Wednesday, March 5, 2008


(Tree sculpture by Mara Smith, Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas)

Over 3000 years ago, in Sumer (Mesopotamia), human beings developed the first form of writing by pressing marks into wet clay to keep track of goods. Numbers led to letters, and written language helped create what we called civilization.

The Sumerians used clay for tablets because it was easy to come by. They were extremely adept at working wet clay, and adorned their walls with sculpture, friezes carved into the brick before firing. This ancient art all but died out last century. There are now a handful of artists in the United States who can do this kind of sculpture, who are bringing it back to prominence. One of them is Mara Smith of Seattle, internationally known for her brick carving. She's my oldest friend, and I'm honored to say I knew her when.

[NOTE: An additional "musing" has been added by Mara, at the end of this post. Also, I have a prior post about Mara at this blog, a section of Ginny Bates, my novel, where fictional Ginny meets real-life Mara in Seattle, found at Meeting Mara.]

(Mara Smith carving her current work-in-progress, Cloud County Historical Society’s Whole Wall Project, Concordia, Kansas)

In the article Brick Sculpture Scores, Elizabeth Keating says "Brick sculptors fashion green brick into as many different images as there are techniques for sculpting. They work with handmade and machine-made brick to create a sculpture. They work beneath (intaglio) or above the surface. They add color and dimension with glazes and textures. They introduce other materials, such as brass and gold, to accentuate the natural beauty of brick and draw attention to its flexibility. They are limited by one thing only--imagination."

(Gecko, now at the Reptile House of Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois, by Mara Smith and Kris King)

To create a sculpture, the artist must go to where the brick is made. The green (unfired) brick is kept wet, laid out on the ground or stacked in a frame with space left for where the mortar will go. For days, weeks, sometimes months, Mara will transfer what's in her mind to a three-dimensional reality in the wet clay, using whatever tool seems best. When it is done, all of the bricks are removed one by one, numbered on the back, fired, and the image is reconstructed -- hopefully without loss of bricks. It is cleaned and fitted again, then disassembled and shipped to wherever it will live as earth made into art. Mara follows it, and with a mason, she puts it together a final time, gluing it into a whole with mortar.

(Llama, pig, cow and horse details from larger panel by Mara Smith on the Oregon State University Veterinary Building, Corvallis, Oregon)

It's hard work, dirty, physically demanding, with much exposure to the elements. It's also glorious. Here's what Mara wrote me about it:

"When my knife first touched the raw clay it was as though I had always done it. Seems to always be intertwined with some heavy moving and a lot of history.

"The clay is the book where I have found my own history....the story of an end of a civilization and beginning of another. I don't always like to read it..sometimes I'm sure I will not ever again. Yet, it is the study I am bound to. I often consider it like archeology, done with tiny knives and a shovel. Up close, I have smelled the eons of shale of millions of years and the fossils of roses clutched yet in the clay. I walked ancient and gigantic tracks (once with you) and left mine in the shallow seabed of this ancient plain."

(Heron fishing by Mara Smith)

At the time I first met Mara, I knew her as a potter and a painter -- extremely good at both. Since I was 19 years old, I've had her work hanging in my house wherever I've lived. But in 1977, the same year and season I moved away from Denton, the town where we both lived, Mara was chosen to create the brick murals adorning the outside of a fabulous new hotel in Dallas, the Anatole. This catapulted her into fame, and the career she's followed since. Here's her story of how it happened:

"The search committee, which included Hubert Capps & Mark Olson? (reps of Acme Brick/ Denton) sought artists for a brick sculpture commission. Before this,TWU students had experimented with a few sculpture pieces fired at the Denton Acme plant in the past...(the firemen threw out the samples at the brick company because they thought they were just chewed up pieces that caught in their machinery).

"So, Acme asked my ceramics professor, John Brough Miller, if he might be interested in applying for the project. He indicated he had a job and suggested I go down to put in a proposal. I was in the middle of my MFA studies at the time. Of course, keep in mind Dallas is conservative etc. he said.

(Woman surveying vista, by Mara Smith, Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas)

"I went down to the Dallas World Trade Center to view their hotel model and asked them the name of the seven various restaurants to be included. Most of them had exotic names like Xanadu. Another commission included very long 50' Indian batik banners to hang inside the atrium. The ambiance was turning cross cultural ie. mythological! I drew up several ideas I matted behind a bricked clear plastic window. I could interchange the sketches in the arched matt for an elegant presentation.

