Installation view of Rain Cloud, 2013. 17 transparent umbrellas, 13 x 9 x 5 ft. Photo: Andy Pickerel

Latitude to Comment and Play: A Conversation with Mags Harries and Lajos Héder

Mags Harries was born in Wales, graduated from the Leicester College of Art and Design, received her MFA at Southern Illinois University, and teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She is a multimedia artist who uses found objects, drawing, photography, performance, new technology, and 3D printing to fabricate visually alluring work. In 1990, Harries and her husband Lajos Héder, an architect and city planner, formed the Harries/Héder Collaborative. Their aim is to activate public spaces that combine practical functions with strong metaphorical significance and bring communities together. Water and water-related issues have been and continue to be a primary theme both in Harries’s individual studio practice and in her public art collaborations. She delights in transforming unassuming objects and places into something uniquely exceptional, leading us to see the ordinary in new ways.

Elaine A. King: Your early ceramic assemblages made with found objects, such as Object Environment with Dixie Cup (1975), evoke Arte Povera. Were you attempting to challenge and disrupt the marketable art canon by using street rubbish?
Mags Harries: I had been working in life-size fiberglass figures, which became tedious. I looked at the ceramicists, and they were having so much fun that, in 1969, I switched to clay. Clay was liberating, and America was new and exciting to me. I wanted to get looser and have more fun. When I began to control the clay too much, I started collapsing the forms and they evolved into debris. I was not trying to emulate Arte Povera. This was liberating; I was against the idea of the “aesthetic beautiful.” I made many drawings of garbage, global trash, and a series of trash cakes, which were like sandwiches of garbage. The pieces were commentary, yet they gave me latitude to play.

Asaroton, 1976 (reinstalled 2006/2018). Bronze, installation view in Haymarket, Boston. Photo: Greg Heins

EAK: You are known nationally and internationally for your public art projects. What was your starting point?
MH: I became involved in public art in 1975, when I created a proposal for the Boston Bicentennial. I did not like public art, therefore it was a challenge. I hated all of the sites chosen for the Bicentennial Project, so I developed a work in the streets of Boston Haymarket, where I got my groceries at five in the afternoon on a Saturday, a place bustling with energy and activity. It was the right choice. I created Asaroton as a site-specific work dealing with a place, an activity, and translated history through the use of bronze.

EAK: Why has Asaroton, which has become a Boston icon, been moved and re-created three times?
MH: Each week when I shopped at the Haymarket, I collected stuff from the floor, took it back to the studio, cast it in plaster, and then in bronze. The bronzes were placed in the street at Haymarket. I liked that Asaroton marked the present time, but also replicated archaeology. Because it was laid in the street, the bronze has burnished and worn over time, just as history is burnished over time. It was very controversial—people loved it or hated it. I was enthused that art could have such an impact. This converted me about public art. As the city changed, Asaroton was recast three times. The Big Dig cut through it, and now the area is being revamped again, and this is the third time it has been installed.

EAK: What is your definition of public art?
MH: My definition of public art has evolved over time. I am interested in revealing something hidden or dramatizing something ordinary. I use the choreography of the place, how people use it, and how they move through it. I like placing the work to interact with the body or to punctuate a pathway. I’m now interested in the performative aspect of a work and how it might change with the seasons. I like creating the bones where things can happen.

Communal Well, 1994. 14 water coolers, water bottles, paper cups, plastic bags, chalk, light, and audience participation, 14 x 10 ft. View of installation in “Reuse/Refuse: Artists and the Environment,” Honolulu Academy of Arts, HI.

EAK: Time is a vital element in your work. How do you use it?
MH: Even in my earliest work, I was aware that objects could be marking time and place. Objects are specific to a time and span across time. I see a glove as an extension of the hand, therefore it spans time. I add new elements each time I recast Asaroton. The second time I cast a plastic water bottle and a flip phone; I’m still thinking about the third version.

In a piece at the Neuberger Museum, I took over the remnants of an overgrown tennis court with trees coming through the asphalt. I reinstalled the white lines floating over the court and fitted speakers throughout so you could follow the ball spatially. At one point, the ball hits the chain-link fence and you hear a ping, causing a brilliant moment since the rusted chain-link fence is still there.

In A MoonTide Garden in Portland, Maine, we marked the high moon tide by coating the rocks above that line. It became a marker, a measure. In Manhattan Beach, California, the sun sets inside the portal of Light Gate, just outside city hall, twice a year; people go to witness it.

A MoonTide Garden, 2007. Aluminum leaf on boulders, trees, marsh grass, and boardwalk, detail of installation at the International Ferry Terminal, Portland, ME.

