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T.J. Mabrey has for years made evocative sculptures in the age-old medium of marble and proved herself adept at the art of direct carving. Her latest work at the Taos Center for the Arts demonstrate that she can bring a sorcerer's touch to the ephemeral ways of paper, combining poetry and chance and abstract origami in a series of mind-bending constructions reminiscent of the playful seriousness of the Dada painter-poets of a century ago.
Ann Landi, founder and editor, Vasari21.com
contributing editor, ARTnews
Ishmael and the Rising Tide of Memories
I see the sculpture as a ouroboros
that also presents a larger manifestation,
a metaphysical boat.
Flying above and fulfilling the contours is
the suggestion of a sail in action,
the strips of text float side by side,
repeated at various numbers and intensities,
gathering in places, occasionally
to a complete thought.
I see this text as a displaced spirit of the figure below
— a yogi forming the ouroboros with his own body —
then moving through it. This vessel carries with it
— its own means of going forward
and the means of deriving
an appropriate direction
in the process of doing so.
You cannot have what isn't yours.
I turn into
and go through
once a line
Entwined Pods White Marble 36.5 x 13.5 x 9.5 inches
(caught in the stream of heat)
yang embraces yin
organizing form about the forces
that make the curve of the line our tao
It’s a shell, a foregone conclusion
waiting its chance to be shattered, perhaps,
by something as graceless as luck.
It lands softly and with little fanfare,
a goddess with her apple inside.
Fecund, maybe. Encircled by pulp.
The sculptor’s made one of marble,
bright and sensual; it glistens. It cracks
in changing weather, and is no longer itself
but rather something else: broken apart.
The light loves it. Moths shroud it at nighttime.
What does it take to move this slow heart, this stony larva?
The day unfolds, and the sun, and the change of seasons,
today’s traffic passes and is gone forever.
Still, an urge for outside intervention,
for anything, anyone better than this
cramped and brittle potential, and though
the nights come and the sculptor sighs
and lays down her tools, it rests too, but uneasy
on a bench: the blind compulsion of everything
that strains, again and again, to be born.
Six Seeds clockwise from the top right: Rice, Wheat, Olive, Corn, Grape, and Human in the center
Thoughts about the exhibition, Seeds and Pods
We got along without seeds until about 350 million years ago when evolution finally produced one. Now, with few exceptions, we can’t get along without them.
Why seeds and pods as a subject for sculpture? It is an idea that has evolved from early in my life when I began to save seeds for planting. Slowly, I took time to look more closely at the thing I was putting in the ground, and one day I didn’t see a seed, I saw a sculpture.
During the decade I have been creating sculptural seeds and pods in marble and bronze, the impetus behind them has changed, but the fascination endures.
I want to share three areas of interest I have with seeds and pods and draw your attention to sculptures in the gallery which represent those interests. I don’t do this to influence you one way or the other, I only hope to increase your “response ability” when viewing the sculptures, and, in so doing, perhaps awaken your “responsibility” to the subject of the art.
Seeds of Thought / Ideology
WAR See sculptures: POPPY POD, DESERT POD, WINTER'S POD
GREED See sculptures: ENTWINED PODS
PROPAGATION Seeds of Survival/ Sustainability
HUMAN See wall installation: CONTROL
VEGETAL See sculptures: BEARING GIFTS, 6 POETI
Seeds and Pods as Mnemonics
Sculptural Shapes immense variety
Ability to endure Air borne, water borne, animal borne (IF MEMORY IS NOT STOLEN)
Entelechy Having one's end "within."
Portrait of TJ Mabrey briefly at rest by J R Compton
The Question of Art
Entwined is a taste of spring,
the eye of touch when lovers meet,
the bulge of mating passion,
and the consuming wedding ring
of truth, envy and fulfilling wonder.
All life is a mature poppy pod
filled with the opium of Kubla Khan,
the adventures of Coleridge and 'far away'
and a message from some distant god
in times gone by in a sun-filled sky.
