Artist Spotlight: Mary Curtis Ratcliff

Mary Curtis Ratcliff is a visual artist based in Berkeley, California, and a member of the National Organization for Arts in Health. Some of her recent kinetic sculptures and wall-mounted works are featured in a meditation video that has been projected and displayed in hospitals across the country. The video was designed with first responders in mind, to help them ground and center themselves in whatever spare minutes they may have—and it won first prize in the "Elder Producer" category of the 2020 Berkeley Video and Film Festival!

Read on to learn more about Ratcliff’s long and illustrious career as an artist, including her early inspirations, and the ways in which Covid has shaped her art making.


What themes do you address in your work? Are there any motifs/symbols that you like to use throughout your work?

I grew up in the Midwest, in Michigan, and I spent a lot of time outside, both around Detroit and Lake Michigan. My brother Carter and I ran around in nature all the time. We would climb three-hundred-foot sand dunes and then run down and jump in the lake. My mother was a bird watcher, so I ended up in the woods a lot with binoculars. So nature is basically the underlying theme of much of my work. Not all of it, but a lot of it. 

I went to the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated in 1967. I started in sculpture but ended up in education. In the 60s, it was okay for women to do education, but they couldn’t do industrial design, which is what I had wanted to do. So I did a lot of sculpture for about twenty-five years, and then I started doing mixed media works on paper for about twenty years, and I used my photography, which I'd been doing my whole life because my father was a very good photographer and had a dark room.

I started using my photographs of nature as background imagery in my work, and on top of that I would draw and paint and collage and transfer other images. I did that for about twenty years. I mounted a lot of those on wooden panels because I didn't want to put them behind glass, which I find distracting. 

Then, about five years ago, I started doing this kinetic body of work, again using my photographs, which I transferred or had printed. All of the works I'm doing have nature in them, and I paint and draw on the surface of them. Usually I have them printed in black and white, and then I add all the color. It’s too much of a cheap shot just to have them printed in color. There’s no fun in that.



Can you describe the relationship between your work and mental health, whether it be your own mental health, that of viewers and consumers of your work, general concepts, etc.?

It was kind of what I call a happy accident. I’m always looking out for something that happens that I didn't expect, that then leads me off on a different path and makes things much better.

I was doing the first piece in my series of kinetic works. It was an image of a windbreak that I had taken in New Zealand during an artist residency. I kept looking at that image over the years and thinking that I really wanted to use it. So I ended up drawing it onto three sixteen-inch disks made of translucent film, which I put stainless steel around so they would have a frame. I wanted to use iridescent paint, so that when the disks moved they would catch the light and you’d see a flash of color. I went to my local art store and spoke to the manager there and told him how I wanted the work to flash. He said, you know, if it’s against the wall it’s not going to flash. You need to suspend them.

I had done something similar about forty years ago—some early wind sculptures that were circular, kinetic and hung in space. So in 2015 I made Windbreak, and then I was really off to the races. I could use my photography, hand-color these things, and then suspend them.

One day I did a piece called Three Clouds. I was lying down, resting in my studio, and that piece was above me. And I started watching it. It was just very gently turning, and I thought about how calming it was. I wondered where I could put it to help people calm down. So I thought of places of healing—hospitals, doctors offices, clinics, places like that. So that’s how I started going down this path.


Three Clouds

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I was a lucky kid. I had parents who took me to museums; as a child I started going to the Chicago Art Institute, to New York, the Met. I grew up being surrounded by art. My whole life, I was involved in art, music, film and theater. All that culture stuff. My brother went to the University of Chicago, in the English department, and he just educated himself in the arts, and he has been one of the leading critics in New York in the last fifty years. His name is Carter Ratcliff. He started out as a poet in the 60s.

Our parents really surrounded us with the arts. I always made things with my hands. My mother made things; she made all my clothes, she taught me how to design. She made three-dimensional objects that just happened to be dresses. She did handwork for many decades, and hooked rugs, embroidered curtains, and knitted sweaters. She always did something with her hands, every night.

Parting of the Plates

Can you describe your artistic process?

Taking photographs, making black and white xeroxes from those photographs, then transferring them into the composition and collaging other things as well. 

I’ve taken photographs my whole life. And a lot of times I take photographs of things that interest me, and I don't know why I take them, and I don't care. If it interests me, that’s enough. So I have thousands of photographs. Sometimes I will just go through them on my hard-drive, look at them, and I get inspired by them. And then I think, okay, I can make something with that image.

Waterborne Tree is from an image that I cut out certain parts from. I wanted them to track and connect with each other visually if I didn't put them too far apart on the wall. That was just an image that I saw in nature up in Mendocino. There was a pond, and I just took the image.

Two Birds

What is your most notable piece? As in, your favorite, or one with an interesting story behind it, or a piece that especially frustrated you, etc.

Two Birds is on two big wooden panels that are joined together. It’s about forty inches high by sixty inches wide. It started with two posters by Felix Gonzales-Tores that I had gotten at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that had a very vague image on them of a bird and some clouds. I wanted to do something big because I'd been doing all these little tiny things. This was in 1999, this was the transition piece between sculpture and two dimensional mixed media works on paper.

I just started throwing paint on it without thinking very much. That’s the real trick: just let yourself go. I started putting different washes of paint that were transparent so you could see color from underneath. Then I started transferring images from New Orleans onto it. Then I started collaging other transfers and hand coloring them. It was really interesting and fun, so I started doing more of them. It was a very transitional piece for me; when I looked at it I began to see all the possibilities that came out of it.


What do you hope that your work conveys?

I hope it conveys a sense of calm, balance, and inner peace.


What’s next?

I’m going to have a solo show in February. I’ve put in a proposal to the San Francisco Arts Commission for a kinetic sculpture at San Francisco International Airport. It won't be my typical three elements suspended; it’ll be five—a challenge for me. I like to take the same idea and tweak it a little bit so it’ll be interesting to me—but not too far. I’m kind of conservative, I don't want to give myself a hard time. Some of the images will be overlapping, and so the images are actually of the San Francisco Bay taken from the Berkeley Marina. There’s a sailboat in it, and there’s the skyline way in the background, there’s a bit of the bridge, there’s pilings. It’s very spare, minimal perhaps, yet distinctly evocative of this place and time. I think it’ll be interesting to do.

In March, the print shop I work with to make most of my kinetic pieces closed. I was supposed to have a show in September at Mercury 21 Gallery. So I went into my studio and I started looking around, thinking, what can I do here? And I started opening flat file drawers, and in one of the flat files I had saved all these scraps from my circular pieces and I started doing compositions I decided to call Scrapworks. It kept going and going and going; I did compositions with circles, corners, triangular shapes, double corners, straight pieces of paper that had some digital printing along one edge. I’ve now made twenty-nine of them. I kept finding new things to do. It’s been really fun. I kept my schedule at the studio all through the quarantine, and it was kind of like an artist retreat. 

It’s really interesting to think that had the Covid lockdown not happened, my Scrapworks series wouldn’t have happened. In fifty years or so of practicing art, I've only had a dry spell once. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. But usually I have more ideas than I can produce.