EAK: What inspired Glove Cycle (1984), your now-celebrated piece for the Porter Square T Station in Cambridge, Massachusetts?
I decided to celebrate the experience of going deep underground. The issue for me was that commuters use the station every day, so whatever was installed would become old in a short time and not noticed. I decided that it should have many elements throughout the station, therefore I would replicate the passage of going down into the subway. I had a hard time resolving the imagery until the blizzard of 1979, when I was a fellow at Harvard’s Bunting Institute. I saw that someone had placed a lost glove on a pole and immediately had an “ah-ha” moment.

Glove Cycle consists of 56 elements. It is a birth-to-death piece replicating going into the earth. It starts with a tiny glove in the palm of a mother glove, with more gloves cascading down the escalator into a huge piling of gloves on the lower platform. It can be perceived as humorous, with the gloves resembling janitors, debris, or parts of a life cycle.

EAK: You have said that both Asaroton and Glove Cycle “got you stuck in time…in terms of being an artist.” Could you explain?
MH: Both are so popular that people in Boston tend to think of me as the “glove” or “trash lady.” Most of our public projects are not known in Boston because they are in other states or around the world.

Glove Cycle, 1984. 54 life-size gloves, cast bronze on stainless steel, installation view in Porter Square Subway Station, Cambridge, MA. Photo: Greg Heins

EAK: You and Lajos have produced more than 30 public art projects. What is your collaborative method?
MH: In the beginning, Lajos was providing me with significant skills that I didn’t have. I was trained as an artist, and he trained as an architect. He looks at the whole, while I focus on the specificity of materials, site, experience, and concept. Our first collaboration was in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1992. The city had cut a highway through a residential neighborhood. We created 35 pieces on 20 sites, along a five-mile stretch of the freeway, also adding landscaping and design elements. I would have been overwhelmed by such a task. The pieces were large, some of them 15 feet high, made of steel, glass, and concrete.
Lajos Héder: I needed to be assured that what I created would endure not only in a functional way, but also held ideas that provoked questioning. The collaboration with Mags helped introduce me to ideas I would not have had as an architect.

EAK: After being a successful artist working alone, what was it like working with another person?
MH: We have very different methods. Lajos begins with drawing, looking at maps, checking out scale. I have to do research to learn the history of a place until something clicks in my head, and that takes time. Having a conceptual base to work from is essential before I can get going. For Lajos, the freedom to dream was good; and for me, a little linear pragmatism was valuable, too.
LH: Architects start with an architect’s vocabulary, beginning with a client’s functional requirements, as well as structure, materials, space, and cost. Artists perhaps are freer to fantasize and be more poetic.

Mags Harries
Mags Harries in the studio. Photo: Jerry Russo

EAK: How do you maneuver through the complicated process of working with various professionals, from engineers and architects to city planners?
MH: The site-specificity of a place is critically important. We do not come to a place with a foregone conclusion, thus we must explore and find a conceptual base for our ideas. Once that is resolved, we can begin working with the other members of the public art team. We then need to digest their desires and figure out a way to assimilate those ideas into our vision and concept.

EAK: Water continues to be major theme for you. You’ve created many works that address water-related issues, including Communal Well (1994), WaterWorks At Arizona Falls (2003), Rain Cloud (2013), A MoonTide Garden (2013), and River (2005–12). Why is water so significant in your work?
MH: I come from a lineage of mariners. Water is the most dynamic element I can work with—it has different states, a contemplative and a destructive one. It makes noise; it cools, cuts through land, and creates new topographies. It is also what wars are about. Water divides cities, states, and countries, but it can also bring people together. I love Lucid Moment, an installation developed by a drop of water, and River, which is made with just one bucket of water.
LH: Water is always changing seasonally and it has movement, light, reflection, sound, and moods.

WaterWorks at Arizona Falls (aerial view), 2003. Water, land, sandstone, planting, and metal, Water Room: 40 x 40 ft., site: 600 x 1000 ft. Photo: Salt River Project Archives

EAK: Does scientific data about the environment inspire some of your projects?
MH: I would love to collaborate with scientists to make something visual out of their data. I approach my studio work more whimsically, referencing and taking different points of view to create a conversation about the environment; there are no hard facts. I am also working small to draw people into the work. I do not want to be didactic; I want there to be some seduction in the relationship with the viewer.

EAK: You have used an extensive range of materials, and you continue to employ new technologies to address pressing issues. Could you talk about your solar-powered SunFlowers, An Electric Garden (2009) in Austin, Texas?
MH: Developers planned a new community at the old Mueller airport in Austin to be environmentally sustainable, so it seemed natural to reflect that in the piece. We saw a huge swath of land by the highway and thought that perhaps we could create a distraction from the Big Box loading trucks. Lajos led on this piece. We made different scale models and worked with fabricators to experiment with sandwiching a gel with the glass and the solar components because the piece would be experienced from beneath. There are 15 sunflowers, each with seven panels that also provide shade during the day. One lights the flower at night, the rest of the energy is channeled into the grid.

