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Oral history interview with Mary Van Cline, 2009 December 6-2010 March 30

Van Cline, Mary, 1954-

Glass artist


Collection Information

Size: 4 sound files (2 hr., 41 min.) Audio, digital, wav; 48 Pages, Transcript

Summary: An interview of Mary Van Cline conducted 2009 December 6 and 2010 March 30, by Patricia Grieve Watkinson, for the Archives of American Art's Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America, at Van Cline's home, in Seattle, Washington.
Van Cline discusses growing up in with a musician father, in an independent-minded family in Texas; undergraduate and graduates studies in design, architecture, fine art and ceramics at North Texas State University in Denton; her first job out of college as an artist-in-residence with the city of Dallas; her introduction to glass at Penland School of Crafts, Penland, NC; graduate studies in glass at the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston; beginning to combine photography and glass, including working with Kodak; her gravitation toward representational art, narrative, and the passage of time as a significant theme in her work; working at the Wheaton glass/factory art center in Millville, New Jersey, at the inception of the program; working in New York City at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop; arriving at Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, Washington; her visual/thematic use of individual in a landscape; her international travels, including her trip to Japan on a National Endowment for the Arts grant; the influence of Butoh dance on her work; installation work; pedestal pieces from the 1990s; Listening Point, 1993; work focusing on life-size human figure; working with glass when the studio glass movement was in its infancy, and her invention of techniques and method, including photo-sensitive glass; working with DuPont Co.; the sense of visual simplicity and serenity in her work; her choice to concentrate on a career as a studio artist rather than on teaching; relationships with galleries, collectors, and the art world; the importance of family support. Van Cline also recalls William Morris, Dan Dailey, Karen Chambers, Stanislav Labinský and Jaroslava Brychtová, Dale Chihuly, and Dan Klein.

Biographical/Historical Note

Mary Van Cline (1954- ) is a glass artist in Seattle, Washington.


This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.

Language Note

English .


Funding for this interview was provided by the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America.



The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Mary Van Cline on December 6, 2009 and March 30, 2010. The interview took place in Van Cline's home in Seattle, Washington, and was conducted by Patricia Grieve Watkinson for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview is part of the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America.

Mary Van Cline and Patricia Grieve Watkinson have reviewed the transcript. Their corrections and emendations appear below in brackets with initials. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Archives of American Art. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  This is Patricia Grieve Watkinson interviewing Mary Van Cline in Seattle, Washington, on December 6, 2009, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, disc number one. 

Welcome, Mary.

MARY VAN CLINE:  Hi, Patricia!  [Laughs.]  It's really nice to be here.  Thanks so much for doing this.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Yes, and, well, I think we're both going to enjoy it.  So let's talk about how Mary Van Cline decided that she was or might be an artist.  Where did it all begin? 

MARY VAN CLINE: I think, Patricia, that I came from an unusual family.  I came from a family of musicians.  My father was a jazz trumpet player.  My grandfather had a traveling stage jazz band.  My other grandfather was an architect and a builder in the '40s and developed a lot of the spectacular homes in the '40s in the Pasadena area and Balboa [both in California]. 

You know, with that kind of heritage that you come from, you don't [laughs] take an easy route.  You don't take a nine-to-five job, because you've never had a model of that before.  And you have inspirational family members and parents.  So I can remember, even at an early age in the second grade where, in the '50s, the idea to teach children geography or math is that they would always introduce an art project, because the whole idea of using your left and right brain at the same time in the education system was just coming out in the mid-'50s. 

So I remember being told to make a geography lesson, sort of like a map, and instead, what I made was a mosaic of little pieces of paper torn up and put together to make a globe of the world.  And I think my—I've always approached problem-solving in a very creative, visual manner.  So it's an evolution, it's an evolution in growing up in a private school, that you didn't get lost and had a lot of individual attention, but you also had an unusual set of parents that said you can do whatever you want to do. 

And that carried through all the way until I was even in high school.  And instead of—normally, as a teenage girl, you're supposed to take home economics.  I wanted to take woodshop.  And I remember my mother going in and having an argument with the schools, saying, there's no reason why my daughter has to be hustled into a home—if she doesn't want to sew, she doesn't need to sew.  She can do whatever she wants. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Was she successful, your mom?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, probably not as successful as I would have—I don't know.  Anyways—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  No, I mean, did you manage to take woodshop?

MARY VAN CLINE: No, no, no.  This is 19-whatever.  You need to be able to just—whatever.  Anyways, let's move on.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Okay.  Okay, so when did you actually have your first formal art training?  Was it in high school? 

MARY VAN CLINE: I always took—


MARY VAN CLINE: I always—I don't think that I would consider anything a formal art training.  I just went to school. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  See, I don't know—were there art classes at school?

MARY VAN CLINE: I don't think you had formal art classes until you go to college.  So I would just always approach the entire education system in a very creative, visual way, whether it was math, geometry, science, writing, English.  So I think that I left high school at an early age and decided that I was going to go to college, without having completed, actually, my entire senior year of high school.  I just went and enrolled in college and started, then, taking what I suppose you were suggesting—formal art classes.  I enrolled in painting and drawing classes and—at the age of 17.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Yes, yes.  And as we're moving into your college, higher education, how did that—because I know that you actually went to several schools over the years, so talk us through that.

MARY VAN CLINE: I think from an early age, I always wanted to be a fabricator.  I wanted to make things because my grandfather, in California—we would go there every summer—he was just a remarkable Renaissance man.  I remember for Fourth of July, he built half of a Viking ship in the back yard in Pasadena, California, so that his 19 grandchildren could watch his firework display over his pool.  And there was always something going on in his workshop.

So by the time I went to college, I decided that I was going to make things, in some way or another.  So I took everything that you possibly could take.  I took metal shop, woodshop.  I took painting; I took bronze casting; I took foundry, sculpture, photography, ceramics.  And I ended up with an undergraduate degree in fine arts. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And what college was it?

MARY VAN CLINE: It was in Texas.  North Texas State University [University of North Texas, in Denton].  And I then, after graduating from college, I went and got a master's in large-scale ceramic sculpture.  And in the same town, right across the street.  [Laughs.]  I wasn't done.  [They laugh.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And when did ceramics surface as an interest, or was it just something that you hadn't yet tried?

MARY VAN CLINE: No, I tried—it was the '70s.  [They laugh.] 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And would you like to elaborate on that?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, if you study the ceramic movement, there was a really powerful set of people in ceramics that were making a statement.  It made its way around the university college system in the United States.  I think the large-scale, figurative ceramics were coming into play in the '70s.  So I was attracted to that.  Also, it meant that I didn't have to—I could just walk across the street [Texas Women's Univ. MA in ceramics –MVC] and still start taking art classes.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And did you get a degree in ceramics?

MARY VAN CLINE: I have a master's in ceramics.  And then after that, I was asked to be a—in the '70s, they had the CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] program that they decided they wanted to employ the artists.  The city of Dallas decided that this is a good idea, to make artists a part of the community and give them a real job.  So you would work 20 hours a week for the city of Dallas and 20 hours a week on your own artwork.

And instead, I worked 80 hours a week for the city of Dallas, because there were so many things that I could do.  Different organizations or centers or whatever would call up the city and ask for an artist-in-residence.  So in effect, I would go around to all these different places and become an artist in residence.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And was it schools or public—

MARY VAN CLINE: Everything.  Anybody—it was anybody.  It was, like, I went to senior citizens' centers and I taught them how to do different things in art.  I went to a blind school and taught them how to make their own face out of a clay mask.  I went to a juvenile delinquents center and taught them how to design their own logo, so they made their own—silk-printed their own T-shirts. 

We did murals in the Projects.  For an art festival, for the city of Dallas, we did an outdoor installation where we made a game that had six-foot-by-six-foot soft fabric dice that the kids could throw, because they were just filled with peanuts, and they could move around the board. 

My first installation piece was a huge outdoor game for kids.  I had friends that were modern dancers at the time, and so we also planned sort of a dance stage involving the outdoor game.  You rolled the dice and they moved into different positions.  So it was a sort of theatrical performance, soft-sculpture installation.  We had giant hands that were the size of my Karmann Ghia that the kids could just roll up in.  It was actually pretty fun.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Sounds great, sounds great.

MARY VAN CLINE: After I did that for a year, I was offered a job.  The whole point was to—for the city, then, to find you a job, because that was what they thought that artists needed to do, was work full time and in the real world.  So they offered me a job to be the artistic director for the minimum-security prisons for the state of Texas, at a quite large amount of money, for 1977.  And it scared me so bad that I picked up and left the state of Texas and moved to Penland—Penland School of Crafts [Penland, NC]—because I didn't want to become a real, functioning human being in society quite yet.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Okay, so that was the scary thing—the real job with a salary?

MARY VAN CLINE: I didn't want a real job.  I never saw myself as working for anybody or working a nine-to-five job.  That part was not shown to me in any way whatsoever as a model by my family.  All of my grandparents and parents had all been self-employed and developed their own businesses; you worked harder that way, but you also controlled when you worked so you were in charge of your time.  It was really important to me to make my own decisions and not have anybody else tell me anything else to do.  [They laugh.]  And that's still exactly—that's still really important to me.


MARY VAN CLINE: And that was a very early age, so you can say that—whether it's—what is it—the term is nurture or nature? I would say there is some nurture in there, as far as models.  But I was sprouted as a very independent little kid.


MARY VAN CLINE: And have pretty much stayed that way.


MARY VAN CLINE: The independence—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  [They laugh.]  I think maybe as a kid, too!  Yes.  Well, let me move on to the next.So here we are and you've declined the artistic director—

MARY VAN CLINE: I've ran [sic] 3,000 miles away from being the nine-to-five job artistic director of the minimum-security prisons for the state of Texas and decided that—a friend of mine was at Penland and she said, well, come on out here.  So I moved to North Carolina.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And let's say the full title of Penland—

MS. VAN CLINE:—School of Crafts.  And I looked at everything that Penland had to offer and I'd already tried everything or had a degree in it already except for glassblowing, which was—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So all the other mediums, you'd already worked in.


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So what would they be—the other—

MARY VAN CLINE: Ceramics, papermaking, painting, drawing, metalworking, foundry—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I'm just trying to think of what—

MARY VAN CLINE: They pretty much have everything.  And having, by now, an undergraduate and a graduate degree in fine art, you would have gone through everything except—unless your university had a glass program, which very few did in 1977.  One of the historical figures in the contemporary glass movement, Fritz Dreisbach, had moved to North Carolina and set up the glass studio.


MARY VAN CLINE: At Penland.  And that's where I met him.  I walked into the studio and I said, well, this isn't something that I've ever done before.  And he walked out holding a stuffed alligator and—


MS. VAN CLINE:—a stuffed alligator, because he had a whole collection of memorabilia and things from Florida and he said, "Welcome to the hot shop."  [They laugh.]  Fritz was a major part of many glass artists' early initiation into the field of glass.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And he was your teacher?

