Alive review

Mardi Wood

Mardi Wood, having grown up in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, has continually sought out nature for inspiration. She now divides her time between places on the riverbanks of the Columbia and Metolius Rivers in the Northwest, California’s West Marin and a hilltown of Etruscan origin in Italy. With a background in both painting and ceramics, she straddles the two disciplines, integrating one with the other, not only drawing on her ceramic pieces, but in recent years making large scale India ink drawings of the magnificent Maremmana, descendants of the beasts that roam the walls of prehistoric caves.

Whether searching for the line that describes her beloved Maremma cattle, or pulling a pot into its eventual form, it is the beauty in Nature that guides Mardi’s eyes, hands and heart. Finding the shape of the haunch, belly, hoof or horn in the cattle is not unlike developing a pot with attention to its foot, its belly and its lip. She questions continuously. What sort of foot for a vessel? How should the belly of a bowl rise, flair and culminate in a rim? What should the rim of a cup or a bowl feel like on the mouth, the cup handle to the hand? Equally, what implement and what medium to use and on which paper to best describe line or mass or movement of her majestic animals? Both bowl and drawing seem to grow outward from the center like a fruit reaching to the limits of ripeness before it will burst, while in a drawing, bold strokes and washes of ink emerge onto fragile paper to become an animal that pushes to the boundaries.

Her choice of materials in either case is drawn down to the basic: clay— either porcelain or stoneware—and subtle glazes for ceramics and India inks on a variety of papers for painting. The simplicity and directness of these choices adds to the power of the outcome. As to choice of papers, Mardi explains that “each takes the ink in a different way and look very different...some are very opaque...the Japanese paper very tissue like, translucent...the straw is like straw..rough, yellow...other paper is made from sawdust,...sort of grayish..and the wrapping paper is floaty...white..Each has its own characteristic that I like, especially the way it accepts the ink. They all crinkle by the time I am done... in the rain...using lots of water...carrying them around the field...which gives them another dimensional look.”

Her studio for these drawings is the wild and expansive park of Vulci, where she traipses for miles, carrying her bundle of materials—brushes, inks, fragile paper and homemade easel of cardboard— to be opened and lashed to the fencing at her final vantage point. Her path is through a rocky, undulating landscape, past ancient ruins, and solitary, arching walls like sentinals of Etruscan history in a windswept expanse now inhabited by the majestic cattle and horses of the Maremma that she seeks as her subjects. It is only the setting of sun, a rainstorm or a bull on the loose that ends her day.

Artist that she is, Mardi is akin to a scientist especially in her ceramic work, experimenting with different clay bodies, mixing the elements that make her glazes, testing them—timing, placement and layering—in a firing of the kiln. Here there is always a balancing act with and between earth, air, fire and water. But she plays with another more ephemeral balancing act whether on paper or in clay. That is the balance she achieves between strength and grace resulting in a kind of bold fragility. Mardi’s work, whether in ceramics or painting, is a kind of self-portrait, embodying all the different qualities that make up her being.

Lisa Esherick April, 2015