Then, olive barge is an Italian movie star,
a lover's boat going near and far
with a warrior and her sculpted guitar
who never sleeps; never creates a bar
to the door of 'imagination destination'.
TJ stands for a whimsical ‘tonal joy,’
who searches the world for stuff
(always working rough to smooth).
TJ. never too bold but gently coy,
reflects the Mona Lisa's smile: a question?
The same six seeds as near the top of this page — clockwise from the top left: human, grape, olive, wheat, corn, rice.
No such thing as art exists
For the artist, I think, as for the public, no such thing as art exists; it only exists for the critics and those who live in the forebrain. Artist and public simply register, like a seismograph, an electromagnetic charge which can't be rationalized. One only knows that a transmission of sorts goes on, true or false, successful or unsuccessful, according to chance. But to try to break down the elements and nose them over — one gets nowhere. (I suspect this approach to art is common to all those who cannot surrender themselves to it!) Paradox. Anyway …
That quotation is hanging on the wall of my studio to remind me, the artist, that I will never speak through my work to everyone. It is enough to seek transcendence by surrendering completely to the intuitive ideas and emotions that I express in my sculpture.
My technical skills have been honed through years of study. I do not want the lack of skills to interfere with the expression of any spontaneous or unconscious thought.
I have informed myself about what other artists are doing and saying by going directly to the artists — either speaking with them in person or looking at their work in the studio or on exhibition. Reading about art in fashionable magazines is a form of entertainment. I do not equate what I read about art with the art.
Artists should not live in the forebrain, but they nevertheless should be stimulated intellectually. I keep an open mind and eye to the visual art produced today, yesterday and in ancient times. All of it is our cultural history and, with our contribution, will be part of the cultural future.
I am most happy when exploring those things new to me. The mysteries of Nature and the equally mysterious nature of man are topics of unlimited scope. Also, trying to see the world through the eye of a scientist for a change can be an extraordinary experience.
I see all things through the bias of my personal perspective. But it is with unlimited and open curiosity that I seek to share the mental and spiritual adventures of all human beings as expressed in their art.
New Work by TJ Mabrey
On seeing TJ Mabrey’s new work, I am reminded that there is a story that I have heard for years about a beggar and a wealthy merchant in a marketplace in India. It is the essence of how I see the struggle for meaning taking place between an artist and her audience: ‘A beggar was asking for alms all day long in a marketplace in India but no one gave her money for food. Finally, a wealthy merchant who was viewing this scene took pity upon the woman and gave her funds with this proviso, “Here is money for food. Use it wisely.” The beggar took the money, bought bread and fruit with half the funds and flowers with the other half. The merchant was furious and said, “Why did you do that? I gave you money to stay alive a little longer.” The beggar replied, “The bread and fruit will keep me alive a little longer; the flowers will make life worth living.”
When Martha Graham was asked whom she competed with in her dance creations, she said: ‘I am only in competition with that person I know I can become.’ And in the 13th century, the mystic, Persian poet, Rumi said: “May the beauty we love be what we do.” In both cases, there is a struggle between what the artist wants out of his or her work and what most in the audience thinks should be the artist’s meaning behind the work of art.
To understand the work of TJ Mabrey, we (the viewers) must start with what makes an artist the creator that she becomes. Who does the artist know best? Herself! So when trying to discuss a friend’s recent work, TJ Mabrey, the artist is best place to begin.
When I first visited TJ in the 1990s, I was a museum curator looking for new ideas in sculpture for a one-person exhibition, she took me behind her house and showed me some marble works that she was working on. They were all organic in nature. That is an interesting phrase to use about this sculptor’s work, “organic in nature.” It is like saying, ‘my brother he’. They are ‘in nature’ and come out ‘of nature.’ Mabrey is an artist in her time, connects with images from the past and, with this new (old) work, and connects with a time that is just supplanting our ‘information age.’ She is already ahead of us in realizing that the next revolution is the ‘bioeconomy age.’
As Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer write in a 2000 article: “Hunting-and-gathering economies ruled for hundreds of thousands of years before they were overshadowed by agrarian economies, which ruled for about 10,000 years. Next came the industrial ones. The first began in Britain in the 1760s, and the first to finish started unwinding in the U.S. in the early 1950s. We're halfway through the information economy, and from start to finish, it will last 75 to 80 years, ending in the late 2020s. Then get ready for the next one: the bioeconomy.
Life cycles for people and plants, for businesses, industries, economies and entire civilizations have four distinct quarters: gestation, growth, maturity and decline. The Internet is the main event of the information economy's mature quarter, the last phase of it being marked by the widespread use of cheap chips and wireless technology that will let everything connect to everything else. Life cycles overlap. So the information economy will mature in the years ahead as the bioeconomy completes its gestation and finally takes off into its growth quarter during the 2020s.”
TJ’s work is of the past, embraces the present and reveals the future. It gives form to this new bioeconomy revolution which will ‘take off’ in the 2020’s. She captures the essence of our time (a need for images that give us peace), while giving it the universal appeal of timeless art. An acorn-like work does not evolve into a tree in TJ’s world of tomorrow but is locked into its role as a messenger for our time (with the primitive faces to record those who will build our future from our past). The shapes are ‘nature-oriented’, vegetable-forms, things that grow and add to our understanding of where we are and were with the ‘hunting-and-gathering’ plus the agrarian periods in human existence, how we still struggle now with the information age and possibly evolve where we just might jump into a bioeconomy revolution.
TJ’s love of shape, her understanding that art is universal and eternal, and her skill in forming these important images that seem simple, yet are the organic building blocks of tomorrow, make her work comfortable to see, touch and explore with one’s mind and common understanding. There is a frozen quality to the work; a feeling that if one takes the time to let the images sink into our being, it will transcend the rush, the speed and hectic existence that most of us live today. It is modern Quaker-like art that allows, as Matisse once asked his audience to experience in his work, the viewer to relax and enjoy. Therefore explore the forms, question the titles, such as ”IV Florae for Flora” (limestone works). Mostly, let your eyes roam, let your creative spirit settle itself in something universal, and then just enjoy, enjoy and enjoy.
Of Seed and Stone
Humanity has been subject to the ebb and flow of the natural cycles of Earth since the dawn of our species. From that time, our destiny has run parallel to that of the humble yet ever important seed. However, In today’s chaotic and self destructive “society”, dominated by the grizzly specter of war, corporate greed, and governmental restriction; we have lost our connection with nature and with it, our understanding of the importance of the seed.
T.J. Mabrey, a Texas sculptor, explores these issues in her current exhibition at the Croft Gallery in downtown Waco. Her work expresses the beauty and symbolic relevance that the seed and the pod have represented throughout history across cultures. She expresses humanity’s socio-political connection to the seed while concurrently connecting the symbolism of the seed with the stars through the context of the world tree, an ancient cosmological archetype that is and has been shared by shamanic cultures across the world. Many of such cultures still exist in third world countries.
Being very much connected with social activism, Ms. Mabrey uses her work to bring an awareness of Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT) also known as Terminator Technology that is produced by agri-corporations such as Monsanto. This abomination to nature is currently being used in first and third world countries to create “terminator seeds” which have the potential to enslave humanity to the whims of corporate interests at best or create global famine with massive death tolls, unfathomable misery, and ecological disaster yet unseen in Earth’s long history at worst. The dangers of such things are brilliantly expressed in such pieces as “Winter’s Lemon”, “Control”, and “Intertwined Pods”. The piece entitled “Control”, speaks of exactly the situation described above the loudest. When one comes upon it, the viewer encounters a clear plastic drape.
On this petroleum ground, the observer finds hazel nuts filled with condoms arranged in a pattern that spells “control”. This is the one piece in Mabrey’s current exhibit that is not meticulously sculpted from a block of marble or cast in bronze. Lacking the traditional beauty possessed by her other pieces, it is still rather witty and adds an interesting stylistic dynamic to the rest of the exhibit nonetheless. There is a classical aesthetic in T.J’s work. The majority of her sculpture is done primarily in marble using traditional methods and tools.