"On 7/7/1977 I went down to the Dallas World Trade Center to make my presentation. Surprisingly, a couple former students (well known sculptors in their own right) had teamed up to do a presentation also. I was able to overhear their talk. I consequently based my own fee on some close adaptation.

"At some point in the meeting, Trammell Crow let it be known his wife had dreamed a name for the Hotel the night before...The Anatole...meaning of the east. Another name they had earlier mulled over was The Metropole. At once, hearing that word Anatole, was enough to make me feel confident I had the project. Anatolia is the ancient Amazon Kingdom of Turkey...a point seemingly beyond anyone's attention but mine....even though I recall trying to humorously interject several comments to that effect.

"But that word Anatole keyed me and my world of interest in mythology to the project. My view point, of course.The genre was set and I, the anachronist artist, knew I had the project. Indeed, I did. Not even a need for bamboozle. The project was simply the tangent where two world views intersected as the architectural wonder called the Anatole Hotel.

"Now Trammell Crow himself was reputed to have a very mystical bent... although in those days his articulating how that might be translated into art was enough to give us all a brain fog. He was an avid collector of world and Asian art, much of which would be showcased in the atria of the hotel. I was blissfully unaware that Trammell was considered the largest landowner in the US. I was simply thrilled to be a working artist.

"At the same time I had applied and got a teaching position (jewelry) with the Dallas Arts Magnet School. Once I was notified I had the brick commission, I let the school system know I was going with that direction. I never looked back.

"The boxy brick citadel of the Anatole Hotel is beset of seven stories of glass pyramid aligned on a North/South axis. The head of our art departmentt laughed at the design of the hotel....something Capt Nemo might keep his sub in. It was a very unusual architectural feature for Dallas at the time. I loved it...the ancient world was blooming fresh in my own time!"

(Desert spirit sculpture by Mara Smith, Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas)

Mara has been a featured artist in Home & Garden TV's Master Artist series. She appears in Placemakers: Creating Public Art That Tells You Where You Are by Ronald Lee Fleming and in the Seattle Arts Commission's Field Guide to Seattle's Public Art, among other publications. She is considered a pioneer of modern brick sculpture by the Brick Industry Association and has carved over 25,000 square feet of brick in her 30 year career.

(Haida frog carving by Mara Smith)

I asked Mara to tell me how she came to art as a life's work. She replied:

"My father enthralled my childhood with tales about his mother Annie Belle. In fact, I was named for her. For me, she was a Texas legend like Pecos Bill and Slew-foot Sue. She wrote verse and did illustrations (I never saw any of the pictures); she was also a crack shot)..a composition book of her poems I have still have and cherish.

"My father would draw model T cars and fish on paper sacks for me when I was little...I would doodle on them and try to copy some of the fish. I impressed myself learning to draw a horse when I was about five. My mother thought it would be a great idea to have an artist in the family (don't know what inspired her on that one, maybe my father's tales about his mother)... I guess I thought artist was a position in the family like aunt or sister. Neither parent had any implication of the consequences of conceiving a child on All Hallow's Eve (which ties in here as the greater impetus).

"My father, Parker, was the youngest scion of many generations of frontier doctors. Annie Belle had met and married the future Dr. C.O. Smith in Sutherland,Texas just east of San Antonio. The town itself was named for Dr. Sutherland (tales of the Alamo). Supposedly,we're related. Two of Pop's brothers, Weston and Olive Sinclair were named after close doctor friends. However, Dr. C.O. suffered an untimely demise on 7/4/1918 leaving Annie Belle a widow with a young son. By the time I entered the picture, our family had surfaced in the side eddies of society where those left behind have to endure. Shortly after the Great War, Texas was still a lot of frontier in any sense of the word. It was there I entered the wheel of time.

"Somehow my youth was an encouragement for my father to enliven me with tales of his frontier folks and travels in the West. He had a knack for making poverty seem like a hunting party.

"And he had a penchant for self medication while encouraging me to read science books on trees, plants, snakes, animals, and diseases...for him it resulted in home brew, for me a lifelong interest in natural herbs and medicines and somehow the shamanistic ambiance inherent in their study. Did I forget to mention my father and grandfather were freemasons?

