By Gina Malone
Ceramic artist MaryJane Findley sees the search for expression as the theme of her life. “Clay has been very instrumental in my growth as a person,” she says. “I am immeasurably grateful that I found it.” Before applying herself to creating pottery in her 40s, however, she explored other avenues for self-expression, including dancing, singing and acting. During the time she was a musical theatre major in college, she took so many art classes that she was mistaken for an art major. “I was just needing to find a way to express and I wasn’t confident enough to be an art major,” she says. At both Eastern Illinois and North Texas State universities, she studied art, theatre, music and English, earning her B.A. and becoming certified in the Alexander Technique which actors, musicians and others use to achieve natural and healthful body movements while performing.
Findley grew up in Barrington, IL, a small town near Chicago where, she says, the arts were encouraged from kindergarten years through graduation. “I started playing with clay in third grade,” says Findley. “I remember making a pear that looked almost realistic.” She became interested in music and theater in high school, but struggled to maintain focus on any one particular element of the arts.
She was living in New York City when a marriage ended and 9/11 happened. “I was undone,” she says. “I moved to a little village in Queens called Kew Gardens. Forest Park was nearby and I found solace in the vast paths and old-growth trees there. I really loved the trees. They became friends. I know that sounds all airy-fairy, but there is nothing like hugging an oak tree. It’s a massive life form that has existed for years, even before my grandparents were alive. Something about the depth of life they represent connected to me deeply and I would bask in their ancient energy. There was a particular tree that I’d pass on my way to work that was my touchstone (touch tree).”
Her walks by the park also took her past a pottery studio. “I started taking wheel classes, then handbuilding, and then just basically dove into the mud,” she says. The studio became her creative home for more than eight years.
When a friend wanted to leave New York at the same time she did, he suggested they move to Asheville. It was a place she had visited only once before. While she was preparing to leave the city, her special tree, the one she’d passed and touched so often, succumbed to high winds and fell. “I was sad about it, but found it fitting,” says Findley. “I was leaving and it let me know that I was on the right track.
I was even able to grab a piece of it while they were removing the stump. I brought it to Asheville, a small piece that reminds me to stay connected to the earth.”
While in New York, she had worked various jobs in the business world, a place where she never felt entirely comfortable. “I’ve never really understood the business world,” she says. “Yet, I lived in NYC and got by pretending I wanted to be in business.” Her parents, she says, always seemed to worry when she did not have a typical career.
When she arrived in Asheville, she found studio space at Odyssey and took classes at Clayworks, and in 2014 when a group of Odyssey studio potters decided to form Odyssey Co-op Gallery, she was among the 25 original members. The co-op evolved through the years as, Findley says, did her own work. “I saw things I wanted to do and began to experiment with colors.” Still a willing explorer of the arts in all forms, she took a class on creating vases for Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. “I started using slabs and found them to be much more immediate to my creative process,” says Findley. “Then I took a real Ikebana arranging class with Libby Campbell who taught me just how to think about the containers I made.” Findley learned principles of how arrangements and containers work together to create, among other things, harmony and balance. The lessons were invaluable, she adds, and formative. “I really started to incorporate the processes and the thinking. The work I make now stems from those influences.”
She likens her actual creative process to a conversation with herself while her hands are working with the clay. Does it need anything, she might ask, as she goes along. What if I do this? “It’s done when it speaks to me with a little feeling in my heart and my belly,” she says.
In the last years of her mother’s life, she told Findley that she was proud of her for her artistic work. “She told me that she really felt my work was worthy,” Findley says. “It was her last wish for me to really make something with my ceramic art. I remember her looking at me earnestly with water in her eyes and telling me that. I finally felt acknowledged for the direction my life had taken me.” Today, Findley’s coral interiors are a nod to her mother’s favorite color. “I love the way it complements and enhances the presence of the verdigris,” she says. “It just makes me happy.”
To learn more about MaryJane Findley and her work, visit Facebook.com/MaryJane4Clay. Find her work at Odyssey Co-op Gallery, 238 Clingman Avenue Ext. in Asheville’s River Arts District. January hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Monday. Findley also offers in-person visits by appointment.