One is reminded of classical Greek sculpture of fertility deities all throughout the experience of viewing her work. The sculptures seem to be crafted with the same spiritual reverence, focus of mind, and steadiness of hand as the classical Greek masters. There is definitely a mystical element to her work as well. It seems she explores the mysteries of life and hidden potential that the seed embodies and relates it to the heavens; dwelling place of the stars, and home of mythological figures.
Likewise, there is a strong sexual tendency apparent in her sculptures that is explored in a mature and spiritual manner. The dichotomy of masculine and feminine forces is often represented in unity. The masculine archetype of the seed is enveloped by the loving and protective womb of the pod while at the same time many of the pods, though apparently performing feminine roles, are phallic in shape. There are exceptions to this; “Black Pod I” and “Black Pod II” are examples. The pod shapes in these two pieces are rounded in form. They retain their femininity in appearance and in their perceived function. When examining these two pieces one cannot help but to be reminded of deep space as an incubator of celestial bodies and crucible of life while simultaneously appreciating the simplicity of the pod itself as a representation of something more terrestrial and familiar. It is intriguing how forms of simple, elegant beauty can engage the imagination of the viewer when confronted with the archetypal symbolism present in a work of art.
In all, I find T.J. Mabrey’s work to be very interesting on a number of different levels. It is sophisticated in style and concept. Her work is socially stimulating but also allows one to contemplate lofty spiritual ideals on a very personal level. Aesthetically speaking, her use of texture is visually engaging as it ranges from highly polished, smooth areas to incredibly detailed surfaces. This allows a dynamic play of light and shadow, a reflection of nature that seems to be present in every nuance of Mabrey’s work; which is something that I think people from any walk of life can appreciate. Mabrey’s work will engage the eye and the mind. With every curve and crevice of her work, the viewer will sense the same rhythms of nature that initially inspired the pieces and guided our ancestors through the long journey of evolution. With the sensing of those rhythms one comes into a new appreciation for the humble seed that has been with us though the ages.
Bean and Corn Barges White Marble 22 x 8 x 4 inches (each)
By Denise Gamino, American-Statesman Staff in February 2010
The first time a wild seed sprouted in T.J. Mabrey's clothes dryer, it irritated her.
Seeds were bothersome tidbits that caught in her shoelaces or in the hem of her skirts. They were a nuisance to be brushed aside and forgotten after walks around her rural home in Lampasas County.
A peek through a magnifying glass corrected her vision. Seeds and pods burst into her artistic imagination and have been lodged there for 17 years. They're objects of architectural beauty and bounty.
Now she is a pod person.
“When I finally saw these tiny things, I saw them as sculpture,” she said.
On a recent overcast but balmy afternoon, Mabrey, a sculptor of 35 years, was tending her delightful rock garden of seeds, pods, grains and vegetables on display at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“Don't you want a bowl of gumbo?” she asked, eyeing the array of larger-than-life okra perched on the edge of a small garden pond. Stone soup.
The whimsical okra slices do have an appetizing appeal, but as food for the eye and the mind and the soul.
For that other kind of nourishment, Mabrey popped into the Wildflower Café at the center for a cup of coffee and a wrap of roasted poblanos and portobello mushrooms after installing the pentagonal pieces of okra. She saved half the wrap and a chocolate chip cookie for a lunch partner who was running late.
Mabrey has strong feelings about food and its relationship to people.
She is concerned about genetic manipulation of seeds and food, droughts and famines, overpopulation, sustainable agriculture and the loss of biodiversity.
At 68, the diminutive artist with the big grin keeps her chisels to stone in hopes of raising awareness that nature is as fragile as it is beautiful.