SunFlowers, an Electric Garden, 2009. 15 SunFlowers, photovoltaic solar collector panels, painted steel, blue gel land forms, and Lady Bird Johnson wild flower planting, 16-20 ft. high. Photo: David Newsom

EAK: You approach climate change and environmental concerns in a playful way, particularly with the works shown in “Rising Water.”
MH: Humor is great to cut across lines to illustrate truths. I’ve made a life ring out of salt, which would be useless in the ocean; others appear to be made from melting glaciers. I have yellow wellies perched on top of a ladder, and buckets or boots perched on an unraveling cone of yarn.

EAK: Your “Adrift” exhibition featured a range of studio works dating back to the 1980s that make a timely statement about climate change and its denial, as well as immigration. You said of these works, “All of the objects aim to generate conversations, about our environment, fear of the unknown, human risk, and our relationship to water.”
MH: It was fascinating to me that everything in the show had once drifted in the water. The early pieces from 1987 came from my one walk on a beach in Mexico. I collected plastic parts of buckets, bowls, jugs, and bleach bottles and remade them into ritual water vessels, as an archaeologist would have pieced together fragments for a museum.

EAK: Do you believe artists should be activists?
MH: Artists can be anyone—they are not owned, they are free to express, and they can engage with whomever they choose. Some artists like isolation, while some are more politically involved. Some artists believe that art is more rarified. I got involved in public art to engage with people who might never go to a museum. Can it change you, maybe? I went into it with a political stance.

Water Wheel, 2010. 36 galvanized buckets, 6 in. diameter each. Photo: Kathy Chapman

EAK: What do you consider your most successful project?
MH: There are many, but probably Zanjero’s Line in Phoenix was the most balanced. It’s a quirky little canal with a tremendous history because water was pumped up to it to irrigate the Japanese flower farms. Historically, the land on one side was worth nothing, while the land that flowed downhill from the canal was valuable. One part was dry, the other wet. The Salt River Project, which owned the site, was making it into a recreational path. We could only work on the dry side of the canal. We symbolized the dry side with stones and buckets and bridged to the other side by cutting through large stones that you walked through. The buckets and planks became whimsical seats and way finding.

Perhaps the most exciting project was Waterworks At Arizona Falls, a collaboration with the landscape architect Steve Martino for the Salt River Project that transformed an old hydro power station into a demonstration project on the Arizona Canal in Phoenix. It becomes an oasis in the desert. It is our most significant project not only because of its budget, but also because it generates energy for more than 180 houses a year. With all its architectural elements, Lajos took the lead, and I had an impact on the detailing.

EAK: How has your individual artistic practice evolved in relation to your collaborations with Lajos?
MH: I joined Boston Sculptors to have regular shows, to give me a presence in Boston. I am not wedded to any material. I use materials for what they can contribute to the concept. Public art is all consuming; with studio practice, I’m more in control. In terms of public art, if an opportunity comes that reinforces our interests, of course we will explore it.

WaterWorks at Arizona Falls, 2003. View of the Water Room framed by the new aquaduct waterfalls, Water Room: 40 x 40 ft., site: 600 x 1000 ft. Photo: Salt River Project Archives

EAK: Are you working on new collaborations?
We were really excited about a project for the Delaware watershed, which we did not get. It aimed to make people aware of their responsibility for stewardship. Follow the River consisted of Canoe Critters with watershed animals sculpted on the front—23 animals in all would parade down a river together. Any time an artist can engage a community is great. We accomplished this with The Bronx River Golden Ball (1999–2001). It is credited with creating energy at Hunts Point to make the community adopt the river as their front yard.

EAK: In recent years, you’ve begun using video. How did this come about?
MH: I am open to using new materials and technology to expand my vocabulary. I use video in an intimate way, experienced through an eyehole. The pieces are simple, a glass of water magically emptying and filling, an orange being peeled and put back together.

Water Rising, 2015. 3D print, cyanocrylate, 4 x 3.5 x 5.5 in. Photo: Cathy Chapman

EAK: In your studio, I saw miniature sculptures evincing idiosyncratic humor. What are the strange juxtapositions of boots, buckets, and ladders about?
All of these objects represent extensions of the body. I’m interested in creating a suite in which each piece is strengthened by the existence of the others. My work is about conversations with a broad swath of objects that relate but do not provide answers. I like that I can manipulate color, scale, and the juxtapositions before 3D printing. I can 3D print a carpet and reduce it to represent water and add a boat as if it is sinking. There is much to be explored in 3D printing. Storage and shipping are huge problems for a sculptor. These are very storable, and one can send digital images to a venue to reproduce a suite of work without huge shipping costs—that is very exciting. More importantly, I can play again.