MARY VAN CLINE: I took his class for—whatever. I think they were workshops, so it was two months and tried blowing glass and then—Penland is a workshop-oriented, it's not full time, year round.  And so it closes down.  It has a fall and a spring session.  So during the winter, you'd have to go someplace else.  So he actually lined up for me to go apprentice as a glassblower on the border of Canada and the United States for a month—the first time I'd ever been in temperatures below 20 degrees. 

And that's how I got hurriedly introduced into running a hot-glass studio in sub-freezing temperatures out in the middle—three hours from any town on a studio that I think, by the time I left there and came back to Penland, I'd pretty much decided that glassblowing was not for me.  Mixing chemicals in, you know, minus-10-degree weather, having to wear a respirator—having to charge glass—none of this stuff—cullet didn't exist.  You had to make all your own glass.  It was a bit too much for me.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So what about the actual hot-shop floor activity of blowing that so many people, I've learned from Pilchuck Glass School, have become enamored with? 

MARY VAN CLINE: I think that for me, glassblowing, since I came from throwing ceramics—you know, throwing clay on potter's wheel—glassblowing seemed to me just sort of like a horizontal potter's wheel, it felt very uncontrollable, it felt like a sport—it felt a little bit like how people want to learn how to throw on a wheel, they wanted to learn how to blow glass. 

To my mind, you couldn't actually fabricate controllable objects.  A lot of the material controlled you, especially in the '70s, because we weren't very good.  Most of the American glass artists were going to Venice on Fulbright grants to learn how to blow glass from the Venetians and nobody knew what they were doing. 

So a lot of the '70s glass movement is a lot of drippy, taffy-colored, very soft shapes that, to my mind, went back to the '60s when people started investigating plastics and fiberglass and Eva Hesse and all of that.  I'm not an abstract artist—and that felt very decorative and abstract to me.  Quite colorful, I mean I enjoyed using that, but when I came back—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  It also seems to me—sorry to—don't let me interrupt the train of thought—that the work of yours that I know is very controlled. 

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, if you saw my work in Contemporaries in Ceramics in the '70s, I was building large-scale figurative art.  So I suppose I'm more interested in imagery and blown glass isn't—you can't get as fine of a detail as I was interested in.  It didn't feel quite like sculpture [laughs] to me that I had come across.

But one thing, I was interested in the whole movement in general, though, because it was quite young.  It felt very fresh.  It's a phenomenal material.  You can do all kinds of things with it that felt brand-new and experimental.  So I was instantly drawn to that part of it.  I just wanted more control and I was not accepting blown glass to be like an accident. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And maybe just complete the story about Penland.  You survived the subzero temperatures.

MARY VAN CLINE: I did.  I came back and started—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You headed south again—

MARY VAN CLINE: I came back to Penland, started kiln casting, which nobody even knew what to do—we invented a lot of processes because there wasn't anybody, any books or there wasn't any information available to us.  So everything—everybody, that is, started at the very beginning—either in the late '60s or '70s and had to invent their way of working.  And so did I. 

We all shared these experiments with each other—the amount of people working in glass, you could probably count on both your arms and your fingers and your toes.  We could communicate and talked to each other and shared information.  And that did happen.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And if you're thinking of names from that time, not to be exhaustive—

MARY VAN CLINE: Bill Carlson came to Penland and he and his graduate student, Steve Weinberg, had experimented with plaster mixtures to figure out how to make some plaster molds that would not fall apart if you put them in a kiln and heated them up to 1,500 degrees. 

So the first kiln casting piece that I did was when Bill came for like a weekend to North Carolina and just hung out at Penland for a little while, visiting, and then went back to one of the three glass programs that existed in 1977 or '78, which was in Illinois in—it was Champaign-Urbana [sic].  And then there was Dan Dailey, Massachusetts College of Art [Massachusetts College of Art and Design] in Boston and Dale Chihuly was at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI], and then Marvin Lipofsky was at CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts, now California College of the Arts] in Oakland.  And that was your choice. 

I did move on from Penland.  And of all of those programs in glass, I think I was drawn to who I thought approached the medium most sculpturally in 1978, and that would be Dan Dailey.  I felt that he was drawn to imagery.  He came from being a graphic artist and cartoonist and had come out of RISD and started his own glass program.  And he wasn't that much older than me.  He's only, like, seven years older than me.  His wife's the same age as I am.  And so I got in my Karmann Ghia and drove up to Boston and began another graduate program which would be, then, my MFA.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  At this stage, glass was still your main interest.  I mean, you'd left ceramics behind and glass was what you were really interested in.

MARY VAN CLINE: I did.  I did.  It's a very alluring material and so brand-new. I had already started to begin doing some experimentations of how to do anything but blow glass.  [They laugh.]  So I went up to Boston and I arrived on a snowy day into the parking lot and the day I arrived, they were tearing the hot shop down.


MARY VAN CLINE: Massachusetts College of Art—[the hot shop] was an old shack in the back of the building and had been condemned, so it needed to go.  But my first year of graduate school was without any kind of hot glass.  So that, very much, had an influence on me because what they did leave standing [laughs] so the department could continue, was the fabrication shop, which is what's now commonly referred to as the cold-working shop. 

So it's the grinding machines, the cutting—the glass diamond saws, the horizontal grinding—lapping wheels and everything that you would need to fabricate glass.  Well, I didn't have a problem with that because it's exactly what I wanted.  Here's a substance that would stay put and I could carve it and I could build it and I could laminate it and I could fabricate it. 

And it wasn't flying around on the end of a six-foot hot, you know, six-foot glassblowing pipe.  I could stand back and take a look at it and make something that I'm more drawn to. I had my original undergraduate degree. My minor was in architecture.  And so I liked the aspect of building things and spaces and positive/negative space. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Can I just ask about the—so there was no hot shop.  Were there any kiln facilities? 

MARY VAN CLINE: There was a ceramic kiln and so I pretty much had it all to myself.  And we didn't really know how to anneal glass.  So if you just kind of set up a program and you opened it up and it wasn't blown up, then it worked.  [They laugh.] 

Most of that period of time was all about experimentation.  If it worked, it was good.  And if it didn't, then you knew you had to change it.  So I did a lot of thinking about working in, in fabricating, glass.  Cold working is a very slow process.  The first year in grad school, I made three pieces.  They were extremely well thought-out [laughs], very slow, but they still interest me, which is kind of nice to know, 30 years later.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  What were they about? 

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, you know, I came into Boston—I had never been to the East Coast.  Since I had gone through an undergraduate degree and a master's before I ended up working on my MFA, I guess I had a lot of art background at this point and was older than any of the other grad students. 

But I had not left Texas, really, except for Penland, so the East Coast, to me, was about New York City and Boston and Philadelphia and I was being, again, really interested in building things and architecture and fabrication.  I was influenced a lot by the bridges and all the historic buildings and everything.  Anyways, I [laughs] decided that I was going to build these pieces that rocked and—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You mean actually physically rocked, as opposed to emotionally rocked?

MARY VAN CLINE: That moved—that moved.  So they were these structures that had—that actually could gently move back and forth like a pendulum and support a prism in the center [… –PGW]—a little bit like the spine of a boat, except that if you were to put that boat on its keel, it just sort of gently rocked back and forth. 

The interior of the spine held this polished-on-all-sides prism that would take—it would work like a traditional prism—[… –PGW] the image of what it was reflecting and push it upward and out toward the viewer.  So my original interest in sort of projecting of light and, consequently, imagery came from prisms.

That came because when we were standing in the 22-degree cold shop one evening, this guy comes walking through—comes into the shop and he goes, Listen, I have all this—these glass lenses that I am—we're liquidating this place, right, you know, down the—you know, around the corner .  And nobody else seemed to be too interested in it so I followed the guy out.  And it turns out he was the person who was meant to liquidate this 350-year-old lens factory. 

It was this amazing old business in Boston that had survived for the last 70 years selling surveying equipment—the best of any kind.  So I instantly made a deal with him to buy out the whole glass part of it, with the stone wheels and all the remnants and everything which happened to be down in the basement.  You almost had to go down there with a shovel to unbury—it was a little bit like an architectural dig.


MARY VAN CLINE: Archeological dig.  And in the course of it all, I learned a lot about the history of lens making in the United States.  While I was there, over the course of two or three months, I'm buying this ancient lens-making department.  The Smithsonian found out about it and came to this place and bought a lot of the equipment back from me and set up a display of the history of—this place was 350 years old.  It was one of the original businesses in the United States.


MARY VAN CLINE: A lot of it—it came back—[the tools, –MVC]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  To the Smithsonian's [National Museum of American History –MVC] [… So your work currently on view in the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery uses the same lenses that the Smithsonian (the Renwick Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum) collected for its history displays. All the lenses originate from that Boston business? –PGW]

MARY VAN CLINE: Yes, it was—it was quite remarkable.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And actually, and if I'm right, these lenses have lasted a long time.

MARY VAN CLINE: They were telescope lenses.  They were big, Pyrex—or later ones were—but the original ones were lead glass—oh my gosh, they were just hand-ground—it was pretty interesting, but mostly, it was a historic education of how to project light.  And that, I think, had the most influential effect on my work.

While I was there, I kind of stumbled upon the idea that if you could project imagery through a prism, why can't you project photography?  And so that's what I did.  At the very end of the two years that I was in grad school, I flew to Kodak [Eastman Kodak Company, Rochester, NY] and came up with this idea of taking the old negative glass plates but putting a positive emulsion on them and developing them in such a way that you end up with a positive, black-and-white photograph, which is really different from a negative glass plate.  So I kind of [laughs]—


MARY VAN CLINE: No, I mean, I'm just trying to say I kind of wound my way into Kodak—I think I probably show no fear when it comes to things like this and I am very strong-minded, and that independence helps when you're standing in front of a huge manufacturing company called Kodak and saying, Listen, you need to pay attention to me and this is what I want to do.  I want to do these custom plates—and then [they] have faith in you. 

You have to realize, I was maybe, what, 26, 27, at the time?  But I think that sense of, that I can do whatever I need to do, that was instilled with me at a very early age and that I was capable and smart enough to be able to pull it off allowed me to be able to walk into this huge American icon manufacturing industry and say, treat me as you would treat any other client. 

So I was given access to Kodak in a very unusual way, in that you would have to be a huge photography supplier to be able to have an account with Kodak.  And [laughs] and do probably 10 [thousand dollars] to fifty thousand-dollar-a-year business with them for them to give you your own account.  Well, they gave me my own account.  I ordered directly from Kodak.  I would order my custom plates a year to a year and a half in advance and I would deal directly with Kodak. 

That's pretty, almost unheard-of for an individual 26-year-old artist to get away with doing.  So at the very end, my grad school did allow me to put in some of the pieces that I finished from my MFA show, these photographs that were transparent and they were built into my sculptures. 

