For her latest piece, artist Marianne McGrath visited a telephone pole graveyard to pick out a 16-foot-long pole. Taking up a 20×10-foot section in her studio, this fallen telephone pole covered in ceramic leaves dominates most of her workspace.
“I wanted it to be bigger, actually,” McGrath said with a smile. Humble but proud, McGrath explains that “Overgrowth” has been getting major attention from past gallery showings and has many shows lined up this year. McGrath graciously met with Austin Fusion Magazine to share tidbits about her childhood, her “hippy dippy” moments and how Austin’s landscapes inspire her work.
AFM: Growing up in agricultural Oxnard, California, what was your childhood like?
MM: I felt like it was the middle of nowhere. I had a wonderful childhood. The farm I grew up had strawberry fields, citrus plants and there was alfalfa back in the day. I just didn’t know anything else but that. We left the farm when I was 12 or 13 and we moved to suburban Camarillo. That was a big shift for me. I never really went back to the location where I grew up for a long time because the house was gone. They built over it. I think my bedroom is actually a shoe aisle. It was this really weird disconnect. I have all of these memories and I really started asking, how can these memories be valid if there’s no longer a physical place in which to place them?
AFM: This theme of suburbia taking over natural landscapes dominates your work. Is this, in your eyes, a negative shift?
MM: I’m not really interested in making a political or environmentalism type of art because I’m still trying to understand it myself. It was a growing area. People needed a place to live. Dad couldn’t run a tractor before 6 o clock in the morning without making neighbors mad. It just wasn’t working. I really began to think about what I experienced growing up and how it is now.
AFM: Austin is so different from California, specifically the Los Angeles area. Austin’s kind of an urban forest. Do you think that you find inspiration in living here?
MM: Definitely. What has the biggest effect on me is my drive to work everyday. I work up in Temple, which is 65 miles north of town, so I’m in the car for an hour each way. There used to be about 25-30 miles of just open ranch land. I’m watching everything in the North grow down. I don’t know if Austin itself has affected me more than the edges of Austin.
AFM: How do you get inspired to start a piece?
MM: It grows very, very slowly. I think about a piece for a long time, and I think that’s part of the reason my pieces get so big. I really like that production mode I get into and it sounds super hippy dippy, but it’s kind of a meditation. I like the pieces to show that. I like someone to walk up to it and imagine the before and after. There’s a narrative that goes with it.
AFM: Do you want to explain the narrative of “Overgrowth” a little bit?
MM: You know I’m still trying to figure out what this is about. It was so dry last summer and everything was so dead. I was so depressed. It was affecting me. I kept seeing all of these telephone poles with dead plants on it. So I thought, what if this was reversed? I was trying to get away from my old landscape from home and try to bring things more into the present for me. I found a guy in San Antonio who has acres and acres of telephone poles. It was a landscape that boggled my mind all on its own. There was one bush in our backyard that hadn’t really died. It was a hackberry bush, so I modeled the leaves off of the hackberry. You know, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly it means. I think it’s kind of like, what’s permanent? What’s not permanent? Who’s affecting who? Who’s affecting what?
AFM: You pieces are extremely intricate. How long does it take you to complete a piece?
MM: I try not to keep track or I might jump off the roof. These big pieces will take me three or four months. It takes a long time and that’s ok with me. Things change and things grow during that so it’s an organic process.
AFM: You said that this is a meditative process for you. Do you work alone or is there anyone that helps you?
MM: I have one assistant, April Startzel, who saves my life on a daily basis. My job as an art instructor at Temple College obviously funds my work. I have a teach-by-doing attitude so to my students I’m like, “Wanna go to Houston? Wanna go to Dallas? Hey, let’s go to Arizona. Let’s go install this thing.” They learn how to raise money and ask for funding and they come along with me. When I can I pay them, but it’s usually in a hotel room and dinner. My dear husband helps me a lot. If Mike wasn’t around, there’s no way I’d be doing this. He’s a huge support.
AFM: When viewers look at your pieces, is there a call to action or do you just want them to contemplate?
MM: I love it when I see someone sneaking a touch. I think there are subtle calls to them to maybe do something. I really like people to leave wondering. I like the idea of this staying in their head for a little bit.