Yesterday’s Owl (A Rug), 2001. Belden Co. bricks, fumed with MnO Manganese fumed, 4 x 39 x 36 in. Photo: Heather Protz.

Mary Jo Bole’s Memento Mori

One of the first things you notice when you see Mary Jo Bole’s work is just how much there is to look at. In any project, say My First Dutch Lesson: Rust/Rest (1997–99) or Granny’s Necklace (1999–2000), there may be intricate surfaces and sculptural forms, tiny mosaic tiles and cast bronze plaques, images to decipher, motifs to unravel, and sometimes inscriptions to read. Yet it’s the intense simultaneity of the impressions that strikes you. That simultaneity brings together wit and sentiment, research and labor, unexpected oddities and universal concerns. Studying My First Dutch Lesson, you soon begin concentrating on how Bole melds wildly disparate elements together. In Granny’s Necklace, it’s the subtle, telling variations that resonate. In either case, the process of looking takes you on a remarkable journey through the artist’s memories, travels, and passions.

For more than a decade, funerary monuments have been a major focus of Bole’s work. Born in Cleveland in 1956, she grew up near that city’s sprawling Lake View Cemetery. It was a favorite haunt of her childhood, and she’s been fascinated by cemeteries ever since. One high school photo shows her at the family cemetery plot, and references to favorite monuments still pepper her conversations. She made her first funerary sculpture—a clay tombstone for herself—in 1991 and once said she’d like to make a new monument for herself every ten years or so. She’s made nine large-scale funerary works since, each encompassing at least a year in design and fabrication. Through them she explores how different cultures traverse the passage from life to death, seeking to reveal the peculiarly personal remembrances and expressions that sneak through the conventions of funerary art. This may sound a bit morbid, but morbidity really isn’t the dominant note in the work, in part because Bole is always watching for evidence of particular, eccentric life in the midst of references to death. She turns the conventional interpretations of memento mori inside out: instead of hiding cautionary warnings about mortality in works ostensibly about life’s bounty, she slips reminders of vital possibilities into projects addressing death, loss, and mourning.

The central sculptures in My First Dutch Lesson are two nose-to-nose lambs like those that often grace the graves of children. The framing glass that surrounds this work (and is used similarly in several earlier projects) recalls the sealed-up cases that isolate and protect enshrined relics. Both references are rather anonymous, and widespread if not quite universal. But the photographs rendered in mosaic that cover the work’s base speak of rampant individualized emotion. Granny’s Necklace takes the form of a memorial bench. The supporting sides are cast bronze plaques embellished with looping, beaded garlands in low relief. The top or seat is a mosaic collage of drawings and photographs: a procession of mourning women surrounded by a “pearl necklace” of portrait vignettes based a late 19th-century photo of four sisters that the artist found in a thrift shop. The procession looks like thrift shop Victoriana too (all rippling drapery and billowing hair in lustrous daguerreotype tones), but the effect is somber and moving, far more elegiac than the previous monuments. As Bole notes, the minute, square tesserae she used in this work tend to “quiet the image down,” creating a more “stoic” impression. But she doesn’t eschew vitality entirely. The portraits of the sisters take on different expressions and characters as “the mosaic chips have their way with the repeating photographic images.”1

The shift toward heightened, concentrated intensity apparent in Granny’s Necklace continues in Winifred, Ruth, Winifred, a companion bench on which Bole is currently working. This time she’s using photographs of her own family (her grandmother, her mother, and her sister, who died of cancer in 1998) in the collage she’ll translate into mosaic. The painstaking processes she follows in developing every aspect of the piece—trying different floral, lace, and snowflake patterns as a background; creating models for the bronze reliefs; searching out and selecting tile colors; cutting the tesserae using a special hydraulic nipper she had designed by a local manufacturer—parallel and enhance the sense of gravity she aims to convey. Yet even in this bravely personal dissection of memory and loss, Bole integrates lighter diversions, including (at least at this preliminary stage of planning) a wonderfully lively image of dancers at Yosemite in the 1890s.

Prison Sink (Kohler Chilton™ Model) with History of Penal Institution Sanitation from Two Viewpoints (detail), 2000. Ceramic and decals, 18 x 15 x 16 in. Photo: Heather Protz.

Funerary monuments aren’t the only ongoing theme in Bole’s work. She’s fascinated by the industrial/engineering heritage of ceramics, especially the ceramic objects perhaps most familiar in daily life—bathroom fixtures. In her recent Prison Sinks (2000–01), she deploys decals on miniature and actual prison sinks to chronicle the odd and harrowing history of sanitation in prisons from the contrasting perspectives of manufacturers and inmates. Initially developed for the Water Closet Workshop, a residency with a Swedish “sanitary ware” factory, some of the works became part of “Are You Sitting Comfortably?,” an exhibition that grew out of the workshop and toured Norway, Sweden, and Britain through April 2003.

Bole has taught ceramics in the Department of Art at Ohio State University since 1990, and she’s eager for students to experience the production of ceramics in and for industrial settings as well as art venues. She’s initiated a residency at the Belden Brick Company, an Ohio-based manufacturer with roots that go back to the 19th century, and has been taking students to work in the firm’s facilities, which include enormous beehive kilns, for several summers. One of her own projects there was Yesterday’s Owl (A Rug) (2001), a relief ceramic floor piece, carved as a single unit on raw and uncut brick blanks then disassembled into pieces. When she returns this summer she’s thinking about carving a shaggy ceramic fringe to surround the brick “rug.”

Works such as these might be Bole’s breaks from the time-consuming and draining labors of the monuments. But they spring from many of the same impulses, including protean curiosity about history and technique paired with a weirdly skewed sense of functionality. She’s often interested in how something she makes could really be used (whether as a bench or a headstone) but without sacrificing expressive impact to practicality. Keeping those qualities in delicate balance, she negotiates between exuberant accumulation and serene restraint.

1. Artist’s statement in Material Speculations, the catalogue of the NCECA 2002 Invitational Exhibition, held at the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, February 1–April 3, 2002 (Erie, Colorado: National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts), p. 38.

Ann Bremner is the publications editor at the Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, Columbus. She has contributed to numerous catalogues and other publications from the Wexner Center and other arts organizations, as well as to various regional art journals.