For years, Mary Early’s modus operandi has been to plot the placement of objects on floor plans and architectural elevations. Spaces, she insists, “activate” the art that occupies them. She began, more than 15 years ago, by making cast concrete and wood works sealed in a coating of beeswax. Later, she focused on fabricating objects generated by the multiplication of small, primary elements. A ring of laminated wood, for example, could evolve with thousand-fold replication into a dense cylinder, a standing hoop form, or an arch rising against a wall. These delicate, often untitled structures suggested possible identities—wreaths, split-rail fences, and sawhorses—each one becoming, in her words, “a three-dimensional drawing in space.” More recently, Early has abandoned such solid armatures. Intrigued by the natural properties of wax itself, she molds and pours that sensuous, luminous material for installations large and small.
Jean Lawlor Cohen: You have had a couple of high-visibility projects recently. What did they involve?
Mary Early: In 2017, I was invited to do an exhibition in the gallery spaces at Künstlerbund Tübingen, an artist-run gallery in Tübingen, Germany. Then, I created a complex installation for the three-person show “Twist-Layer-Pour” at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. Both projects presented the challenge of installing and seeing the work for the first time at the moment of creation.
JLC: How did you make the German connection?
ME: In 2010, I took part in a cast iron workshop residency at Salem Art Works, which has partnered with Bodensee Kultur in Salem, Germany, since 2010 to present Salem2Salem. This international artist exchange encourages experimentation and collaboration by American and German artists working in various disciplines, including installation, sculpture, literature, painting, and music.
JLC: How did your sojourn in Germany impact your work? Salem was named by 12th-century Cistercian monks in honor of peace, which seems appropriate for your meditative approach to process.
ME: I was in Germany in 2012 when I assembled my first installation of beeswax lines. The site centers on historic Salem Castle, which incorporates a church, school, agricultural lands, and formal gardens. Both the natural landscape and the 12th-century architectural features had a profound impact on me. From large to small, from rough stone to polished marble, all of the elements of the buildings have a sense of balance and function.
The most elaborate space is the Imperial Room (Kaisersaal), with a floor of sunburst patterns created by diamond shapes. I was immediately attracted to the pattern and decided to mimic the floor by repeating the diamond element with overlapping cast beeswax lines. Until then, I had used beeswax as a method of sealing works made in another material. Now the beeswax began to take precedence over all other materials.
JLC: What might surprise those who only know your earlier work?
ME: Perhaps that I no longer use armatures or create freestanding, three-dimensional objects. The shift from wood and concrete structures to solid cast beeswax has resulted in works that are less permanent but more versatile and reconfigurable for temporary installations. I’ve also been drawn to suspended works, which open up a new context beyond the flat plane of the floor.
JLC: I believe you have a new commission?
ME: I’ve recently finished a piece for the U.S. State Department Art in Embassies program, which will be installed at the United States Embassy in Amman, Jordan. I’ve covered the surface of a four-foot-diameter birch plywood disk with a spiral of overlapping “wedges” of folded balsa, each layer sealed in cheesecloth and ultimately coated in beeswax. The tondo offers a universal shape, a platform to experiment with radial forms, tension, and compression.
JLC: The works in your ongoing “Līnea” series are very labor-intensive. Could you describe the process?
ME: I produce beeswax segments of identical length by heating the wax and pouring it into parchment-lined aluminum molds. For Untitled [Curve] (2017), I positioned thousands of 18-inch elements on the concrete floor of the American University Museum in a horizontal field of radiating lines. In Līnea IV [Curtain], a companion work, I hung segments against a two-story wall so that each beeswax segment is tied to the next.
Producing the lines involves several steps, from folding the paper to line the molds to heating and pouring the wax, and then trimming the castings and finishing the wax surface. Suspension also involves threading the wax lines with braided cotton during the pouring process. I could be occupied for months at a time simply pouring beeswax lines, with or without any particular destination in mind, knowing that they will be used in the next project.
JLC: Why wax?
ME: On the sensory level, beeswax seduces. The texture teases one to touch, and the sweet honey smell triggers memories. The colors, ranging from intense gold to faded ivory, create a glow that suggests varying light or the sun. I first worked with paraffin and microcrystalline waxes, then later focused on beeswax. Traditional sculptors use wax to model or cast material, often making an intermediary object to be fabricated in metal. My fascination lies with the transformation of materials, and wax has a full range of fluid properties. When heated, it liquefies and can be poured, brushed, or carved at various temperatures. It is a component that can be infinitely deployed, re-melted, and recycled for future use.
