Artist spotlight on Mary Lum

Workers curator Susan Cross provides this introduction to an interview that our intern Kathryn Amato did with Mary Lum.

Continuing our artist spotlight series, we are focusing on  the work of North Adams-based Mary Lum, who is featured in the current exhibition The Workers. A 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Lum earned her M.F.A. at Rochester Institute of Technology. Represented by Joseph Carroll and Sons, Boston and Fredereicke Taylor, New York. she has exhibited both nationally and internationally. Lum has been faculty  at Bennington College since 2005.

Invited to create a new piece for The Workers Lum was inspired both by the history of the former manufacturing site and her own interest in labor, a theme which the artist has explored in a number of previous works.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor features an assemblage of hand-torn paper bag fragments which the artist has been collecting for nearly two decades. Each of the pieces – torn from a multitude of bag bottoms — is stamped  with the name of the individual who made the bag or oversaw its production and quality on the assembly line.   A detail easy to miss, each name reminds us of the human element behind industrialized production and the objects we use on a daily basis.

Lum installed a neat band of the bag fragments in brown and white along two walls of the gallery.  The artist has likened the image of these names travelling across the building to a march of workers entering or exiting the factory.  Lum painted the walls in distinct beige, gray and off-white sections with a bright red band standing out against the more industrial colors.  This bold, abstract element of the installation is a nod to Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko’s Worker’s Club from 1925 and her own call for workers to unite.

The group of names wraps around the corner of the room and eventually is transformed into a band of text. Lum often incorporates language and literature in her practice.  For the installation at MASS MoCA, she has composed a fictional passage about work cobbled together from a number of excerpts from existing text by Don Delillo, Elizabeth Graver, Graham Greene and others.   These voices provide another, more intimate – albeit fictionalized – view into the life of the worker.

In conjunction with her work in the gallery, Lum has also designed a billboard located on Route 8 in North Adams.

For this artist spotlight,  we asked Lum to tell us more about the works and her working process in her own words.

Intern Kathryn Amato asked Lum these questions:

MASS MoCA:        I understand that you first noticed the names stamped on the bottom of the paper bags during a simple, everyday transaction -purchasing a cup of coffee. What inspired you to start collecting the bags?  How long have you been collecting them?

Mary Lum:      I’ve been collecting the names from the bottom of paper bags for twenty years, maybe more.  I can’t remember exactly when I began the collection.  I’ve always loved ephemeral printed matter, bits of paper, train tickets, receipts, found photographs, newspapers of all sorts.  I have many collections, which grow and shrink according to passing interests.  I thought the names on the bags were especially charged, evoking both history and memory, as well as commenting on the relative anonymity of factory work.

MM:    Have you ever visited the factories where the bags were produced, such as the plant in Elizabeth, New, Jersey? And if so, did you ever meet any of the people whose names  you have collected and who presumably might still be employed there?

ML:      No, for me the project is not about meeting the people or seeing the factory, though that would certainly be interesting.  Since some of the bags were printed in 2011, it is likely that many of the people named are still making them.  My project is much more abstract than that, I’m interested in the idea of the names being printed.  The idea that a human being is taking responsibility for the acts of a machine, and the double purpose of being named, pride and quality control.  I’m not so interested in the individual personalities that stand behind the names.  I did research the history of the paper bag folding machine, which is fascinating.

MM:    As you have been collecting the paper bags over many years, did the concept of your artwork change over time? Did it develop into something new?

ML:      Actually I don’t think of my collections as works of art.  I just collect things. When Susan Cross and I began talking about which one of my collections (many of which are rooted in labor) could be presented cogently in an installation I chose the paper bag names.  It seemed to me that the names could be presented in an abstract form, yet retain their literal meaning. Then I started trying out different ways of installing the parts, and also started writing the text that eventually appears in the installation.

MM:    There is clearly a strong connection to literature in this piece. Would you talk about the role of text and storytelling in the work at MASS MoCA and in your practice in general?    Would you tell me why you chose the title Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor?

ML:      In the same way that there are hundreds of names lined up in the installation, each word of the text can function as a separate entity, then be annexed into a phrase or sentence that then is colored by the adjacent words and phrases.  In both parts one needs to read between the lines (words or names) to get the whole story.  A big part of my work, in both words and images, is the juxtaposition of disparate parts, so that new meanings can be constructed from the simple, ordinary, familiar or mundane.   Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor has its roots in children’s fortune telling rhymes, variations of which go back to 1865 England.  One of the possible uses for the title might be to understand that even though these are the names of workers in a paper bag factory, the analogy is to all production workers, in any trade.  The gesture is larger than the specificity of the bags.

MM:    Would you tell me a little more about the billboard aspect of this project? How did you choose the name Terry Russell as a representation?  What drew you to the billboard as a medium?

ML:      This is the third billboard project I’ve been able to realize.  The others were in Buffalo and in Los Angeles both cities rooted in a particular industry, as was North Adams in the time of Sprague.  To me the scale of the billboard is compelling, and the idea that the image is out of context, placed where an advertisement would ordinarily wait to be consumed.  Terry Russell seemed like a very neutral name, androgynous and ethnically non-specific.  It also is balanced with three sets of double letters, rr,ss,ll, so it looks good.   It was really important to get the irregularity of the printing to show up in the text, making the name less than perfect, more human.  I like to think that either recognition or curiosity is aroused in people who notice the billboard, whether or not they’ve seen the exhibition.

The Workers will be on view until March 15th, 2012. Additionally, to view Lum’s billboard piece, Made with Pride by Terry Russell, take a right out of the MASS MoCA parking lot onto Marshall Street, and continue south on route 8 for a few minutes. The billboard is located on the left side of the road and will be on view through August.

Posted August 3, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions, North Adams, The Workers

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3 Comments on “Artist spotlight on Mary Lum”

  1. Nippertown! Says:

    […] The MASS MoCA Blog, intern Kathryn Amato interviews artist Mary Lum, whose work is featured in the current MASS MoCA […]

  2. MASS MoCA - Blog - FREE Day Project: The Workers Says:

    […] interesting was the resulting wall collage of brown paper bag cutouts inspired by Mary Lum’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, on view as part of our exhibit The […]

  3. On the Bottom of a Paper Bag | privatelifeinpublichealth Says:

    […] (To read more about the exhibit: Mass MoCA The Workers May 29, 2011 to April 14, 2012 […]

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