My MFA show project was basically the concept of taking theatrical lights and mounting them 40 feet away and shining them with these barn doors into these highly polished prisms that would take that imagery and then do what a prism is supposed to do, and project them at 90 degrees onto a wall so the entire piece would be like a drawing behind the piece, so there would be the positive— I also designed my own pedestals and built them, welded them, and they were glass on top, double-plated so that it was very light and airy and dealt with just transferring—I would call it a glass-line drawing on the wall.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And what were the photographs of?

MARY VAN CLINE: There was only one piece that had a photograph in my MFA show.


MARY VAN CLINE: The rest of my MFA show was about creating perspective line drawings of the actual three-dimensional glass sculpture.  And it was very theatrical.  In fact, the [International Sculpture Center, Washington, DC –PGW], the directora of it at that time came in and [laughs] actually talked to me and wrote a really nice thing—really nice review of my show. 

I think it was probably the light, the projections, the using the theater light and creating a very theatrical drama of glass and color and imagery.  [… –PGW]  I had just started using photographs [at] the end of my MFA.  And so the one piece in it [the show –PGW] was [a precursor to my future works –PGW]—I lived in Boston, however, for the next four years and started photographing. 

So all of the following pieces that I did when I was in Boston were me, jumping in my pickup truck, driving north with my camera, which was an old Graflex camera.  You had to use a black cloth to put over your head and focus on the back of the glass plate, upside down and backwards on a tripod. 

I'd usually throw either a friend or a family member in the truck [laughs] and throw them out in some very stark coastline scenery, very simplistic [sic] landscape and introduced a human image into that.  That was the idea of my photography, was to show the concept of the passing of time.  And I bet you want to know why.  [They laugh.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Would you like to take a little break before we say why or would you—



[Audio Break.]

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, I mean we could go—so again, what do you want to say?  [Laughs.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  We're starting back after a cup of tea, which either invigorated us or the opposite, but—

MARY VAN CLINE: Not the opposite.  [Laughs.]


MARY VAN CLINE: Say:  "Now that we're fortified with a cup of tea on a very cold day in December in Seattle—"

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Good, thank you.  Well said.  This is why she's—

MARY VAN CLINE: It brings to mind the passing of time [laughs] and photography since we're sitting—no, I'm just teasing.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I know that the larger question on my list to ask you is about the development of concepts, but before I go there, I want to kind of nail, a little bit, or just gently address the issue of photography because you're mentioned it now, and we haven't heard about photography before. 

And as we've had quite a lengthy discussion before I pressed the record button, you pointed out that photography, of course, uses the elements that you're interested in, of light being reflected through lenses.  But then you also pointed out that it was a way of capturing imagery that you could use in your work.  But I want to have you talk a little more about the purpose of photography.

MARY VAN CLINE: We might end up repeating ourselves a little bit because I'm probably going to go off the script here.  You know, but that's okay, I think.


MARY VAN CLINE: Well, I'm just going to go off—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You're being recorded.

MARY VAN CLINE: [Gasps.] What was the question?

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  [Laughs.]  The question was about photography.  [Laughs.]  You want me to pause?  Great.

MARY VAN CLINE: I didn't even know I was on.  All right.  So—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Would you like to tell me something about photography, Mary?  [Laughs.]  What was in the tea?  And actually, you were just saying you can't remember how the big camera came into your possession, but clearly, you'd acquired it for a purpose.

MARY VAN CLINE: I think what you're trying to ask me is, why did I start using photography with glass?  Because up until this point, basically, I'd been making these maquettes of constructed and fabricated cold glass, architecturally built, influenced by structure and architecture, but holding a highly polished prism in the center of it—but with no photography, no imagery other than just projecting light. 

It didn't take me long to experiment with that.  And that's what I would call my work in graduate school.  I never worked in glass before I got there other than a very brief workshop or two at Penland.  So I arrived with an undergraduate and also an advanced degree behind me, but felt like I had never really used this material. 

So I suppose I experimented—I started experimenting, like we said before, I continued experimenting [with] kiln casting, doingpâte de verre, experimenting, you know, with drilling, cutting, grinding, building, then these polished prisms.  And I'd throw projections on the wall—so then at the very end of all of this grad school experimentation, there remains this idea of the—originally these pieces—in fact, I think it was the first or second piece of glass I ever made, was a structure of a spine—I mentioned before—that moved a little bit like a pendulum.  So I am not an abstract artist at heart. 

These pieces, which—there weren't that many of them in grad school.  I bet there were eight—by the time I finished two and a half years of my MFA, but at heart, I am not an abstract artist.  I like to deal with concept and imagery.  I felt these were more maquettes and experimentations and I felt them lacking in emotional content.  So to connect to the idea of photography was probably somewhere down in the basement of this old optical—350-year-old lens factory. 

There's a lot that they do with that kind of stuff, and it's somewhere—digging down in the depths of this place, I suppose, I came up with a more—[laughs]—you can tie it into a cold winter day in the depths of a basement dealing with 350 years old—me, wanting emotion in my art, not just fabricated pieces. 

I decided that I needed a narrative and the narrative, for me, became the passing of time—the passing of time through—I remember this very clearly.  This is, after all, 30-plus years ago.  I remember thinking, well, okay, if I'm going to have a concept that is personal to me, I need to consider it a research project.  So I studied the concept of the passing of time from a psychological point of view, a scientific point of view, a physiological point of view, and an emotional point of view.

And I actually had books that I couldn't even understand—they were beyond—[laughs]—beyond me, but I looked into the origin of recording time, man's first indication of time passing, the Chinese water clock.  But ultimately, it came down to being something very personal.

My elder brother was killed by a drunk driver when I was 19.  And I was introduced to human mortality at an extremely early age before any kind of major relationship other than what you have with your family.  And I decided that the passing of time, for me, meant to heal.

So that concept has never changed in 30 years.  My narrative of my emotional concept to my artwork has always been healing through the passing of time—everything that I think of to do, however it comes out visually, emotionally, it always starts with that.  So if you add—if you add your first pieces, moving on a pendulum.  If you add moving from a very young state to a very old state in Boston and all the historical—hell, I was on an archeological dig down in a 350-year-old basement. 


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:   This is Patricia Grieve Watkinson interviewing Mary Van Cline in Seattle, Washington, on December 5, 2009, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.  This is card number two.

At the end of the last tape, which, I apologize, the tape cut you off, Mary, but I'm pretty confident that we're going to pick up on some of those issues later in this interview.  So I think it's time, with tape number two, that we move out of Boston and onto the next adventure in your life.  And so where and why are we going next?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, thank you, Patricia [laughs] for bringing up how long ago this was because we just barely made it into 1983 at this point and—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  But you know life really speeds up, the older you get?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, I agree with that because the passing of time [laughs] feels shorter.  So, let's see, when I was in grad school—right after I finished, everybody was experimenting with techniques in glass but also, so were organizations.  And this new concept of contemporary glass movement was really getting its toes dug in, and doing some remarkable things.

The history of glassmaking in the United States started in southern New Jersey and there was a factory down there called Wheaton that was family-owned—Frank Wheaton—and they had an old glasshouse from the 1800, early 1900s, and they contributed to the American glassmaking production factory as press molds.  There's a museum down there.

Anyhow, there was a couple of very important people that took Frank Wheaton out on a boat and said, look, I bet you, you could do something fantastic with that old glasshouse.  And why don't we set up a center to connect the contemporary glass art to a historic glass production factory?  Most glassmaking nowadays is automated but this was—this is still—the old glasshouse.  So it was a historic boat ride.  There is—I don't know, maybe there are some books out about it—but it was Doug Heller, who started Heller Gallery [New York, NY] in the early '80s—


MARY VAN CLINE: In New York City.  It was Paul Stankard, who happened to live in Vineland, New Jersey, and a couple of glass collectors—that had just started to happen.  People who had maybe gotten into collecting antique glass had all of a sudden found out that there's this new thing called the contemporary glass movement.  So they put together the concept of having an artist-in-residency at this glass facility.  It's the first time any American artists were ever let into a glass factory, as I mentioned before—


MARY VAN CLINE: In the United States.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  In the United States, as opposed to—

MARY VAN CLINE: Most of the glass artists in the United States were learning and collaborating in Europe with other glass artists in their glass factories.  But artists in the United States were not allowed into the factories.  This is the first instance of any kind that happened.  So I got a phone call from one of the glass collectors, who was, indeed, on that boat ride, named Sy Kanens.  Phenomenal human being—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Could you spell his name while we're—

MARY VAN CLINE: S-Y, Sy.  And his last name is Kamens.  He was a very important glass collector in the late '70s and early '80s.  He basically funded this fellowship situation, which they determined to call the Creative Glass Center of America, CGCA, at Wheaton [WheatonArts and Cultural Center] in Millville, New Jersey, which is down at the tip of southern New Jersey near Cape May.  And I happened to know him because he was interested in my work. 

I get this phone call and he goes, so Mary, why don't you get in your pickup truck and drive south? And come on down because we have this entire glass factory that we're going to set up for you guys to work in.  So it was a little bit more organized than that, but basically, I remember this wonderful phone call.  And he goes, you won't be sorry.  I go, well, what is it all about?  And he goes, you guys are going to create it.

So there were—I was invited to come down.  There was a handful of other people.  There were six of us in all.  And we walked in to this old 19th-century glasshouse and started to build furnaces, annealing ovens.  We spent seven months, through the winter [laughs] in an unheated, turn-of-the-century glasshouse.  But it was very remarkable.  I left Boston.  These were the best facilities offered to any contemporary glass artist at this time, and for quite some time, because Pilchuck was still a mud camp out in the Northwest on a logging—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Pilchuck Glass School [Stanwood, WA].

MARY VAN CLINE: Pilchuck Glass School.  And people sleeping in tents, trying to blow glass underneath a lean-to.  This was an industrial facility with the best equipment that you could have offered to artists.  It was highly, highly unique.  So I was the only non-glassblower that was there.  The other five glass artists, which—most of them aren't really working in glass anymore, these days—

I had my own 500-pound, colored-glass furnace.  So every day, I could call up Wheaton Industries and say, I want 50 gallons of this color of glass delivered today— so basically, I was introduced to my own personal factory.  And we went into overdrive.  We developed the facility. We developed the concept, the artist-in-residency, the fellowship, a lot of the things that are still in existence today. 

I was on and off the board for the next 20 years.  We got them to invite international glass artists, because originally, it was supposed to be only for Americans, but we showed them the smallness of that idea [laughs].  And I can proudly say that most contemporary glass artists have gone through that facility at some time or another.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So tell me—now that you've told me about Wheaton, tell me about you at Wheaton.  What work were you doing?  What experiments?  What was happening in your work?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, I left Boston, which was a really bustling, big city, and moved down to the middle of absolutely nowhere.  In 1983, the New Jersey Turnpike stopped at southern New Jersey and became a two-lane road.  And there were a lot of diners along the way, but it was, frankly, after the Pine Barrens [laughs]—and there wasn't a whole lot down there. 