Beeswax also evokes timely issues like the collapsing of bee colonies and current threats to habitat. I recently had a piece in “Bees,” an exhibition celebrating pollinators at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. They commissioned me to create a temporary installation in the Project Room, a 12-by-18-foot space. In order to connect the work produced in my studio in Washington, DC, with the site, I used wax provided by an Idaho beekeeper. For Untitled (fountain), a project in Salem, Germany, I used wax from the hives of Ernst Riesch, a master beekeeper in Mimmenhausen. Using local wax pays subliminal homage to place.
JLC: One critic described your work as “natural,” as symmetrical as honeycombs. Does that fit?
ME: I don’t consider my work “biomorphic.” There is an organic geometry that emerges, as many irregular forms assemble into a larger unified form. I’d say instead that my work is structured and massed and lately has become more architectural.
JLC: Do you consider yourself a Minimalist?
ME: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. That said, I do work from a somewhat rigid set of materials and processes whose forms generate their own reconfigurations. I saw Robert Morris’s work at the Guggenheim while I was in college, and it made me think differently. It was the first time that I consciously observed how minimal objects or raw materials could interfere with a person’s experience of space. The notion that something flat could suddenly become spatial had an impact on me. I’ve been trying to fill a space to the edges ever since.
JLC: How do you plot works?
ME: Primarily through drawing. I often begin by drawing directly on top of an architectural plan or site photo. This shows me what might occupy the space and in what configuration. I recently made a series of studies showing a variety of configurations atop a grid structure. I lay a graphite grid on Arches paper, which dictates the options for intuitive placement
of oil stick “lines” that will then resist a wash of sumi ink. The resulting sets of schematic drawings for each project become records and permanent objects in themselves.
JLC: Isn’t every work initially site-specific?
ME: Yes, the space always comes first. I’ve trained my eye to see the skeleton frame of a room or building. I like to say that the work doesn’t even exist without the space it occupies. I’m always looking for ways that a building or a natural landscape might invite intervention. In official Washington, most of the terrain is ordered, but in pockets, it can be chaotic—like Rock Creek cutting through the city to the Potomac River. In the last few years, I’ve begun to pay attention to how bodies of water dictate the form of a city, and a work related to that is on my mind.
JLC: What set you on this course?
ME: My father was an artist and educator early in his career, and we always had hand tools and materials around for making things. As a child, I learned how to throw a pot and hold a hammer—basically, I learned how to learn. Later, I began to think about the purity of labor and the results of labor. No idle hands. Maybe that explains my comfort with what some people see as tedious processes, like knotting threads over and over and kneeling to position thousands of wax strips on a floor.
JLC: What about sight lines?
ME: The work changes as one walks around it. In large installations, I’m interested in how objects interrupt a landscape, how shifts of scale can challenge the eye and subvert the viewer’s perception of the space. In more compact works, within small vitrines, I lay rows of wax that appear to overlap and converge when viewed from different angles.
JLC: Do self-multiplying forms always generate your work?
ME: I suppose my process is like knitting or needlepoint, with a repetitiveness that fills a given parameter. A few years ago, pieces emerged from geometry. Interlocking triangles formed “wreaths” and spheres. Then and now, complexity derives from the simplicity of each individual component. Unexpected things happen, of course; I’m open to surprise.
JLC: Have there been some unusual sites where you’ve installed your work?
ME: Years ago, I filled a colonnade at the then-future site of MASS MoCA, and more recently, I’ve installed beeswax elements in a dairy barn, on library shelves, and in a Japanese garden pavilion (the Anaba Project); I’ve even suspended them from an ornate Baroque-era balcony.
JLC: Is there an installation that you’d like to do?
ME: I can envision placing an array of intersecting beeswax lines along the curved path of the Guggenheim Museum to create a moiré pattern from top to bottom.
JLC: What is your dream project?
ME: I’d like to see a permanent installation of wax lines in a space that’s washed by natural light and large enough for people to walk around the work. There would be ramps and intermediary levels so viewers could experience multiple perspectives—my own “Rothko Chapel” designed by someone of like mind.
Jean Lawlor Cohen is a curator and writer based in Washington, DC.