At first glance, the textile sculptures of Mary Little suggest an artist who has been painstakingly mastering her chosen medium of heavyweight canvas for decades—one who is very much attuned to the material’s unpredictability and poetic potential. Little’s tapestry-like works often evoke the tranquil landscapes from her upbringing in County Down, Northern Ireland, where she grew up surrounded by grasslands and rolling hills before her family relocated to Belfast. Recreating those idyllic settings plays a crucial role in Little’s work: “I need to focus on the good in my heart and environment,” she says. “I claim the right to make beauty, to allow inner calm, to make peace.”
Given the calming nature of her recent works, one may never guess that Little, who maintains a small live-in studio in Downtown Los Angeles, found her footing for decades as a product designer, having devised one-off collectible furnishings that now grace the permanent collections of the Vitra Design Museum and Musée des Arts Décoratifs. It wasn’t until a 2014 move to Los Angeles that Little started working exclusively with heavyweight canvas, a material that enables her to experiment and take creative risks. It also affords her the clarity to reflect on turbulent times, which informs her latest exhibition, “Reflections,” a virtual show presented in collaboration with the local up-and-comers Estudio Persona.
Originally intended as a physical exhibition inside Estudio Persona’s minimalist showroom, “Reflections” became a digital presentation when the coronavirus pandemic caused all non-essential businesses to close in mid-March. And though one may surmise that the details Little achieves through her meticulous cuts and sews are best appreciated in person, the exhibition feels incredibly photorealistic—though virtual, Little’s striated sculptures lose none of their drama. There’s also no better counterpart than the unconventional works of Estudio Persona, founded by Emiliana Gonzalez and Jessie Young, who channel the natural landscapes of their native Uruguay into a sleek array of furniture and lighting.
“What I value so much about seeing my work in Estudio Persona’s serene space is the monastic feeling; a place of quiet reflection and respite,” says Little, who will donate 20 percent of each sale to the “I Have a Dream” Foundation in Los Angeles. “These nine works were curated in response to that environment. It amplifies their spirit.” Below, we chat with Little about why she loves working with heavyweight canvas and how she’s passing time during the quarantine.
What draws you to heavyweight canvas?
The canvas is easily available, so it’s good for working experimentally and taking creative risks. It’s different from when I made sculptural furniture with fabrics from Création Baumann, Maharam, or Lelievre that cost $300 or more per yard. I’d make toiles in muslin to develop forms and finesse details, and it took multiple versions to engineer accurate patterns to work the first time. With canvas, I can be creative and explore ideas in depth.
What’s your favorite quality of the material?
Canvas has so many appealing qualities: stability and stiffness, a natural ivory-like color, a matte quality, and that it’s a natural fiber, cotton. It lets me create 3-D forms and achieve my desired volumes. I’ve developed techniques that enhance its rigidity in the seams. It’s all about being able to generate my gentle repeat reliefs so they have their own integrity.
Canvas can be unpredictable—what are some challenges you face when making these works?
What I find to be unpredictable is how my pieces take shape when hung for the first time. As I climb down the ladder and walk a few feet away, I always wonder what I’ll see when I turn around—what effect will gravity have? The bigger the piece and fuller the forms, the more unpredictable. I love this moment.
Now that the work is hanging, I have to be open-minded. My task is to decide whether this form I’ve created “works” or not. Several things might happen: Maybe it’s ugly and challenges my taste. Often after a week, I fall in love with it. Sometimes, after a few days, I notice changes that make my heart race when implemented. I’m the only one who can decide when a work is finished. Last year, I rejected more than two months of work because it didn’t “sing.”
Walk me through your creative process.
I’ve been making this work for six years—two series a year as well as commissions. Each series builds on my growing body of work. I’ll spend days selecting new ideas and deciding how to explore or expand them. With each new series, I’ll add new ideas that come out of experimentation. A series will comprise works that are ideas I’ve finessed and know will be successful, along with fresh ideas that may initially fail, but when finished may challenge.
I use a 2-D drawing program for the planning stage, when I draw diagrams with overall dimensions and proportions. I’ve developed my own language to transcribe ideas into scale drawings with instructions, a kind of notation. From these I develop paper patterns to use when cutting the canvas. I’ll cut and sew a small trial to review the effect. I may decide to continue to completion or return to the drawing board and make changes.
What motivated your shift from designing furniture to working in canvas?
When I moved to L.A., I carried out a large commission of multiple chairs and stools. This gave me several months of work while I was getting a feel for the city. I felt refreshed and inspired to the extent that I wanted to make a creative change. I like getting advice from others, so I’d take people out to coffee or invite them to the studio. I’m odd in that I get a thrill out of being told difficult truths. I see myself laugh with embarrassment while being grateful as what I’m hearing is valuable—I feel alive!
One new friend, Guy Cnop of Linnea, caused me to reflect on who I am. He told me again and again that I’m not a designer, but that I’m an artist. My identity for all my working life was that of a designer, but I listened to him though it took six difficult months to let go. Thinking back on what I made, the upholstered chairs were complex and layered, though only the surface layer—the fabric—was seen and valued. I paid attention to them being structurally sound and comfortable, which is time-consuming.
I’m deeply interested in how people feel when using my work. Focusing on the art of the work and setting aside the design was an exciting shift. It meant I could investigate what I see—the surface layer—and how it made me feel. I didn’t have to create other physical layers to generate a feeling. Seating is all about the inner feelings felt through every part of our body.
How does L.A. fuel your creativity?
It’s so unlike its reputation. I see potential.
I’ve surrounded myself with friends and acquaintances who are creative and self-motivated. The art scene has grown noticeably with new galleries opening or established galleries moving to bigger spaces and better locations. Before the coronavirus, I would visit galleries every Thursday. I could see about 10 exhibitions a day by focusing on a single neighborhood. Many galleries gather in the same building. Five minutes from me on South Santa Fe there are Vielmetter, Gavlak, Wilding Cran and Nicodim galleries all at the same address.
I live in a 100-year-old brick building first used as a furniture factory that now houses live-work artist studios. Though L.A. rents are now so high that artists find it difficult to stay, my landlord has opened it up to any creative: SpaceEx engineers, wedding dress designers, techs from the movie business, and so on. We have an outdoor pool, which makes it easy to be neighborly. I feel at home. I love being surrounded by people who think differently.
L.A. also has a large collective of interior designers who carry out residential projects. That’s good for me—designers are advocates for art. They introduce artists and place good work in their clients’ homes. I thrive because of this network. We work together and support one another in a loose independent fashion. I see designers and art advisors as part of my team.
How have you passed time during the quarantine?
I went through shock, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. I would absorb global news, thinking of others and their tough situations through no fault of their own. That was destructive emotionally, so I then took control and minimized my exposure. I’ve always lived in my studio, so the stay-at-home order affected me less than others. I kept working and swam frequently in the outdoor pool.
In February, I began working with a consultant, Corrina Peipon, who advises artists as they navigate the art world. She provided a structure for assessing the studio and a framework for dreaming up forward-thinking plans. Even though so many were saying the future was unpredictable, I planned an ambitious year. It’s exciting to have that as a rope to pull me through, and has enabled me to meet people and discuss new ideas.
Though I slowed down and was less able to concentrate, I was strangely more creative and happier for hopping from one thing to another. As a doer, it’s invigorating to sit still and think more. I found myself elated with this lifestyle. I’m making feasible dreams happen.
“Reflections” will be on display virtually until October 15.