So time stopped for me and gave me a wonderful opportunity to take all these concepts and solidify them.  I suppose it influenced me quite a bit.  I had a lot of time to develop the idea of my imagery.  I made a lot of glass parts, but I conceptually finished three major pieces. 

One of them was this, kind of, purplish-pink cast-glass house structure that was made out of the Avon glass—it was developed in the '20s—that when you turn the light on, it turns pink.  And when you turned a light bulb off, it turned blue, and in the daylight, it was purple.  So it was called neodymium glass.  It was made for the perfume-bottle industry and Avon. 

And since I had my own little color furnace, I cast this.  And there was a photographic prism, transparent-glass prism in it that showed—on the bottom half, it showed my brother's hand reaching out to a crystal ball that was a ladder that was going up through the center of the house.  And the name of that piece was Exit to the Room of Voices [1984]. 

I think I liked using recognizable shapes and images that people know what they are, like ladders and house shapes.  It became a vocabulary of symbols for me.  I made three sort of architectural, recognizable, narrative photographic pieces during that time.  The piece that I just mentioned, Exit to the Room of Voices, was bought by the Corning Museum [Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY] right after I left there.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And then after Wheaton, you were in New York at the Experimental Glass Workshop [now UrbanGlass], I know. 

MARY VAN CLINE: While I was down in Wheaton, the director—a woman came down from the original Glass Magazine—her idea of starting Glass Magazine—and we were one of the inaugural articles.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And that was Karen Chambers?

MARY VAN CLINE: That was Karen Chambers.


MARY VAN CLINE: She started Glass Magazine.  And she started the whole concept of it.  She developed it.  And it was funded through this nonprofit organization up in New York, called the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, which is now called UrbanGlass.  It was on—a block off Canal Street, right in the middle of Little Italy.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I don't know where—don't worry about it, yes.

MARY VAN CLINE: It was in a phenomenal location.  It's pretty important because this is the first time that anybody outside of this handful of glass artists decided that they were going to try this glass material.  Can we pause?


[Audio Break.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And Mary, what was your involvement at the experimental workshop?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, since Karen Chambers had come down to Wheaton, she said, you know, why don't you submit—we're going to write a grant for you, for the New York State Council on the Arts.  Come be an artist-in-residence up in New York.  So you know how one thing kind of leads to another, and I ended up at the Experimental Glass Workshop, a block from Chinatown, in the middle of Little Italy, with an artist-in-residency. 

And the thing [sic] that I was most interested in were the neon signs in Chinatown.  So I remember standing on the back of—I think my baby brother had come to visit me from Texas and we went all through Chinatown, and he would lift me up on his shoulders and I would take pictures of these neon signs that were written in Chinese calligraphy.  They were amazing. 

So I was very interested in that.  And so I said, well, this is what I want to do with my residency, I want to learn how to do neon.  So I sat at the Experimental Workshop, which was over a Chinese grocery store that started cooking noodles at about 10 a.m. by a huge, six-foot open window that—by noon, the Italian cappuccino shops would open up, smelling espresso—and then still bending glass and learning how to do neon.  By about five o'clock, when the Italian restaurants would open up and start cooking—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So who's teaching you the neon?  Were you teaching yourself, or was somebody—

MARY VAN CLINE: I was pretty much self-taught.


MARY VAN CLINE: So maybe that's why I was more focused on food than anything else.  [Laughs.]  But there were a couple people who said, oh, that isn't right.  But they did have—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Because it's a pretty dangerous thing to be teaching yourself, isn't it? 

MARY VAN CLINE: No, you're just in front of a big torch.  And it's like you have Pyrex tubing and if you heat it up, it melts.  And if you don't heat it up enough, it doesn't bend, so it's sort of a happy medium.  And I actually made these huge, life-size neon figures that could not be moved [laughs] because they weren't, probably, technically done very well. 

To add the argon or the neon, you have to pump all the air out, so it has to withstand a vacuum.  If it doesn't break by that time, then you know it'll last.  But structurally, neon at that scale is very fragile.  So I probably didn't even think about having them be functional, as much as I just wanted to make these life-size figures.

I felt like the human—the figures in my photography—which I don't know if I've talked an enormous amount about at this point—but they always seemed to be more involved in the landscape, in a very stationary kind of way or a very meditative way.  And so what I did with the neon figures is, I wanted to put a little bit more emotion into them. 

So I made these figures that were crouching, sitting down and crouching, with a very big, humped back, so that they were looking like they were leaning over, thinking, or kneeling and thinking.  One of them—I did ultimately put this six-foot neon man in a large installation that I did later on. 

But the thing that I discovered during this time is that you could either choose to have argon or neon.  Neon is the bright red, very orange, very functional color that you can see, in neon.  Then there's this other gas called argon.  Argon is this remarkably—very passive, light purple, almost-invisible-in-daylight gas that, for me, was mystical. 

Because when you had these figures that were very—dealing with this—struggling for their mortality, the passing of time.  They're thoughtful, they're contemplative, and they're trying to emit all this emotion.  You walked up to this piece of transparent tubing that portrayed that, but mostly, what it did was buzz because of the transformer.  And it had a very light shade of argon, purple gas in it, so it looked like an aura. 

I conceived that concept just basically because of that.  I said, here is a figure I want included in my narrative storyline.  But you can also feel it.  You can feel the buzzing of the transformer, the humming, the "zzzz."  You see this very light, very dimly lit aura that just gracefully outlines the figure.  I learned a lot from that experimental workshop because I put it in a piece that, not too many years later, I made, and it ended up getting purchased by the Detroit Institute for the Arts [Detroit Institute of Arts], through the David Chodorkoff Collection [David Jacob Chodorkoff Collection].

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And is that the—I believe I've seen a photograph of that piece, at least.  So it's a combination of neon and cast glass and photography—

MARY VAN CLINE: Yet again, it's sort of a—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Tell us a bit about the piece.

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, I'm using the outline of a house to simply suggest a human element: Here's something that's fabricated.  You instantly tie it in to humanity because an architectural outline of a simple shape of a house.  Inside that, of course, at the bottom. There's a sand timer that has sand, and it shows—


MARY VAN CLINE: An hourglass that shows an illusion of the passing of time.  In the middle of the outline of the house is this crouched figure that is this very light-purple argon.  He's leaning over.  And then above him is—he's active.  Then, above him, there's a piece of glass that shows a sandblasted image of a laying-down figure.  So hopefully, it's sort of the transformation, moving upward through time and all the different elements that humanity goes through during a lifetime.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:   Thank you.  So at some stage, you made the bi-coastal trip from New York to Seattle, which is where you've lived and where we're sitting right now, watching the early December sun set beautifully in the water.  I could imagine that your moving to Seattle, like so many artists working in glass, would have been the allure of the Dale Chihuly Pilchuck Glass School and the whole glassblowing world.  But I think you're going to set me right.

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, Ms. Patricia Watkinson, as the former director and most-loved director of Pilchuck Glass School, which we like to—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I'll have to edit that out, but no matter.  Sorry, go ahead.

MS. VAN CLINE:—call the golden years of Pilchuck [laughs], Pilchuck did not have that much of an influence on my decision-making process.  I had gone to—my first entry into Europe was a plane trip to Czechoslovakia to meet the Labinskýs [Stanislav Labinský and Jaroslava Brychtová], who had invited me over in 1985. 

So I left the Experimental Glass Workshop.  I went back up to Boston for a little bit.  But ultimately, I knew that my time for that town was—well, I'd pretty much photographed everything I wanted to, so it was time to move on.  And I hopped on a plane and met the most wonderful part of the Eastern Bloc and the Labinskýs. 

So they came to Pilchuck.  I met them in Boston when they were first allowed out.  They came out—Stanislav Labinský came up to Massachusetts College of Art in 1982.  Then the next year, he brought his artist-collaborator-partner, Jaroslava Brychtová.  So I had already known them by the time I went to Prague in '85.  They came to Pilchuck to teach in '86. 

And I was on board with that and said, well, okay:  There's all these glassblowers out in Seattle.  I might as well go see what it's all about.  So I did, indeed, go spend a couple of weeks at Pilchuck in 1986.  And my good friend Karen Chambers, who had started Glass Magazine and was from the Experimental Glass Workshop, had come out here to manage Dale Chihuly for a couple years and said, listen, it's snowing in Boston;  the crocuses are blooming in January in Seattle.  Pack your bags and come.  So I did.  I landed and went straight to the Olympic Peninsula and started doing what every other black-and-white photographer does when they meet the landscape.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You mean this landscape?  The Northwest?

MARY VAN CLINE: I mean just the idea of landscape is so remarkable out here.  The trees are 120 feet tall.  A lot of it looks like it did since the beginning of time.  And it's very dramatic and mankind is very small in relationship to it, which is kind of, a bit, what all my photographs can be about.  So I did come for—I think I came to meet my fellow cohorts at Pilchuck, but I stayed for the dramatic, beautiful scape [sic] that—the Northwest still intrigues me, as a black-and-white photographer, to this day.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Nevertheless, it seems to me that your photographs of place, of locations, are always very anonymous.  Even if you loved the Northwest for its scenery, landscape, and you took photographs there, one wouldn't necessarily know it was the Northwest.

MARY VAN CLINE: That's very true.  I travel a lot and I always have my black-and-white photography and camera with me.  And I am drawn to very simple landscapes that can show the human figure that is eroded into the landscape. 

So it doesn't really matter where I am.  It's more about the idea of time and timelessness and—it's looking at theatrical backdrops. 

For me, I'm setting a stage.  I'm setting the stage of immortality and mortality.  I'm putting a desert landscape with erosion that shows the passing of time.  I introduce a human figure.  I feel like I sculpt the figure into the landscape.  And then I create my own narrative story in, basically, a black-and-white theater set.  I sculpt the human into the storyline.  And it's also really helpful if you have a patient friend that will be the actor in my own personal play.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Because you have to import the person into the landscape.  Because in fact—

MS. VAN CLINE:—[laughs] you have to get them to stand still long enough.  So usually, the people in my photographs are either friends or family members.  I'm going about doing my documentation of my surroundings and we're there together.  So the poor people have to get wrapped up in a shroud [laughs] or a draping of the figure because I don't want to show—I'm not making a fashion statement.  I don't put them in jeans.  I want them to be non-recognizable in any particular century.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And just as the landscape is non-identifiable with any particular location, as well?  You said a few minutes ago, it doesn't matter what the landscape is; I think really what you're saying is, there's landscapes that you're attracted to, but it doesn't matter whether they're in Israel or France or the Pacific Northwest.