"I got all this mystical stuff blended up in me before I knew how or when. I'm overlain with a fine patina of Southern Baptist which finally wore off in the long rain of feminism. It got all translated as art...which for me is somehow shamanism. It's what I do...sometimes it's bead work or jewelry, sometimes bamboo, sometimes/a lot of times brick.

(Ganesha shaped in glass by Mara Smith, converted to garden water fountain)

"My favorite art always seem to be dug out of some ruin somewhere..a tile, a sculpture, a gigantic urn, a fresco of intense colors of people and beasts and lords of the heavens, an eccentric flint of the smoking god, women leaping the backs of bulls, all very Sirius. My own works are primitive next to the magnificent imagery yet encased in the layers of our earth. I am some kind of aborigine here and everyday I swear a coke bottle is falling out of the sky to wonder over!"

(City gate for Newcastle, Washington, carved by Mara Smith)

Mara's art can be found in the following locations:
Hotel Anatole, Dallas, Texas
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois
Seoul, Korea (Dragonhill Hotel atrium)
Van Nuys, California (Milken Community Center)
Lexington, Kentucky (Meade County Bank)
Reading, Pennsylvania (Meridian Bank & Trust)
Lynnwood, Washington (Civic Justice Center)
Mesa, Arizona (Arizona Historical Society Museum)
San Mateo, California (Nordstrom Mall entry)
Wymore, Nebraska (St. Peter's Lutheran Church)
Corvallis, Oregon (Oregon State University Veterinary Building)
Mansfield, Texas (Independent School District administration building)
Stephenville, Texas (Tarleton State University student center)
Spokane, Washington (Veteran's Memorial, Greenwood Cemetery)
Mutual Materials, Parkland Branch (commercial entry)
Newcastle, Washington (city gateway)
Tukwila, Washington (city gateway)
Coos Bay, Oregon (bank)
Bend, Oregon (city hall)
Shelton, Washington (clock tower)
Buffalo Grove, Illinois (shopping mall entry)
Bellingham, Washington (fire station entry)
Kalispell, Montana (private residence)
Ocala, Florida (horse farm gate)
Redding, California (private residence)
Bellevue, Washington (outdoor kitchen)
Issaquah, Washington (Street of Dreams)
Eastern Washington (deer preserve outdoor barbecue)
Wenatchee, Washington (apple orchard wall)
Benton, Washington (private fireplace)
Bainbridge Island, Washington (development entry)
Mill Creek, Washington (Swan Lake development)

Currently she's about to head back to Concordia, Kansas for a project for the Cloud County Historical Society (article about it is here, photos are below). To contact Mara, write her care of Architectural Murals in Brick, 339 N.W. 82nd, Seattle, WA 98117 or call 206-789-2838.

(Current work-in-progress, side view of Cloud County Historical Society’s Whole Wall Project, Concordia, Kansas)

(Mouse tucked into the end of a brick, Cloud County Historical Society’s Whole Wall Project, Concordia, Kansas)

UPDATE -- "Aboriginal" Mara dropped me a note this morning with additional musing on art:

"I transitioned from pottery to brick on the day I received my first brick commission for the Anatole Hotel. It's the same medium, just bigger tools and more tonnage. It's easy for me to use the brick as a grid system...I can take a one page sketch and blow it up in my, by folding the sketch up in parts and fencing off the areas to carve into their sections, I can easily sort out the sculpture.

"Brick is modular. Broken pieces are easy to replace. The art can be any size from a single brick to miles of brick, if any would spring for the commission. It can be shipped nationwide on regular trucking, no special sized hauler needed. Carving in brick suits itself to any style from pure geometric abstraction, to folk art, historical or thematic representations, to even simply crude or children's expressions.

"Brick is good will last hundreds of years. In fact, long after we are all dust, civilizations in the future are most likely to recover information about our days and times from pieces of clay, brick, tiles, stone, or glass. Seeing the ancient monuments carved in brick were a large inspiration for me. Brick ornamentation is one of the oldest forms of sculpture on the planet. I had no clue carving brick was available as an artform when I applied for the Anatole commission. I had seen the carved gates of Babylon in history books...that I could carve in the same medium was not even in the realm of imagination until that day....