Look closely at the 20 or so sculptures by Mabrey on display at the Wildflower Center through March 7, 2010, an exhibit that includes paintings by Austin artist Eliza Thomas.
Don't be surprised to see she has carved a bolt onto the end of a long, graceful gourd entwined with other elongated gourds of white Italian marble, an artist's statement about human control that holds on tight.
And against the backdrop of a large picture window, six small barges of white marble carry precious cargo. Each boat floats a different food, including beans, squash and corn, the three sisters of American Indian agriculture that can be planted together to help sustain each other (the bean vine climbing the corn stalk with the squash offering ground cover) while providing essential nutrition.
Mabrey is part Cherokee and is steeped in mythology and cultural studies. She grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, a child intrigued by the natural world, especially the moon, the stars and the large gardens tended by her maternal and paternal grandparents.
She remembers pantries lined with canned vegetables and lively seed exchanges. Her grandmother tucked seeds into an apron pocket while walking in the garden.
“I can remember going to family reunions and these ladies, my aunts and great aunts, they were exchanging seeds. ‘Oh, I've got to get you those seeds,’ they would say, and go out to the car where the seeds were wrapped up in envelopes, newspapers or brown paper. 'It's the best okra in the world and these were the tomatoes that were the biggest and firmest.’ ”
But the seeds of her youth didn't strike her as a source of artistic inspiration until more than a decade ago. Mabrey uses stone to exalt seeds as graceful packages of promise. They remind her of the Greek term “entelechy.”
“Entelechy. I love the word," she said. "I had it posted on the wall above my desk for years and essentially what it means is that the end is within.”
Like an acorn, which Mabrey pronounces a-kern. “An oak pod, the acorn, holds a tree. It holds a forest," she said. "You know, because that little seed pod can produce a tree and it's all inside there. The end is within. It produces a forest.”
But we do the same thing. Within a woman, she has the ability to produce an army almost. We have so many eggs in us when we're born.”
And so the marble acorn sculpted by Mabrey is adorned with small human faces on its cap. Humans, like acorns, are vessels of the future.
Mabrey is thrilled to have her nature art on winter display just weeks before the earth warms up and wild germination takes over. She named the exhibit "Anticipation.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I love the winter. I love the architecture of the trees against the sky and the colors of the buds. There's one (vine) over there wrapping around that post. It's just like alizarin crimson. It is so gorgeous. But you have to get up really close to see it.”
“You have to really look a little closer to find beauty in the winter time, but it's certainly here in the plants and in the colors. Being able to look through the plants is like looking through a mashrabiya screen to the other side of things.”
A mashrabiya screen is a wooden latticework that allows someone to look out a window without being seen. Mabrey, who holds a fine arts degree from Oklahoma State University, saw many of them when she lived in Egypt. Her husband, Stephen, with whom she will celebrate a 45th wedding anniversary later this month, was a career foreign service officer for the State Department.
In 1980, Mabrey was living in Dallas when she requested a grant from real estate developer and arts patron Trammell Crow to go to Italy to work on sculptures. He agreed and, since then, Mabrey has spent several months of each year working in a rented studio in Pietrasanta, Italy, a town on the coast of northern Tuscany 30 minutes from Pisa.
There, she works without interruption on marble sculptures that she sends by ship back to Texas. She finishes the sculptures in her home studio in the rural community of Rumley, about 15 miles northeast of Lampasas.
Mabrey is an outgoing, down-to-earth artist with a tireless sense of curiosity. She tells people she is not an artist but a human being. She doesn't like the stereotype of an artist in the atelier "above it all and aloof and weird.”
“Wherever I am, with whomever I am engaged, whatever I am doing, I am always doing what artists strive to do. I am looking for the beauty, the balance, the big picture.”
Though she has an activist spirit, her sculptures are smooth and soothing. They invite reflection and touch, and she encourages visitors to run their hands over them.
“I don't like art that is ugly and in your face when trying to make a statement. That's just not my style. I'm still looking for beauty in those political statements.”
photographs by TJ Mabrey and J R Compton