MARY VAN CLINE: Because I have photographed in all those places as well.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And Texas.  I mean, I know you've photographed around the world.

MARY VAN CLINE: Okay, so if you were to ask me—well, maybe you would like to ask me—why photography? [Laughs.]  I guess I started in the contemporary glass movement.  Extremely early on in that, I felt there was not enough narrative and emotional content for me, so I introduced photography. 

[As if asking herself the question:] So then why do you—why are you still using photographs? 

For me, I believe that a photograph has a memory-evoking power.  And there is no other process that I have come across that, for myself, is that strong.  I've had people come up to me and describe my pieces through the photograph.  And the form is a manner of presentation, but the power of the piece is in the image of the photograph. 

It's not new information.  Photojournalism and places like the Bettmann Archive, which Bill Gates bought because of these very influential images that are stuck in our minds that—some of the more famous ones.  Of course, my era has the Vietnam War so, you know, the handcuffed Cambodian [Vietnamese, in Saigon Execution photograph by Eddie Adams] man that's on the street that has a gun pointed to his head that's being executed, on the cover of Life magazine.  The Dorothea Lange, who—was it Dorothea Lange?

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Are you thinking of—


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Dorothea Lange is the Depression.

MARY VAN CLINE: Right.  And the woman from the Depression, her most famous photograph [Migrant Mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange].  And you know, these are social impact moments that live in our lives.  We can describe them.  You know what that is; you know what that is.  Now, I'm not saying that [laughs] mine have no sociological or economical or political, you know, concepts, but for me, they are still dramatic enough to touch different people and have them be reminded of something for themselves.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You've talked about your photographs being narrative and full of emotions, or containing emotions.  What emotions and narrative do you want us to take away from the photographs when we look at them?

MARY VAN CLINE: I suppose it is really back to this concept of healing.  So sometimes the photographs are—they're definitely not snapshots.  These are highly posed and manipulated images.  And the figures are superimposed into the landscape. 

I sandwich the negatives in the darkroom, so that the back of a figure that's cross-legged on the beach, placing a hand down, touching on the sand—his back has rocks that look like they're part of his body.  So that they're superimposed, they become part of the landscape.  They are eroding in the landscape and passing, as much as the landscape is. 

So the feeling, for me, is that it's contemplation.  It's meditation.  It's a sense of serene feeling.  It is semi-spiritual, though I'm not religious in any organized religious point of view.  And it's a sense of positive and negative space for me and showing humankind and his progression through his mortality.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  We're having a little talk about photographs here, so I have more questions about photographs.  I know that you've taken photographs all over the world in your travels.  What I want to ask you is, are there times in your life, in your travels, when you're moved to take a whole bunch of photographs?  Because I see that you've used your photographs again and again, or you use similar imagery— when did you last take a sort of mass of photographs that you're using in your current work?

MARY VAN CLINE: My next trip is planned to the interior of China, this spring.  I'm not sure that's exactly answering the question, but I guess my work takes me all over the world.  So I photograph a lot more than I can actually make three-dimensional pieces in glass.

I suppose a body of work will come about on a photographic expedition.  I begin making a thought process when I'm on a photographic expedition.  So that's happened to me on several different occasions in my life.  One time was in the mid-'80s.  Before I moved to Seattle, I mentioned I did go to Prague, but I also went all the way down—I spent six months in the Eastern Bloc and ended up in Crete and photographed for quite a while in Crete.  And I developed a body of work based just on those photographs that were very influential for me. 

I remember, one of them was a—of course, I had my baby brother traveling with me at the time.  He and I went to southeastern Crete and hiked down through these marble fields that were hanging off the edge of a cliff, right into the Mediterranean.  And we discovered this path that we went down the side of this cliff and entered into a cave. 

And this cave—when we dropped into this cave, you instantly had the feeling that this was a place where—in very early times of mankind, this was a place where people had come to contemplate their own existence.  A little ways up the cliff, there was a monastery, but this cave predated that.  We spent the afternoon in this very shallow cave that was looking out on the Mediterranean. 

It was a really—in the back of the cave, there was this small little rock organization of a doorway that you went into, that, I suppose, would resemble a little chapel.  We found out later that it was a place where early Christians had come to develop their own spirituality.  And it was a really remarkable, moving space.  I ended up spending quite a bit of time on Crete and developed a whole photographic series just based on the images that I took while I was in Crete.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Mary, I'm just going to clarify one thing—it's not all your photographs in which the figure is superimposed.  It happens sometimes; other times, these long-suffering family members—


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  —and often, I think, it's your brother, you've told me—actually travel with you to Crete and agree to put on the timeless garb and to stand in these places that you've found that speak to you so deeply, these landscape places.  So I just wanted to clarify that.

MARY VAN CLINE: Of course, but, we're still talking—what, 1985?  My brother and I were both relatively young at this point and didn't have responsibilities.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  But is he going to travel with you to China?

MARY VAN CLINE: Actually, I'm thinking about taking my Chinese sister-in-law, who was born and raised in Beijing, and my three-year-old niece.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Great.  But they will still be supplying—

MARY VAN CLINE: Who is half-Chinese.  [Laughs.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And they will be supplying some of the collaborative—let's just call it the collaborative aspect.

MARY VAN CLINE: We'll see.  [Laughs.]


Well, I wanted to move us on to another stage of your life and another place, another place in the world that I know had a very deep influence on you, both the landscape and the culture and aspects of the culture.  And that's Japan.  So tell us about how you got there and what happened, please.

MARY VAN CLINE: After I moved to Seattle in 1986, I got one of those once-in-a-lifetime phone calls from the—life opportunity—the National Endowment for the Arts gave me an artist fellowship grant, just based on my work up until that point, and then also sent me this lovely invitation to submit a reason why I would like to go to Japan.  It was funded by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission [Japan-United States Friendship Commission, Washington, DC].  So I told them, basically—I wrote three sentences and said, I want to go photograph. 

So I won a very influential and highly respected grant from, as I mentioned before, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission.  It was an enormous amount of money for 1987.  It was $35,000, but it was given to us in yen.  There were only five people picked each year—not just in the visual arts, it was the performing arts and the literary arts.  I was the youngest person that had been awarded this grant at the time. 

So I jumped on an airplane and left Seattle and arrived in Asia.  The first night I was there, I ended up going to a Butoh dance performance.  And my life, yet again, changed visually.  Butoh dance is a type of theater that was a post-World War [II] performance dance theater, developed in the '60s by Ohno Sensei [Kazuo Ohno], who happened to still be alive and practicing out of his studio—at the age of 90-something—in Yokohama, when I arrived in Japan in 1987.

The performance that I saw that night, arriving in Tokyo, was remarkable.  It was a very shallow stage set of a giant tree with lots of botanical landscape—vines hanging and lots of plant life—and a very shallow stage that was probably only about 10 feet in depth.  And the curtain opened up, and nothing moved.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Were there people onstage?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, you would not know that.  A Westerner would not know that.  For the next 45 minutes, I sat there and I looked at this beautifully lit stage set.  And after about 45 minutes, I realized that there were two figures in this landscape that were moving—very slowly [laughs]—and they had been moving the entire time.  But, I suppose, to the Western eye it's almost impossible to recognize as modern dance.  But, in effect, it is the most strikingly beautiful modern dance that came out of post-war Japan. 

To me, the landscape was moving almost as fast as the figure.  And Butoh theatre is—it's time; it's movement; it's full of angst.  It expresses the most beautiful human shape that can create emotion.  The tiniest little gesture can create emotion.  A tiny bend of an elbow, a movement of a finger, a dropping of a shoulder, tilting of a head, lowering of an eye—all while standing perfectly still—can create an enormous amount of emotion.  That's powerful.


MARY VAN CLINE: That's very powerful.  I believe I worked that into my personal concept of photography and my personal theater.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Now, clearly, that was a tremendously powerful experience and something that really—it not only resonated with the art you'd already been doing, but your incorporation of that somehow set a path for the future.  Let's talk for a moment about some of the works, or a particular work, that came out of that experience, even if it might have been years later.  Because I know some of the works you made over the ensuing years came out of that Japanese experience, or at least, you folded the Japanese experience into the work that you were doing in future years.

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, I was in Japan—it was meant to be a six-month grant.  I expanded it to five years.  I was in and out of Japan from 1987 to 1992, while keeping my base in Seattle.  I photographed all four islands, from the bottom of Yokohama—Okinawa, to the top of Hokkaido.  So I have a lot of photographic images [laughs] to think about. 

Can we take a break?

[Audio Break.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So how has the time in Japan, the lengthy visits to Japan, how has that revealed itself in your work subsequently?

MARY VAN CLINE: I always think of my landscapes as very austere and simple visually.  And when I arrived in Japan, the aesthetic of Japanese visual-ness was a good fit for me.  It's "the less is better; the simpler is graceful."  And there's not a lot of confusion that exists in the Japanese aesthetic.  It's very carefully thought-out.  And space is very important, even [laughs]—it was a very good match for me. 

However, the Japanese aesthetic is very seductive.  It's very influential.  And I found that I needed to keep distance from it.  Otherwise I think that it can overpower you.  So the time that I spent in Japan was mostly being a photographer.  I didn't finish any three-dimensional artwork at all over there.  I basically explored the country visually.


MARY VAN CLINE: So one of the images that I feel is very powerful that I took while I was there was—yet again, I had friends and family with me, traveling through this country,  and we stumbled across this very old temple up in the mountains. 

My brother and one of my oldest friends—I wrapped by brother up in a white material and put a traditional Japanese theater Noh mask on him.  Then my friend I wrapped in black.  So I had a white figure and a black figure.  The black figure is reaching out to the white figure that is sitting on the steps of a very ancient temple with beautiful wooden doors behind him, and the roofline of the architecture of the Japanese temple is in the top of the figure. 

To me, that is a—it's hard to describe, but if you see the image, it's a very powerful image.  It's classical.  White versus black, evil versus good.  It's got a lot of emotion in it because the black figure is reaching out towards the—his hand is extended out towards the white figure.  The white figure that's sitting on the steps is huddled a little bit, but slightly turned and looking at the black figure. 

This photographic image ultimately ended up in a piece that was purchased by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum [The Listening Point, 1993, collection of Renwick Gallery –MVC].  And when I had my show there, called "Staged Stories," in 2009, just ending at the end of January 2010, the Homeland Security newsletter picked up the image of this piece and put it on the front of their newsletter as a way to begin a dialogue.  [Laughs.]  So it was, I believe—they got the power in this photograph.  They felt it was the classical argument of humankind. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So tell us, how does this piece look, this finished piece?  Because this is the imagery it contains—

MARY VAN CLINE: So far we've talked about just the photograph, the transparent photographs.  I should say, at this point, that I have only developed photographs on glass.  I don't use paper.  And the photograph is transparent.  You can put your hand behind it and you would see your hand, yet it has enough rich black-and-white quality to it that it holds its own space. 

