Mary Engel has always loved animals. She grew up with miniature schnauzers in St. Charles, Illinois, and spent every summer of her youth at her grandparents' farm in Michigan. She was always rescuing squirrels. Her first job was was dog sitting for show dogs, Afghans and borzoi.
On a recent trip home, Engel found some of her first creations: A little clay schnauzer and a bunny head that she thinks might pre-date what family lore cites as her first work, the cat she "sculpted" at seven from paper-mache. That feline still resides proudly at her parents' house.
In 1988, Engel received her B.S. in Art from Illinois State University. She'd dabbled in glass blowing, but it was clay that called to her. At first, Engel's animal representations were incorporated as decorative elements in utilitarian vessels: A beloved canine companion, Maybelline, found form in the knob of a canister, her memory honored each time it's opened. But when Engel came to UGA, where she received her M.F.A. in 1993, the vessels fell away and the big dogs that would become the hallmark of Engel's work manifested themselves.
Engel recently lost one of her dogs, Bonnie. Mingo remains, ever present. "I'm honored that they'll live with me. To live in such close proximity [with their] beautiful natures... It's just the best. I sculpt dogs because they're what I know. My dogs are one of the first things I see in the morning and the last thing in the eve. They're in my subconscious mind. I love, love, love them."
That love and respect emanates from Engel's ceramic creatures. Until recently, there’d always been a long line of clients seeking a specified version of her powerful animals. Engel gratefully acknowledges that satisfying her patrons’ requests was emotionally and professionally fulfilling, but also that these commissions left little time to explore other forms.
Then the recession struck, and, for the first time, Engel found herself without a waiting list.
Recently settled into a new life in a new home and with an abundance of sculpture on hand, Engel finally had the freedom to experiment, to retool her art and herself in the face of this new fiscal reality. She wholeheartedly embraced her role as “an artist evolving in a changing economy,” and sought to reinvent herself. Her developing fascination with archetypal imagery led to experimentation with two-dimensional surfaces, which allowed her to create far more affordable art, jewelry as well as wall pieces.
Engel hasn’t left sculpture behind: Her fantastic menagerie has expanded beyond dogs to include rabbits, wolves and even cats. Rather, she’s excited by this two-dimensional direction, seeing it not as a diversion, but as a metamorphosis that has “changed her sculpture for the better.”
The new work still incorporates three-dimensional objects that are both highly personal and iconic, and form an unmistakable link to her sculpture. Now she "has a blast" seeking out the exact three or four symbols that will enhance her imagery, as opposed to amassing the hundreds of objects that had previously embellished every inch of her large sculptures.
Engel understands that every culture incorporated found objects into their rituals, and she's found abundant inspiration in her travels. For the last three years, she's served as the Director of UGA's Costa Rica Art and Culture program, guiding students and faculty through the museums and nature preserves there. In 2009, she taught in Italy through the UGA Cortona program.
She began collecting imagery as passionately as she’d been collecting the multitude of buttons, jewels, watches, coins, and tiny fanciful figurines that adorn her ceramic canines. She was mindful that these objects had once held meaning for an individual, and were imbued with spirit.
Engel was drawn to the magical realism of Italian and Latin ex-voto paintings and to Quattrocento Italian paintings. Her response to the Cappuchin Crypt in Rome was curiosity about the monk who said "let's make sculpture out of our bones!" She sought out milagros, collected celestial and terrestrial maps. Mythology, fables and the tarot cards stirred her. She was moved by the power of the prayerful objects hidden in reliquaries, by ancient messages painted on cave walls, by the printed images in the precious books she inherited from her grandmother.
Engel also began playing with techniques, incorporating encaustic painting, photo transfers on glass, decals, gold leaf, even using photoshop to create her new work. Rather than covering every inch of her surface with overlapping objects as before, she now leaves space between the images. This breathing space seems emblematic of the way Engel is living in the airy Pulaski Heights house she designed for herself and her son Carlo.
Images of strong women populate these newer pieces. Diana the Huntress makes her appearance, as does Venus. But it is in Temperance, portrayed in the tarot deck with one foot on land and one in water, making magic with her mixing jugs, that one sees the perfect representation of the artist herself. Engel is cognizant of the tension between the personal and the archetypal that informs her work, asking herself, as she embellishes an ancient cave painting, “Who am I to draw on top of this?”
While Engel is clearly relishing the peace of her upstairs living space, she has only to descend the stairs to her studio, where order meets chaos, past meets present, where art springs from nothing more than an idea. It is here, down below, that Engel filters our world’s stories through her singular imagination to create her very own iconic magic.
Mary Engel is represented by the Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta and by Blue Spiral Gallery in Asheville, where she will participate in a group show this October. Visit www.maryengel.net.
A story on son Carlo's work will be coming soon to Athens.patch.com.