Text & Interview: Alec Coiro
Photo: Kat Slootsky
My first conversation with Maria Moyer is over the phone; she’s on a landline in the Central Coast of California–Hollister Ranch to be specific, an hour above Santa Barbara. “It’s very remote and the envy of any surfer or ocean lover because you get serious nature and perfect waves all to yourself.”
She’s taking a brief time off from a studio practice in New York where she normally has five or six projects going at once in two separate studios. California is a brief return to her roots. “I grew up in L.A. and spent every moment possible at the beach. I first surfed as a kid, but I surf so little now that I call myself a surf enthusiast. So much of my work involves themes of water…it all comes back to the ocean.”
But New York is where her life is now and where she fully came into her own as a sculptor: “I lived in L.A., moved to San Francisco for 15 years, met a really wonderful man and after a brief period of time, we decided to move to New York together and start a new life. We’ve been there for 10 years and we love it…in New York I put aside other things to really focus on my studio practice. New York really brought a lot of things into focus for me in love and in art.”
Specifically, New York was where she would join a shared studio with Ann Ringstrand and Lindsey Adelman, and the three women would create a small community that fostered a new level of shared rigor for Moyer. “The space with Ann and Lindsey [in the Lower East Side] was a very dedicated disciplined space. I’m in my own studio now in an old foundry in Long Island City.” The space in Long Island City is the one I visit when Moyer returns from the ranch, and see her theory put into practice. The studio is right near the water and morning light flows in; she tells me that she “chose the studio for the light. The light has itself become a player in the materials and forms I choose.” This is particularly true later when she shows me her work in salt and I discover how the light both lands on the salt and also illuminates it from within.
Unlike many artists who remain within the confines of their medium or stay shuttered within the art world, Moyer — even before she’s an artist — is a person with something she wants to say, a point she wants to get across. Sculpture and often, but not always, ceramics are just the best way she has of communicating it — better even than language. “Most of my life I’ve had a creative pursuit. As a person who loves words, I decided that words are kind of clumsy, and I wanted to communicate in a more visual and physical way.”
The visual art form she settles on most often is the tactile medium of sculpture. “That basis of three-dimensional work and how it affects space hooked me at an early age. I experiment with painting and photography, but you can’t walk around them. You don’t and pick it up and smell it and touch it the same way.” While her sculptural work is often associated with ceramics—especially porcelain, she doesn’t identify exclusively with clay. “I don’t call myself a ceramist. I love clay and there’s an immediacy in clay, but I like working in other materials and do.” When I visit her studio this multiplicity of materials is clear. There is a leather sculpture on the wall next to a fascinating painting of bubbles. She shows me work in plaster and later we would smash some salt. As Moyer puts it, “I’m a sculptor. I manifest ideas using clay and porcelain and more recently, leather, plaster, and salt.”
Because the materials range and there are paintings mixed with sculpture, it may be most sensible to characterize Moyer not by her medium or technique, but by the themes in her work and the meanings she imparts. This can seem tricky at first because her work can often seem very so diverse, particularly in terms of scale. My first encounter with her work was the large, thick diffuser that I saw at her show with Ann Ringstrand, and in her studio, I am drawn to a similarly massive censer. But these large pieces are balanced by the delicate flowers that she describes as “an exercise in how thin can I go. Ceramists who have 30 or 40 years on me, noticed early on that I have a way with making porcelain very thin with my hands and they encouraged me, which is how I came to make these English porcelain roses. For me now, they’re a kind of an exercise.”
It’s one part deliberation; one part magic. You never know what’s going to happen in the kiln.
Then there are the sculptures that are thick enough to test the safe-limits of ceramics in a kiln. The thicker the clay is, the more risk it will explode in the kiln when moisture is released at high temperatures. From heavy forms with thick clay walls to porcelain flowers so delicate they are almost impossible, the key to understanding Moyer is that her interest lies in the dialog between these points on the spectrum. Once this becomes clear, I also realize that her large pieces are themselves engaged in a dialog between the massive and the delicate, “I really like thick heavy pieces that look light and buoyant. I go between things that are very thick and take a long time to dry to things that require nimble gestures and are really fragile.”
And then, of course, there is the conversation between the artist and the material, epitomized in her willingness to let the material and the process lead the way. “You have to make room for random events and maybe not being totally successful in the direction you were heading, in order to discover something new.” This attitude is nicely encapsulated in her formula that her work is “One part deliberation, one part magic. I never know what’s going to happen in the kiln.”
All this makes for an exciting and varied studio practice. In Long Island City, the process spans from the rough approach of literally smashing a block of pink salt on the ground to ever so carefully applying plaster to connect two pieces of ceramic. As much as the salt smashing is suggestive of a stress release (what smashing isn’t?), the work with plaster seems highly stress-inducing, “Once you mix water in the dry plaster, you have a very limited time to work as it hardens.” There’s a race against the clock as Moyer and her assistant make sure that it’s level. However, despite time rapidly winding down, there is actually no indication of stress as Moyer and assistant communicate as calmly as surgeons. And in the end, when there’s a suggestion that there might be a slight angle of slant, Moyer seems pleased to hear it, another fortuitous accident.
As the time comes for me to ramble out of Long Island City, I ask Moyer what she has planned for the rest of 2017. “I’m about to start an artist-in-residency at Rudd Winery in Napa Valley in October. They invited me to spend a month on their property to do studio work—away from my NYC routine—with the support of people who work at the winery. I’m hoping to work with their on-staff biologist and others who can help me build large-scale pieces.”
There is something fundamental to Moyer’s work. There is a consistent texture to the work that attracts all of your sense. This primacy of texture may be why she so rarely uses a glaze. “In general, I am more interested in the clay body (the type of clay and its mineral components) than the glazed surfaces commonly covering clay. For me, glazes can be like a person who has great skin who wears too much makeup. Instead, I use oxides—metals, like cobalt and iron that look more like it is of the clay, than sitting on it. I also use a treatment called terra sigillata — an ancient way of using a refined liquid clay over another type of clay, in my case with the intention of forming cracks).”
This attraction that hits you below the surface of your consciousness is the what draws you to Moyer’s work more than anything. It also forms the basis of Moyer’s favorite compliment. “One of the highest compliments I get from people is: ‘I want to touch it.’ That nonverbal impulse is what I love.”