"Maybe a dozen people carve brick full time in the United States, maybe a few dozen more on some part time basis. This has been the same for nearly thirty years since I began carving brick. Few, if any of brick sculptors today are less than 50 years old...maybe a good dozen brick plants, to be generous, facilitate the art in the US today.

"Of all the art I like the least is art theory sold as art. Second to that is really bad tourist crafts sold as art...but at least,it was some poor smuck trying to make a living....

"My advice for young artists: study every art technique you can and yes, I know, computers are a great medium. I love them. But long after the virtual works poof back into their various photons, art actually created will continue forever. Study comparative anatomy, botany, chemistry, geology, literature, writing techniques, and the ever necessary business and budgets of money. One needs money to buy enough supplies to keep being creative! Best of all, remember art is a rarity, yet the necessary glue and polish that keeps the human condition civilized. It takes an artist's courage to live on imagination and leap year after year into the unknown."

(Mara Smith, left, and Catharine Magel, artists of the Concordia, Kansas brick carving project currently under way)


kat said...

The pieces are really interesting. I think the tree is the most breathtaking for me, though.

I have to admit to never having heard of brick carving before reading Ginny Bates. Was it a recognized sculpture medium, or did she "invent" (for lack of a better word) the technique?

Liza Cowan said...


letsdance said...

Wow! Mara is a great artist.

Maggie Jochild said...

Brick carving is ancient, but how Mara does it includes unique modern adaptation. Like electric drills with special bits to make those spiral holes forming the leaves of the trees. She comes from innovative East Texas folks, who made do or did without. Her people and my people are so alike, we've been trying to find the link where we are related (we both do genealogy) but so far, it's just sharing a culture, not genes.

Mara and I are blood sisters. She, I and a third friend, Jean, are all Leos (Mara's born last of July, me August 5) and we had a ceremony on the shores of Lake Dallas one night in early August 1977 to mix our blood. I was in charge of bringing "the words", Jean was supposed to bring the knife, and Mara, a beekeeper, brought mead and a chalice to drink it from. Jean was a vegetarian, and the knife she presented was dull beyond description. Mara didn't have her whetstone handy, and after trying to get the blade usable for a while (I have a vivid memory of her cursing in the darkness over the sound of metal rasping on a rock she'd picked up), Jean and I decided to use the point on a women's liberation pin I was wearing (ubiquitous attire for me in those days) to prick our fingers and produce blood in that manner. Mara, however, scoffed at such wimpy means. She began sawing on her wrist with the still-dull knife, her face screwed up in a combination of pain and intent. She finally chewed out a wedge of flesh. We had lots and lots of blood after that.

Here's another favorite memory of Mara: That same summer, earlier, I had a NOW meeting at my apartment, which was a small student complex on the edge of the IOOF Cemetery in central Denton. Mara arrived late, calling me to the door. She lived on land outside of town, and on the way in, a rabbit had run in front of her little red Toyota pickup and been killed. Mara was raised to not waste anything, and rabbit was good eating, so she wanted to skin it while it was still usable meat and fur.

I went into my kitchen, got a few knives (none of which passed muster, but I had a whetstone as well) and gave them to her, along with some foil. She excused herself from our friends at the meeting but didn't explain what was going on, and neither did I -- just the transfer of knives and Mara vanishing back downstairs.

The other women there were all middle-class, most of them were straight and affiliated with the university, and too polite to pry. They were deathly curious, I found out later. We went on with the meeting. Some time later, Mara knocked again. When I answered the door, she stood there with hands bloody up to her elbows, my knives clutched in one fist and a cat-shaped carcass wrapped in foil in her other hand.

I led her to my bathroom to clean up, bringing the rabbit to my freezer. When I got back the living room, one woman left in extreme distress and the rest were pale and mute. Even when I explained what had happened to them, some of them were not "okay" with it. But as Mara said, what was she supposed to do, leave the body beside the road to rot? She got a nice rabbit skin from it, I remember.

Ginny, of course, recognized not just the singularity of Mara's art but the kind of hands that could produce such work -- a sister in every sense of the word.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know the name of the cemetery in Illinois where Mara Smith did four pieces of work called the Stations of the Cross in 1985..

Can anyone help me?


QUEEN OF HEAVEN CEMETERY, 1986 Christ the King Mausoleum, Hillside, IL