[Another –MVC] piece, The Listening Point [series, 1993-2009], which is currently on display at the Renwick, in the gallery at the Smithsonian, was [originally –PGW] commissioned in 1993 by the United States Information Agency in a curated show by Karen Chambers called "To Tell a Story."  It traveled to Southeast Asia for three and a half years, opened in embassies, starting in Calcutta [Kolkata], India, and went on for three and a half years all over Southeast Asia.  The piece was—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So this is a different piece you're describing.

MARY VAN CLINE: This is called The Listening Point [series –MVC].

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  What's the other one called?

MARY VAN CLINE: The Listening Point [series –MVC] is a large installation.  It has a four-by-six-foot glass photograph that's transparent.  It's in a portal [where] the top beam of the doorway that it's mounted in, that's a freestanding piece, is similar to a torii gate, which is an architectural gate that the Shinto religion has designated that hangs below—it's a curved top— and what is underneath that, in Shinto religion, is designated a spiritual space. 

I love the feeling of that architectural symbol in my artwork— so this four-by-six-foot transparent glass photograph that is held in place by a torii gate then reflects into a very large body of reflecting glass that's on the floor, to simulate water.  And it's quite large, it's 15 square feet, 15 feet-ish.  The reflection of the black-and-white image into the black reflecting glass follows you as you walk around the piece and around the room. 

At the very end of the reflecting glass, towards the viewer, there is a solid glass sphere that is not unlike—shaped like a crystal ball, but it's placed down on the floor.  And if you look closely, it reflects the entire image of the piece and scales it down into miniature and brings that piece into miniature perspective, and the rest of the surroundings.  So it's like it minimizes you and the surroundings, while standing in this black-and-white installation of this large reflecting pool of—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Now, I think, just to clarify, the image in The Listening Point [series –­MVC] is of a single individual. 

MARY VAN CLINE: Can we take a break?


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So, this is Patricia Watkinson interviewing Mary Van Cline at my home on March 30, 2010, and it's a continuation of our interview of last fall.  And so, Mary, I want to jump right in with a question about the glass world and whether it's been helpful or a hindrance for you to be part of the world of glass artists.

MARY VAN CLINE: Good evening, Patricia.  [They laugh.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  It's nice to be back together again.

MARY VAN CLINE: It is.  It is indeed.  We're well-rested.  So I think it actually was one of the first things that drew me to working in the material is the feeling of a circle, an international circle of friends.  I've been working in it so long that—close to over 30 years— when we all started working there weren't very many people—there weren't very many of us, and so we knew each other all over the world. 

You could travel to many countries in Europe and pick up the phone and call another glass artist and they would actually know who you are.  So that feeling of being involved in a club that was worldwide was really inspirational to stumble upon in 1977.  So now, 30-plus years later, I do think that—it was helpful to begin with. 

I think at some point you tend to divest of your layers of skin as you become more familiar with your art.  So I don't think of myself as a glass artist.  I have divested some of those onion layers, and it can become more of a hindrance because you could be more associated with people that you have nothing in common [with].


MARY VAN CLINE: You've grown out of your circle maybe a little bit more conceptually than others who have stayed and chosen a more decorative path.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And what about galleries?  Because in many cases, the galleries that you've been associated with or have chosen to show your work have been ones that have specialized in glass artists.  

MARY VAN CLINE: No, that's actually not true.


MARY VAN CLINE: All along, I actually have been involved in galleries that show painting and sculpture.


MARY VAN CLINE: And that's absolutely true, but if you talk about the history of 30 years of galleries, those are small businesses.  They come and go.  I can remember a lot of galleries, especially in Europe, that were definitely fine art galleries.  That's something I have actually been pretty careful of all along, in making sure that the work that was represented in a way that was not decorative.  Can we take a break—


MS. VAN CLINE:—early on?

MARY VAN CLINE: The reason why is that this shows that we have—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Hang on.  Did I do that right?

MARY VAN CLINE: No.  But, okay, we can keep moving.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  How do I pause?  I just want to make sure.  Pause.  Press this to pause.

[Audio Break.]

MARY VAN CLINE: Oh, Patricia, that tells us something right away.


MARY VAN CLINE: It's recording right now.  It's recording.  So how do you hit pause?

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Press it once, the recording button.  Oh, no, sorry.  Wait a minute.  Press pause—press pause—press this. 


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  This is Patricia Grieve Watkinson.  I'm talking to Mary Van Cline on March 30, 2010, following up on an earlier interview last fall, and keeping going with this interesting interview and trying to face the technical issues that the recording equipment seems to bring to us, which is daunting and frustrating.  But it's not frustrating us, Mary, is it?  We're just keeping going.

So, one of the things that we didn't cover last fall was the pedestal pieces that you started making in the early '90s, and I wanted to talk about those a bit.  They include photographic images, they have pâte de verre bases.  We haven't really talked about using pâte de verre.  Let's just start by talking a little bit about what you wanted the viewer to see in a pedestal piece.

MARY VAN CLINE: Hello.  [They laugh.]  Good evening, Patricia.  Nice to be back with you.  I suppose the pedestal pieces come in a way—are a series of architectural drawings that are very influenced—I think they really have a strong Asian influence.  There is a large photographic prism in the center that's split into two. 

They use right-angle prisms so that when you walk around there is a photograph—a transparent photograph that's laminated and you see through it.  And the right-angle prism throws it into a three-dimensional—like theater in the round.  There is a—you call it a pâte de verre base.  Basically they look like bronze vessels.


MARY VAN CLINE: And you wouldn't know—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I only know that because you told me.

MARY VAN CLINE: That's true.  [Laughs.]  And you know my work so well.


MARY VAN CLINE: So they are mistaken for bronze.  They look very much like ancient bronze castings with chase lines on them.  In fact, one collector who bought one was so determined that it was bronze instead of glass, or pâte de verre, that he kept kicking it.  But they're fairly substantial and of course he didn't do any damage but—he was wearing cowboy boots.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You talked about being able to see the imagery.  The imagery changes as you move around.  How much can you control that?  I mean, it shifts.  I shouldn't say it really changes.  The angle you're seeing from, the photograph shifts.

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, because the transparent photograph is one what I would say are two separate wedges that—part of the wedge is a right-angle prism, it basically projects the image like a right-angle prism would.  So there's a beautiful reflection as you walk around the piece that moves almost like a hologram, depending upon what angle that you view it from. 

So they're very three-dimensional.  People still can't quite get what they keep expecting to see, like if you see the transparent photograph and it just has like the front of a figure, they expect to walk around the back of the piece—


MS. VAN CLINE:—and see the back.  [They laugh.]  Anyways—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Another part of that is the inclusion of words.  The one that we were just talking about, you had the words—quite poetic words—"voyage along the curve of time."  Sometimes those seem to be the same titles, but not always, so how do the words work?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, all of my pieces are more narrative than anything else, and so I've been accused of using a lot of the same words in my titles, but I suppose it's because I'm trying—I think of pieces—I think of all my work in series, so I think of this entire body of work as a series and it's all about—basically it's a very narrative body of work, captured with photographic imagery but in a format that's very architectural and very ancient.

So a lot of the tops of the pieces look like torii gates, which are like a homage to sacred shrine.  You know, I spent five years in Japan.  So the titles and the words are—what they are is part—is more of the theater, more of the story.  For instance, I use this photosensitive sandblasting technique to put the words on the torii gate in a very repetitive, mindless way so that it repeats. 

Like it would say, "Voyage along the curve of time; along the voyage, the curve."  It isn't meant to be read as a sentence.  It's meant to be repetitive so that you just pick up the different words.  You pick up "time," you pick up "curve," you pick up "voyage," you pick up "along the voyage."  It's over and over and over again so that's what you see.  You ingest the words.  You don't read them; you ingest the spirit of the words more than anything else.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You talked, I think a few minutes ago, about the texture of the words—called it "texture."

MARY VAN CLINE: I do.  I call it verbal text.  Verbal texture text.


MARY VAN CLINE: There you go. [Laughs.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Another more recent series that we haven't mentioned in this interview, which I want to get in here because, again, it's significant, is your work with the pâte de verre human figure—female figure, often with leaves.  That's more recent.  One question is, it's quite a—seems to me quite a change from what you've done in the past, although I know you well enough to know that you don't think of it as a change. 

MARY VAN CLINE: I think of it as another series.  I believe as an artist you should leave a series behind, pick it up and develop a new series, grow with that series, then leave it behind.  And that way you move through your art through the ages of your life. 

One of the things that I have always—I believe that this is a very important series because I, for the first time, started to take the imagery in my photographs and create it three-dimensionally.  This had a lot of impact on me.  These are life-size pieces.  These are life-size castings in that—I hate to say that they're glass because nobody thinks they are.  They're ivory; they think they're marble.  They're a sugar texture of a drapery; they think that they are sugar.  They're sugar firings but they're out of glass.

So I use a lot of textures in my work and I brought that along into this series.  So a pâte de verre is very loosely used here.  It is not used in a historical sense.  The only thing you could remotely call it is that here are some castings; they're put in a plaster mold and they are fired in a kiln.  And that's it in terms of the relationship to the true definition of pâte de verre.

But I learned a lot from this series, and it's a very important series for me.  I'm in the middle of it.  When I started it, I had recently moved my studio down to a bronze foundry, an artist bronze foundry, and I took all that technology from bronze-making and I transferred it to glass.  So the figures are life castings.  They're made from real people. 

Everything about the series that is taken from the photograph is reproduced three-dimensional as a true-to-life casting.  None of it is carved.  It's all cast directly from life.  So I am now in the middle of feeling like a photographic sculptor, and that's pretty important for me because I am defining what my artwork is about.  It's about imagery.  It's about realistic imagery of a photographic nature.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I'm going to ask you a little bit about this photo—I understand your work that has photography in it, we've been talking about that a lot—and now you're saying a photographic sculptor.  And I understand that your photographs have figures—enigmatic figures in them, and it's as if the enigmatic figures come out of the photograph into reality—

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, right now—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  —but what do you mean by being a photographic sculptor?

MARY VAN CLINE: I think you would be surprised at how realistic the actual objects are.  They are so realistic they're as if they were a three-dimensional photograph.  So I pay attention to detail and intricacy to the point that I am reproducing my photographs in real life.




MARY VAN CLINE: Life-sized. 


MARY VAN CLINE: So these are big.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And many of them—most of them are wall pieces, right, bas-relief? 

MARY VAN CLINE: Up until now, but the piece I'm currently working on is eight feet by eight feet, and it's in an alcove.  So it's only a matter of time before they move out into the room.  They have a lot of depth.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Right.  And in this alcove piece, there is more than one figure, or what is with the figure that makes—

MARY VAN CLINE: It's a photograph.  I'm reproducing my own imagery.  I'm, like, I already made the art in the photograph so now I'm making the art in real life in the room.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So what would I see when I look at this?  I'd see a figure.  I'd see leaves?





