Sculptor Speaks on Abstraction, Allusion and Allegory

By Purnell T. Cropper | April 13, 2013


Back on campus as part of the Department of Art and Design’s Alumni Artist Series, sculptor Mary Kate Maher ’01 shared insights gleaned from graduate school and life as a professional artist.

Although Maher concentrated in painting while at Arcadia University, she began to explore three-dimensional materials while working on her Senior Thesis project. “I started painting on aluminum panels,” she explained. “I started to get really interested in materials, more than the actual painting.” The anecdote served as a welcome reminder to the room full of college students that a major does not necessarily define a career. People can always learn and grow beyond their degree.

When Maher began pursuing an M.F.A. at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, it was to work in sculpture. “It just seemed like this natural progress,” she said. Her senior project at PAFA focused on the body; she played with various ways to suggest the figure or humanity through allegorical means. She described the work as “rough,” though it was a necessary step in learning. Being unafraid to make mistakes helped her understand new and intricate processes.

After completing the program, Maher moved to New York, a scary but exciting step for the young artist. Without a studio, she turned her kitchen into a makeshift work-space—a process that was as frustrating as it was rewarding—and she took on odd jobs in the arts to support herself as she learned specific sculpting techniques.

It was while working at a fabrication studio that Maher felt a breakthrough. She was inspired by some of the straight-forward, commercial figures she saw and questioned her need to cloak them in the metaphors she had toyed with for so long. “I started to think about using the figure as the figure,” she said. To her, this felt radical. Maher also began to use color and painting techniques to give her figures a feeling of life. Keeping her painting experience up her sleeve proved invaluable.

Maher’s willingness to incorporate intimidating materials into her practice and to throw herself whole-heartedly into learning, say, how to cut metal or hoist rock, has made all the difference in her work and proved personally gratifying. These experiences led to opportunities producing public art, which is how Maher spends many of her days now.