, some of them huge); and Tara Donovan (who disassembles everyday objects like Styrofoam coffee cups and reassembles them into works that captivate viewers). Like these artists, Maker seeks out objects and materials that, through her sheer creative willpower, she can bend and repurpose, as she explains in a recent vision statement: “Gleaning detritus for its dual identity creates a startling conclusion: What is commonplace and rough-hewn mulch becomes formally graceful.”
You can see this transformation at work in her Jawbreaker series, which puts sugary candies to sweet new uses [see front cover]. To create her Jawbreaker Book, she gathered numerous rainbow-hued gobstopper candies, arranged them in a trough, and covered them with white resin, then sawed through the mass, revealing universes of color like the rings around Saturn. But as always with Maker, there’s more to her creativity than superficial beauty. “Many of my works address the issue of desire, and what better way to talk about desire than with these sweet, hypnotic circles?” she says. “They’re pretty, and they’re sweet, and we want them now. If you buy one, you need to lick it really slowly, or it will break your teeth. But I can cut into it to reveal its orbits.”
Maker works similar magic with her Magic Marks installation, which consists of twelve panels hung together to form a six-by-fourteen-foot tableau [see Plates 5 and 6]. In this case, the cross-sectioned objects are Magic Markers, pens, pencils, and erasers. “This started with me grouping the markers and other items together in a kiddy pool. Once I positioned them properly, I poured in the resin…. Then I sliced through that with my saw. The cutting always involves risk, because you don’t know what will happen. But when it works, I can bring together unexpected elements that fulfill a greater purpose. I like the title Magic Marks, which refers to my materials but also to the fact that art can evoke magic and an unexpected thrill, both for the artist and the viewer. Plus it addresses this whole idea of how you make your marks: the marks of a human being, as well as the marks of the artist.”
Other Marker works feature repurposed bubble gum, church documents, and in Side 10, 33 1/3 rpm vinyl record albums stacked sidewise and interspersed with pieces of colored plastic.
The resulting thirty-by-thirty-inch panels look like an atom exploding, or a black hole in deepest space. When she is working on pieces that incorporate such objects and materials, the creative process is a continual interplay between thoughts and things. “I’m a conceptual artist because the concept guides my use of materials and the eventual work’s aesthetic,” she says. “I’m trying to get the viewer to think. I’m not trying to create the kind of art where people can say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ or ‘That’s pretty.’ I want them to think about more than the surface of things, to go deeper into the guts of the matter, formally and conceptually. I’m trying to get people to be almost mystified, curious, or confounded, so they ask: ‘What is this, and why was it done in this way?’”
It sounds simple to say that the process starts with a concept, proceeds with the gathering and manipulation of objects, and wraps up with polishing and preparing for presentation. Simple and superficial—though it’s true about the concept part. “At the beginning,” says Maker, “it’s like God says, ‘Let’s try this!’” But once the angel of inspiration departs, the devil is in the details. That’s why most days you will find Maker working long, mind-numbing hours in her studio and backyard of the Boulder house she shares with Rogers. There are risks aplenty (including burns, dismemberment, and frostbite) as Maker seeks to compel her materials to serve her ideas, but the risks are worth it if the work is good.
If further evidence were needed to demonstrate that Maker follows her muse wherever it leads, her seven-part suitcase series should suffice. Three of these works feature actual suitcases, while the remaining four take the concept of “suitcase” and blow it out of the water—in one case, inserting a miniature suitcase inside a bottle [see Plate 7]. Once again, Maker starts with a concept: “We were kicked out of Eden, and ever since we’ve been on a journey.” That concept leads her in new directions, challenges her to master a whole new set of complex materials, and confronts the viewer with new concerns, specifically our rootlessness.
Journeys, whether artistic or geographical, may involve powerful feelings: excitement, anxiety, wanderlust, loneliness. Maker’s seven monochromatic suitcase pieces may appear bland and understated, but in their stark simplicity they serve as a screen on which viewers can project conflicting emotions about being continually on the run. For example, Transfiguration (Shirts), with its stack of white shirts overflowing the suitcase as if to rise to heaven, evokes reflections both mundane (Will I ever get my overstuffed, overweight bags onto the plane?) and esoteric (Might the white robes promised to risen saints in John’s Revelation actually resemble button-down dress shirts?) [see Plate 8].
The suitcases also highlight one of her central themes: whimsy. This is not mere humor, or laughter for laughter’s sake, and it’s certainly not irony, which can be cold and distancing, and is much overused in our day. No, it’s whimsy, complete with its sense of playfulness and even joy.
Maker’s work tackles deep and sometimes dark realities, and she believes that whimsy helps people “get it” without being overwhelmed or discouraged. “The sense of play and unexpected chaos is a conduit to help people swallow something that’s deeper and more poignant. The goal is still to be honest and put everything out there, sliced through, so you can get to the guts and the core of a thing. But I’ve become less enthused about death and decay the more I’ve become enamored with Jesus. Back in the beginning, God said we should be fruitful and multiply. Creativity is God’s goal for all of us—not just artists. I humbly accept that the creator is being creative with me. My job is to honor this, acknowledge it, and take it seriously, but in a way that is fanciful.”