MARY VAN CLINE: No, there's no—not a single leaf.


MARY VAN CLINE: One of my favorite photographs—it's the figure of a woman that has—I call her the—it's a back.  It's a figure of her back.  And she is naked down to her waist, and so you just see the back of her and part of her hip.  And then she's draped from the waist down to the floor.

Her stance is very—I would call it angst.  She's sort of slightly leaning to the side.  Her arm is extended all the way down, almost to her knees on one side, and her other arm is not visible from the back.  So, you know, from the ribcage from the back is showing— it's a very emotional stance for a human being.  She is also in—she's superimposed in a landscape that has an 800-year-old pine tree.  I'm not kidding.  This is [laughs]—I have a lot of landscapes from all over the world.  So it's moving superimposed around her and through her body and out the other side.


MARY VAN CLINE: In the photograph.  So what I'm doing is, I'm basically—I'm creating that stark imagery in real life.

So I went and took the bark off an old-growth tree that had already fallen down.  I'm simulating as close as you can get to a wind-blown [laughs] 800-year-old bark of a bonsai pine tree, right?


MARY VAN CLINE: And it's got the beautiful shape of Japanese calligraphy in landscape.


MARY VAN CLINE: That's the best way that I can describe it.  It's simplistic [sic].  It has theater, drama, emotion, and it's 3D.  But absolutely you would be able to tell that this is my—I am actually being inspired by my own photography.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Okay.  That makes a lot of sense. 

MARY VAN CLINE: Can we take a break?

[Audio Break.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Mary, I want to talk for a moment about the role that experiment with materials has played, because I think it's a big one in your career.  Is that too wide a question?  But, I mean, I'm just thinking of—


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  —all the various materials.

MARY VAN CLINE: No, no, that's a good question only because I've been in this field really long.  When I first got into it, there wasn't [sic] any books, any knowledge.  We had to figure out how to do everything, and that's what we did, is we experimented.  So along the way you invent things because it's a brand-new medium and it had just been lifted out of industry into an artist's studio.  So people had to take this material and go, wow, what's it capable of?

I believe that was my excitement about the material.  It seems like Venetians, a very long time ago, knew how to blow glass, so I never went that direction.  That had already been done.  But what is this  multi-material, cold material, broken material, transparent, opaque—what is this stuff and what can you do with it?

So I did everything but blow glass.  I tried as many different things as I possibly could to see what the material is part of, and along the way I invented things and I pioneered methods of working.  One of them, which we already have spoken about, is my work with Kodak, and inventing a way of introducing photographs on glass—photo-sensitive glass.  A huge question about what actually photo-sensitive glass is, but we've already talked a little bit about that.  And I suppose one thing I always—I think I would like to make it known, is that there is a lot of talk about—a loosely used term that we even just loosely used, called pâte de verre.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Which we talked about, and actually, you were correcting me about that.

MARY VAN CLINE: Right, it's not a historical—the historical definition of pâte de verre is quite different than what the field of contemporary glass loosely uses the term called pâte de verre.  I probably experimented with that in 1978 and the third piece of glass I ever did—I still have it—it's called Japanese Footbridge.  So my version of the ongoing vague term "pâte de verre" is more like capturing sugar  and freezing it in mid-air in a shape, in a form. 

In fact, in 1978, I can remember taking plate glass, beating it with a hammer, hitting it into tiny little pieces so that it would be like chunks of tiny, tiny—like rock sugar and even finer—heating it up, throwing water on it to make what now people call frit, and then even going out onto the street,  and I knew they used to sandblast buildings with glass beads—taking and shoveling that glass into buckets and putting it into plaster molds and trying to figure out what temperature it would actually melt at.  And making these forms out of Styrofoam, pulling them out of a plaster mold, throwing this configurations of glass sugar and doing a visual firing of watching the glass sugar drop and then freezing the action by opening up the kiln and stopping it and then annealing it with slow cooling.  So it would actually show the movement of the heat affecting all of the glass sugar.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Right.  Just as an aside, but I'm thinking of some of the recent work, the ice branches and some of the leaf forms you've done that look sugary but they also look like ice crystals that have just been captured in a moment of freezing.

MARY VAN CLINE: Those are different particle sizes of glass, really put together in a way to capture exactly ice on a branch and what it looks like. They're all white, very powdery, snowy.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Yes they're beautiful.

MARY VAN CLINE: They look like they're melting.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Right.  So here is a good point for me to ask you:  What is it about glass?  I think you've used the words, and you've probably, in some of the words you've used you've probably indicated what it is that appeals to you.

MARY VAN CLINE: I think it, early on, was an incredibly exciting material.  I always believe in justifying materials, so once I started using photography with glass, it justifies itself because if I wanted to get into photography, in a very traditional way, I would have printed on paper.  I've never printed on paper.  I've only printed on or used glass in—photography in glass, printed into glass, captured my negatives into glass through many different photographic methods, some of which I invented.  And I've used industry in different ways.

I guess I'm not answering your question about "Why glass?"  You know, it has such variety.  It is something that you can manipulate in so many different ways that it feels endless.


MARY VAN CLINE: It honestly—I have not found a way to stop experimenting with it in terms of adding to the concept—because I am not about technique, but I'm more about concept.  But in searching for all these techniques to accompany my concept, I have stumbled into industries, because the pieces are getting quite large.  I should say here and now that of the two major industries that I've used in the United States, I've had great success—Kodak being one early on from the '70s on until very recent, and then for about a decade now, DuPont [E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, Wilmington, DE].

And I truly believe that I am one of the only artists DuPont has ever allowed into their inner sanctum, and it's pretty exciting to utilize an American industry like that purely for creative sake.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Right.  Well, one of the things that I know you've talked to me about glass—it strikes me that glass holds exceptional value for you because of its translucency.  Actually, you've talked about theater in the round and that glass can contain things.  You can look into it and through it. 

And, in fact, I'm moving into another question that we've talked about in the past,—you're talking about moving out of the discrete piece and into installations and working in images in the air, which also seems that it relates to glass to me.

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, how it relates to glass is that it's invisible. 


MARY VAN CLINE: So, if you were to take a photograph and take away all the paper, you would see straight through it, and the only thing that would hold the image would be the darker parts of the photograph, but the rest of it would be completely gone, invisible.  So it's a natural link to think about projecting images into thin air.

So—do you want to talk about those?  Because I might get to do more of them [laughs] if we keep talking about them.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, just give us like a couple of sentences if you can.

MARY VAN CLINE: I have proposals on the table currently right now to create a drama—night-time dramas of my own personal narrative stories, and they would be projecting images into thin air, into the public domain, into architecture, utilizing the faces of architecture in creating my own personal cinema.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Like the façades of architecture, do you mean?  When you say "the faces"—

MARY VAN CLINE: Sometimes the façade, sometimes reflecting into cubes of the architecture.  You know, it's fairly limitless but it's all about using intelligent computer lighting systems very much dialed into computers.  It's completely away from tangible substances.  It's not video.  It's more like Butoh theater and watching an image grow over the course of a season of time, day to day. Come back and the image has grown just a little bit more the next day.

MARY VAN CLINE: Okay.  Fascinating.  Those are wonderful ideas.  As you say, you have some proposals out at the moment.  What a pity we can't add to this interview in a year's time maybe, and see what's happened to them. 

[Audio Break.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, as we were just talking about your art and the content and it moving through transparency and almost disappearing, I was thinking about so much of your art [that] seems to have an Asian, a Japanese influence.  You've lived in Japan.  You've talked a lot about Butoh theater.

And I was thinking about influences on your art.  I mean, clearly the Japanese aesthetic is one very strong influence.  You've talked about theater.  You've talked about a photographic way of seeing other individual artists or photographers who have influenced you.  Are there other things that we haven't mentioned that have come to bear on how you've made art and have influenced your thinking?

MARY VAN CLINE: I suppose that I don't look at a lot of art in a way that influences me.  I'm very appreciative of the huge amount of talented people in the world but it doesn't—I don't think it directly influences me in any noticeable way, so it's always a hard question to answer, if you're influenced by the work of other artists.  I would say, probably not so much.


MARY VAN CLINE: I think I'm too involved with my own personal drama.  [They laugh.]  How's that?

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  That is fabulous, because it leads me into another question.


PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And you might actually guess what the question is going to be because the world of personal drama and the serenity of the pieces that you make mean—we've talked about timelessness, you've talked about peacefulness, and I have to use the word "serenity." [… –PGW]

But, knowing you as well as I do, I would say that as a person—we're getting personal here—but as a person, you're not what I would characterize as a serene person, at least in your public aspect.  So where does this serenity come from?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, you're right that I'm not serene [laughs]—not in this life, anyways.  I think part of that is that an artist's life is always very dramatic and survival-oriented.  You know, you struggle to maintain a small business and an integrity of what you're trying to spend so many hours in trying to accomplish.  So it's high drama on the high seas. 

That being said, I do suppose that a lot of the imagery in my work is quite calm and has a lot of space in it, has a lot of—I would call it—it's influenced by my ongoing concept of—we've said this many times—healing through the passage of time.  If you just take those four words, like, "healing through passage of time"—five—you take those five words and then you translate it into a visual imagery, that's why it looks serene.  [They laugh.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And is it healing, if I may ask, for you but aspiring also to be healing for others?

MARY VAN CLINE: That's a good question.  I don't assume that I can tell you how my artwork affects other people.  I can just say that I'm very appreciative of a visual calm myself.  I'm very appreciative of a sense of visual calm, and if I am, I'm sure there's others that are that way too.  It seems—it's not a sense of orderliness.  That is nothing to do with it. 

It's a sense of simplicity; visual simplicity; visual simplicity through space, and an arrangement.  That could be the true nature of why you read Asian or a Japanese influence. Because simplicity and calmness, that kind of spatial arrangement, it is very calming, is very serene.  So that is impactful.  So maybe one of these days it will affect my personality.  [They laugh.]

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I wouldn't recognize you.  [They laugh.]  

Okay, let's talk about you.  Let's talk about you as an artist and what your life as an artist has been like. 

MARY VAN CLINE: Very enjoyable.  Here is what I get to do:  I wake up in the morning and I get to choose to make my own mistakes.  Who else can say that?  You know, I cannot blame a single other person in the world for anything that I've done in my entire life.  I've had complete control over my time, my mistakes [laughs], my finances.

The things that are out of my control are, of course, the nature of life and what is thrown at you, but I have never worked for anyone, ever.  I've always worked in being—in a creative profession, mainly making my own art my whole life.  It's an unusual way to live because there is only you that's going to make it work.  You are responsible for it in so many ways.  So it's fairly dramatic.  The life of the self-employed, you work more hours and focus more than you would if you had a normal boss or nine-to-five job but you get to control your time.


