With Standing Still ... in the Abstract, now on display at City Gallery at Waterfront Park, Canadian-born ceramicist and clay sculptor Mary-Ann Prack (pronounced "Prock") wants viewers to contemplate seemingly paradoxical ideas: Abstraction can be both ancient and futuristic at the same time, and even though the figures are static, they still contain a certain energy.
Curated by local ceramicist, caterer, and philanthropist Celia Cerasoli, this show features 69 of Prack's pieces created from the mid-1990s to the present. Abstract figure drawings, masks, large acrylic paintings, and clay figures anywhere from three to eight feet high fill the gallery. The smaller figures appear on pedestals at eye-level with viewers, while the larger figures are monoliths that wow. Each one warrants a 360-degree viewing, then a couple more to take in all their details.
Prack was born in Hamilton, Ontario, to a prominent family in both art and architecture. She studied interior design and fine art at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and Florida Atlantic University. Today she lives in western North Carolina. Having worked with clay for more than 30 years, her mastery shows. At a distance, her figures appear to be etched from black, white, or weathered steel, or inlaid with different types of stone. On closer inspection, the viewer realizes it's actually all one material, stoneware clay that's been treated with an arsenal of techniques. When the majority of a figure is glazed in glossy onyx like "Inanna" and "Inanna II," its white portions look like marble or ivory, not glazed stoneware clay.
"Clay can be precise or organic. With clay I am able to work with color in addition to form. I use a painter's approach to color, yet I love sculpture because its multi-dimensional and all sides have to relate to one another," Prack says. "With 'Over the Edge' I had a design in mind, I just had to figure out its implementation — how to suspend that sphere over the figure."
Prack had artistic leanings early on. She painted as a child, and her mother liked to work in clay. Her own forays in clay started with masks, inspired by a fascination with faces and their many expressions. "My favorite artists were icons of the abstract expressionist movement like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Wassily Kandinsky. I love Joan Miró and Alexander Calder's use of color. But ultimately, I think my family was the biggest influence on my work," she says.
Prack's focus on the human figure shows Moore's influence. His best known work is 1951's "Reclining Figure," a curvy abstract female form where the holes and negative space play a key role in the stone formations. Prack's sculptures use geometric shape and color all her own, but with nods to Kandinsky and Miró.
Her precision in creating textures ("With an Open Heart," "Seeing Beyond"), lines and edges ("Obi," "Yu 2," "Inanna"), and applying glazes in bright opaque primary colors ("Moon Child," "Duality," "Laugh Lines"), graphite-shiny metallics ("Mirrored Images," "I Am"), or rusty-toned iron oxides ("The Other Side," "Silent Awakening") reflect a lifetime commitment to craftsmanship. While some color is a glaze applied with a brush, other hues are airbrushed on in multiple coats with an extremely steady hand.
The installation was a feat in itself. Prack and her husband Bill Maler packed up a truck and drove all the work from the upper northwest corner of North Carolina. Segmented figures like "The Space Within" and "Finding Happiness," and the taller sculptures like "With An Open Heart" and "The Point of Balance," had to be deconstructed, then reconstructed on site. This was carefully achieved with steel rods or PVC pipes that run through the center of the spheres, ellipses, crescents, and other shapes. The rods bear the weight of the clay pieces, suspending them rigidly over the piece — or pieces — below. Pieces appear to be floating very closely together, but they aren't putting direct pressure on the thick yet still fragile surfaces of adjoining pieces.
In addition to Charleston, Prack has exhibited in Asheville, Boone, Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, and her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Show attendees echo her enthusiasm with their positive reactions, and she says some comment that they're reminded of the indigenous art of Australia and North America. Though not directly inspired by this style of art, Prack is influenced by the human form and experience. Like Inukshuks or Cairns, the stone figures or pilings that act as landmarks in an otherwise sparse landscape, Prack's figures are guides on an inner journey that isn't fully appreciated until the viewer is sharing the same space with them.