I caught up with Berkeley multi-media artist Mary Curtis Ratcliff at her studio, where she showed me the inspiration behind some of her eye-catching artworks. Read more to hear about Ratcliff's career beginnings as a sculpture artist and her goals in expanding her art as helpful resource for mental health.
Can you describe your artistic process?
I started working as a sculptor after art school in 1973 for about 25 years. In the mid-90s I began working in two dimensions for 20 years and then for the last five years I have returned to sculpture.
In my work, everything starts with a photographic image. I have taken thousands of photographs over the years. I choose a photograph for the background and then I start laying other images onto it. I use paint, colored pencil, and graphite. Sometimes I transfer other images on top using a technique of image transfer. I’m basically building the composition from the bottom up, initially starting with the photograph.
For instance, this piece over here [Chandeliers], the background that’s painted was a wake left from a boat in Alaska. One day, I decided to layer a whole lot of paint at the top of the image. Then, I got stuck and put it away for a while, maybe a year.
Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, don’t I have some things I haven’t finished? So I pulled it out and I looked at it. I went and looked at all the photographs and pulled out that chandelier on the left, which is from a cafe in Vienna. The two chandeliers down in the right corner there are from a church in the South of France.
It was really fun to paint that chandelier. I don’t really consider myself a painter. I studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design so I started out my career doing sculptures- big, large, wind sculptures. Though I’ve painted my whole life, I’m not a trained painter. I paint instinctively.
Why did you decide to mix the chandeliers with that background specifically?
I liked the way it looked. I like to combine unusual things because it creates tension in the piece. It makes people wonder what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to get people to actually stop and look at what I’ve done to try to figure out why I’ve done it and how I did it.
To me, the idea is to make something that is pleasing and interesting to someone else. I just keep trying to amuse myself and keep myself interested in what I’m doing and I have. I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years and I’m still interested in it.
Do you have a favorite medium to work with?
It really depends on what I’m trying to do. Two-dimensional work is very, very different because what you’re trying to do is create the illusion of space. You already have height and width but what you don’t have is depth, so creating that is the real challenge. When I make sculptures, I don’t have to worry about that because there is height and width and actual physical depth.
I like to work in 3 dimensions, especially with kinetic pieces. They resemble water in a certain way because they continue to change all the time, especially when there’s an air current or a breeze. There’s actual, physical movement in these kinetic pieces. They create shadows so there’s an interplay between the sculptures and the shadows, especially if the piece is well-lit.
I like doing these kinetic pieces and I will continue to do them because my current mission is to put them into healing environments. I’m still working on trying to place them into doctor’s offices or hospitals. I have placed them in different public locations but I continue searching for the right environments for my pieces.
When I see these kinetic pieces, I’m enthralled by this object that I’m looking at. It’s like my mind is clear and I’m in a meditative state just watching something move. What are you trying to convey to viewers that may be in hospitals and other similar environments?
That’s exactly it. I find that people that are in hospitals or other similar environments are usually under a lot of stress. If they come across something that looks like this which features natural imagery in movement, they can take a long moment to look at it. It might help to relax them.
That’s why I want to continue searching for healing environments to place them in.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Basically from nature. I grew up going to Lake Michigan. My grandfather had a cottage there and in the summer, I spent a lot of time jumping around the lake and running up and down the sand dunes with my brother. My mother was a bird-watcher so I ran around in the woods a lot.
I also draw inspiration from the sky, the sun and the clouds. Clouds are like moving sculptures and then they morph into something else which is really fascinating to me.
Do you have a favorite of your pieces? Or one that you thought was interesting or difficult to make.
Well, this one is called Jellies. It was not easy to make because the circular frames were large, and I had to glue and sew two different pieces of material together for each frame. I grew up sewing and making things with my hands my whole life, so sewing is something I’ve always done.
But it was a little dicey to do it really well. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I wanted this line to be really crisp. This material, Tyvek, is actually commonly used in the building industry. It’s plastic but when you put paint on it, it gives you these beautiful textures- a bit like mulberry paper. It’s really great stuff and I’ve used it for a long time.
I’m really interested in industrial materials and I’m always looking for interesting things to use. That’s the thing about sculpture. You can use anything you want. It’s very open and inventive.
If I find something I really like, I’ll use it over and over in different forms. But it’s always a challenge. I find paint to be very nervous-making. It has its own mind of its own. I can do it but I have to be really careful. One thing I like even better than paint is colored pencils because I can layer and layer. I can also erase, which is something you can’t do with paint. [laughs]
You’re very precise with your work and don’t typically refer to yourself as a painter so there must be new challenges that come with using paint.
With paint, you think you’re going to do one thing and then something else happens. Then, you look at it and say, “Oh okay, now where am I going to go? It’s not where I thought I was going to go.”
For me, it really has a mind of its own because I was never schooled in it. I never learned how to control paint. Sometimes it’s fun because it does things you wouldn’t expect and it turns out more interesting than what you originally intended. So you have to really be open and fluid to see what happens.
What was your first introduction to art?
My parents took my brother and me to lots of museums when we were little. We went to Cranbrook Institute in Michigan often. I remember that when I was very little, I wandered into the art museum and I saw this large object on a pedestal that was sort of horizontal and had a space between two clumps. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know to ask, “What is that thing?” It turned out it was a Henry Moore sculpture.
When I was eight, we traveled on the overnight train to New York City, which was very exciting. We went to the Metropolitan. Our parents would take us to lots of big museums. Then, I started going to museums as a teenager just because I was interested, to see what was happening and try to learn about art that way.
You mentioned that your mother was a bird watcher. Do you depict animals in your artworks?
I’ve had shows that are all about animals but mostly, I tend to lean towards the abstract side of things. I’m interested in blurring the edge between abstraction and realism. I like things to feel familiar and to leave viewers wondering just what they are looking at.
For instance, these [Reykjavik Stoplight I & II] are spotlights. I was in a bus and we were traveling along and it started to rain. I took this photograph and then minutes later it started to rain hard. The second image is also a stoplight but because of the rain that was pouring down on the glass, it became much more abstract. I really like that abstraction.
Reykjavik Spotlight I
Reykjavik Stoplight 2
I would like to bring work to a larger scale. As I said, I’m always looking at healing environments where I can place my work.
In 2019 I was awarded an individual artist grant from the City of Berkeley to continue my series of kinetic sculptures and to teach art to the homeless at the Dorothy Day Center in downtown Berkeley. That program got interrupted due to Covid, but I’m hoping to collaborate on a series of large mandalas for the new homeless shelter on Grayson Street in Berkeley.
I put in a proposal to the SF Art Commission for a large kinetic piece in Terminal 3 at SFO. COVID, unfortunately, halted the process but they will choose a candidate whose artwork would be placed in the airport.
I hope to continue sharing my art with the public and being of service in doing so.