MARY VAN CLINE: That's really important for me.


MARY VAN CLINE: At an early, early age I noticed that if you couldn't control your day, your actual—how you chose to spend your day—because most of our life is involved in working, so if you couldn't control that or have some reasonable sense of how you wanted to spend that enormous chunk of your life—it was probably about the most important thing that I realized, and quite early.  I can remember thinking about it when I was like 10 or 11.


MARY VAN CLINE: Absolutely.  I decided to become an artist—I didn't decide to become an artist; I was born an artist. I never had a chance to be anything else but.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Right.  There are many artists who fall back on—let's just say on teaching, you know, as a career, and I know you've taught and we can talk—from time to time, but there are many artists who maybe teach at a university in an art department.  Has that ever crossed your mind?

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, it's crossed my opportunity list.  I have, during the course of my entire career, and the fact that I am a woman, and, the field of art actually has some pretty powerful women artists, in it that they—not as many as the other gender, and it's a little harder for women to stay in a field of art.  They're often caught up in other aspects of their life that are offered to them.  They get married, they have kids, and they fall into another path. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So has that been something that you've—

MARY VAN CLINE: Well, let me answer your first question about the teaching thing.  I suppose I've had a lot of opportunity to go into the world of academia.  I've been offered positions that I, in no way, should have turned down.  [Laughs.]


MARY VAN CLINE: From probably a responsibility to my field, the money, and sort of the reputation of what that would mean.  So I have turned down quite a bit of teaching opportunities as a career. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Right, but you have—

MARY VAN CLINE: But I have taught, for sure, on a temporary basis, many times, many different ways, in many different situations, and I almost—I think it's actually really important to transfer that experience, at this age for sure, to give back.  I think it's really important.  So I pick and choose the occasions but I am really mostly—I spend most of my day, in my world, making art.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  So what about the pressures to sell art?  What about—if you don't have the funding, the financial support of an academic position, which so many people do, what has it meant to you, the need to sell?  Because I'm assuming, for the record's sake, that you don't have independent means. 

MARY VAN CLINE: No, we should go on record that I'm not a trust fund—


MS. VAN CLINE:—benefited from any inheritance or—no.  So I've pretty much made my own way.  I feel I've been really lucky. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Now, at one point there was something I wrote down that was like a quote of yours, so I'm going to quote it back at you.  You said that "There's an enormous pressure from the art market.  It's like turning out a hit record with every piece, creating a top-10 work every single day.  You have to keep reinventing yourself every day and being the biggest and the best."

MARY VAN CLINE: That is really true.  I absolutely think—did I say that?  That's pretty good.


MARY VAN CLINE: It is.  It is like turning out a hit record.  You have to keep topping yourself.  So you have to keep at the top of your field, the top of the collector's mind.  And there is an enormous pressure to reinvent yourself every single time and do a better job, but—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Now the question I have—

MARY VAN CLINE: But saying that—okay, go ahead.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, the question I have is that the top of your field in your mind, is that the same as the top of your field in a collector's mind?

MARY VAN CLINE: I'm not sure I understand.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, maybe it's too difficult—I mean, maybe it's too difficult, the collector, because you can push yourself, as you do.  Does that work necessarily sell?

MARY VAN CLINE: Okay, this is the point I was trying to make.  Okay, so here you are.  You are not funded in any other way except that you have to make art—


MS. VAN CLINE:—and sell it.  Now you think, oh, gee, let's see; I sold that piece; should I make another one of those?  And then you have someone like me who can't stand to make anything more than once, so I keep killing off the possibility of making repetitive financial success and try to do the most challenging things, reinvent something, invent something else, find a new, more challenging project and grow as an artist.

The point of this also is that the art world is one element; the artist's world is another element.  They don't necessarily integrate in finances very well.  If your artist world is too influenced by the business of the art world, it's not going to work out.  Let me explain.  If you try to make something to sell, in my experience, it doesn't.  It's the biggest, worst thing you've made. 

I've only tried, maybe once or twice in 35 years, to make something to sell, and those ended up in the garbage.  So if I could communicate anything—and I do this, actually, if I ever do teach—is that the best thing you could possibly do is stay true to yourself.  It's like a mantra—stay true to yourself.  Stay true to yourself, and your art will grow, develop, mature, become the reflection of what you are.  And then it's the job of the art world—business art world—to come to the artist's world and say, hey, this is good; this is going to work.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I absolutely hear what you're saying and that's really very important.  I think, though, you, for an artist, have a lot of contact with the art world, maybe more—because you have maybe several galleries that show your work.  You have a lot of direct contact with collectors, and I think, more than many artists, you're pretty savvy or worldly.  I don't mean it influences your work, but you're pretty worldly about the world of collectors and working with them.

MARY VAN CLINE: And so, your question—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, my question is, is that so?  Do you think that's more than most artists?

MARY VAN CLINE: But still, what is the question?

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  The question is, do you enjoy working with collectors?

MARY VAN CLINE: I don't work with collectors.  They have their life; I have mine.  We actually become—we know of each other through mutual appreciation of art, but—I think it's really interesting to meet people who are appreciative of any type of creative form of art.  So I am attracted to meeting those people in the world. 

I would much rather sit down at a conversation with someone, of course, and talk to them about some creative inspiration of something they either saw—mine or anyone else's—rather than talking about accounting.  [Laughs.]  And where did these people come from?  Just because they aren't actually making objects doesn't mean that they aren't intelligent people.  But I don't work with them. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, what I'm calling "work" is you have collectors in your studio; you're talking about prices; they look at work; they sometimes commission your work. 

MARY VAN CLINE: I actually—I meet collectors—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And this is not to say that you avoid galleries.

MARY VAN CLINE: I meet collectors through my galleries, and I have, through the years, had an enormous amount of galleries.  But, like I was saying, the business of galleries, they come and go.  I think in the '80s I had probably 18 galleries in Europe.  Not a single one of them have survived in this century.  That's unfortunate.  But the artists stay.  The art galleries come and go. 


Let's talk a bit about the business of being an artist because it's not necessarily known to everybody in the world that you have a business.  You have employees.  You have a studio to maintain.  You travel to do commissions.  So you have to be businessperson as well, I think.

MARY VAN CLINE: [Laughs.]  Right.  So then that's a misnomer—right?  Because people who are creative aren't necessarily good in business.  But I think you learn.  I wouldn't say that that's something that I'm great at.  And that's the benefit of people who are your business managers and your galleries and representatives and things like that.

But, you know, honest to God, if you're going to want to make money, don't go into the arts.  [Laughs.]  It's not what anyone else expects for you to succeed.  However, with that being said, I've been extremely fortunate and quite successful financially in ways that I would never have dreamed, ever.  I feel lucky that I found something that I can do creative and express myself and control my time and live my life, get up every day and actually be supported by it in a business world called the art world.  But I never would have dreamed that I would have gotten this far or made the money that I've made, and thank God that I have, because I don't know—I couldn't have done anything else.

I never would have been able to work for anybody.  I never would have been able to work for a soul.  I have way too many feelings about what I should be doing with my life, and it's not working for someone else in a meaningless job.  So I'm blessed, in many ways, that I've stumbled into an almost 35-year career of being able to support myself financially. 

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You've also, I know, attributed some of your support to your mum and to your family and to—

MARY VAN CLINE: Oh, yes.  My father and my mother and my brother—every year is different, whether you're doing well financially or not.  The economy affects you, so there's good years, there's bad years, but the constant has been the best that you could hope for:  A supportive family that would be there for you in many ways that—I can't even tell you.  I would not be here if I had not had that type of support.  Really, interest—they've been to every single one of my openings.  There is not anything that they have—you know, this is—I am—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, I've seen your mum actually getting her hands dirty helping you make molds when she's actually supposed to be visiting her daughter and she gets roped in a lot longer [than] your other studio assistant, right?

MARY VAN CLINE: Yes.  We use it all—my brother's in my photographs.

You know, we're a very close-knit family and very supportive of everyone in the family's endeavors.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And your dad was a musician so he's also somebody who has moved—

MARY VAN CLINE: Yes.  My dad and my grandfather were both jazz musicians.  My dad was a jazz trumpet player.  My grandfather had a traveling jazz band in the '20s.  My family owned a music store, the first one in Dallas.  You know, my mom is a creative life force in her own way.  She had me standing on my head at the age of 10 doing headstands for yoga.  [They laugh.]  I mean, she's a forward-thinker. This is like, what, 1950-something and we're doing headstands, in Dallas, Texas. 


MARY VAN CLINE: So, anyways.  Like I said, I had no family role model to go to work for anyone except for myself—be self-employed, create your own life, make your own mistakes, and benefit from your creative mind.


MARY VAN CLINE: And so here we are.  I think there's one thing, Patricia, that I wanted to make sure that I said.


MARY VAN CLINE: This might be a good time to talk about it.  I suppose if we're getting close to the end of—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  I've got sort of one thing I want to ask, but go ahead.  We've plenty of space.

MARY VAN CLINE: What's your question?

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  You want to know mine first?

MARY VAN CLINE: Sure.  Go ahead.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, I wanted to ask about recognition that you've received and who has written about you and who you've appreciated most who's written about you.  But we can go there or would you like to—

MARY VAN CLINE: No, I think I do—we're here and now on this recording for the Smithsonian National Archives [Smithsonian Institution Archives] because of a dear friend who we both know and cherished.  I felt he was very supportive of my career while he was alive, and I think he's watching out for us—

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Do you want to say his name?

MS. VAN CLINE:—in his own way after he passed.  Dan Klein is a brilliant critic—art critic—curator, literary genius, and we're going to basically tribute this, both of us—I know, Patricia, you and I—to him.


MARY VAN CLINE: This is in his memory.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  It would have been he who was interviewing you, who had this idea in the first place.  But I know that you were very touched by his willingness—by what he had written about you in the past and his willingness to do this.  I know he probably stands head and shoulders above other people who have written about you—

MARY VAN CLINE: I think that's about all—that's who I would like to mention.


MARY VAN CLINE: But since we're running out of time, I'm going to leave you with one note. 


MARY VAN CLINE: And it's a good place to end the interview on.  And I suppose—[Pauses. Leafs through papers.] Ah, here we go.  Okay, sorry.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  And would you want to give us a context?

MARY VAN CLINE: No, we're running out of time, so this is it.  "The mind proposes and the mind has to educate to be able to fabricate."  And on that note, thank you so much, Patricia, for all of the time and energy and the many recordings and hours that you have contributed.

PATRICIA GRIEVE WATKINSON:  Well, thank you, Mary, for your patience, too.  I think this has both been a challenge for us—fun too, but also especially a technological challenge.  So we hope the technology is up to the brilliance of these two people talking to it.  Thank you and we'll close here.


How to Use This Collection

Transcript is available on the Archives of American Art's website.

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Mary Van Cline, 2009 December 6-2010 March 30. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.