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Product of Eden, 2010, squash, brass, 20" long (baby)


Great Hare, 2011, soil & turf, 15' long

Artist: Mary Catherine Newcomb,
Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

Interview 51

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Mary Catherine Newcomb was born and raised in Montreal. When she was a teenager her family moved to Ontario. She attended the University of Toronto where she received a general B.Sc. After a brief period working in the publishing industry, she enrolled in the Fine Arts program at the University of Waterloo. Upon graduating she worked as an art teacher to children through various local institutions and started an artist run space in the community. In 1991 she received an M.F.A. from York University. She has done sessional teaching at several universities in Southern Ontario.

She has remained active in her community mentoring younger artists and has at various times made unusual instruments/installations for the Open Ears festival, volunteered and/or sat on the boards of CAFKA, Waterloo Regional Arts Council, and Shad Valley.

Mary Catherine was one of the original members of the Redhead collective and a member of Nethermind. She has exhibited her work throughout Canada and in Germany. She has received support from the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Waterloo Regional Arts Fund. In 2009 Mary Catherine was awarded the K.M. Hunter prize for visual art. Mary Catherine's Website


Artist: Mary Catherine Newcomb


Tell us about your work?

I have worked as a sculptor for longer than I care to mention. My work has always been figurative and borne a strong relationship to narrative/ mythology. A hands-on engagement has always been important in working through a variety of media. The physical process teaches me (and hopefully conveys) things that are difficult or impossible to clearly identify or express in language.

In 2006 I began to work with plants. The first iteration of the Product of Eden project consisted of growing saints on eggplant bushes. I prepared the saint figures (animal and human) in clay, made moulds, cast the figures in an aluminum filled resin, and had clear plastic two piece moulds made from these. I fastened these over the growing eggplants that grew into them. When the saints were ripe, they were fitted with brass (in lieu of golden) crowns to denote sanctity.

Many of the saints were pickled in brine and they seem to have held up pretty well. I could not use traditional pickling solutions for the eggplants, as they are quite delicate vegetables and, during the initial efforts to preserve them, they all turned brown. I experimented with a number of solutions before finding one (brine supplemented with wine making chemicals) that works consistently. The pickles are quite different from the fresh saints and, of course imprisoned in their bottles – relics standing in for the real thing.

A few of the saints were shop-dropped in local grocery stores as a means of tweaking reality. I made stickers for these ones with skew numbers that corresponded to the vegetables surrounding them in the store – so that they could be easily purchased.

One of the hazards of working with living material is that it does not always co-operate. In 2008 a squash vine borer wiped out an entire crop of arctic animals. Ironically, this pest is assumed to have moved north as a consequence of global warming.

In the summer of 2010, I raised a crop of babies for whom I had prepared multipart resin moulds (also crowned and saintly) in 400 sq. ft. beds of compost that were built in front of the Kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery. The baby garden provided several life-sized jumbo pink banana squash babies as well as a number of soup squash.

My most recent garden piece is a fifteen-foot long sculpture of the Great Hare. This was built as a project for CAFKA in the summer/fall of 2011 at the Cambridge Sculpture Garden. The pelt of the reclining Hare consists of combed and trimmed turf.


Product of Eden, 2007, eggplant& brass, figure is 6" long


From where do you get your inspiration?

I get inspired for particular pieces or bodies of work during moments of dissociation – that state of not quite dreaming that occasionally occurs while one is blankly staring at a wall or traveling on a bus and staring out the window.

The inspiration for starting the Product of Eden came to me quite suddenly after a long period of considering possible new materials and processes – looking for something that I could be excited about working with.

In retrospect, I can say that the project grew out of my image-based work and an increasing interest in agriculture, and as in the development of narrative/mythologies as an internalized response to physical circumstances. I suspect that the element of risk - (a pale mirror of the risk faced by individuals dependent on the success of their crops for survival – the way we all were once) – obliquely contributed to the excitement for me. It seems unfortunate to me that an exciting idea almost always ends up being attended by a lot of anxiety.


Product of Eden, 2007, eggplant, brass, brine, beeswax, glass jar,  7 x 3.5 x 3.5"


If a good friend were to describe your style, what would they say?

Most people consider my work accessible and sometimes humourous while addressing fundamental human mysteries. The imagery and style, with a strong emphasis on line and gesture, speaks to an emotional, intuitive rather than intellectual faculty. For some, the juxtaposition of images references surrealism.


Product of Eden, 2007, eggplant, brass, brine, beesewax, pear, glass jar, 7 x 3.5 x 3.5"

Product of Eden, 2007, eggplant, brass, brine, beeswax, glass jar, 6 x 6 x11"


What do you think of us placing your work within the context of fibre art and how do fibre techniques and materials relate to your practice?

I was quite surprised to be asked to think of my work in the context of the fibre arts. Upon reflection I realized that, quite apart from a physical dependence (agriculture providing fibres), agriculture/horticulture and the textile arts originated in activities that enabled the basic survival. These tactile nurturing processes, embodied in the rituals of watering, pruning, stitching and weaving, became (and become) a stage for contemplation and generation of fundamental mythologies.

The process of making the Great Hare (my most recent piece) relates to the fibre arts in a specific way. The turf blanket is cut and sewn onto parts of a supporting frame so that it can grow into the supporting soil. As the grass grew, I would comb it and give the piece "haircuts".

I am presently working on a smaller (8' long) turf Great Hare. I want to see if I can grow one that can be moved around. I have made a light solid form and covered it with capillary mats and will be growing the turf onto the mats. My mini experiment to determine whether this was at all feasible resulted in the turf attaching itself to the mat with root hares – in effect making sewable grass fabric – maybe I will try making a coat sometime.


Product of Eden, 2010, squash, brass, 20" long (baby)


What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your fibre work?

As a sculptor I have worked in a large variety of media. Generally speaking, my imagination throws up an ill-defined concept of a "thing" that I get very excited about making. Then I have to figure out how to do it. This is an interesting thing to do – but would probably be more interesting if not attended by the inevitable anxiety of never really being familiar with what one is doing.

I have worked in clay, papier-mache, plaster, wax, latex, acrylic, concrete, plasticene, metal and a few more I have probably forgotten about. Every medium is a different language – you have to make friends with it, learn its grammar to work with it and see what it says.

I suppose I would not have thought of growing vegetables into moulds if I had not had a lot of experience making moulds and casting other materials.

I love to work with plastic media that records gesture in an immediate way. I think that this bears a strong relationship to drawing – although I find it hard to get the same satisfaction when attempting to work in two dimensions.


Product of Eden, 2010, squash, brass, 21" long (baby)

Product of Eden, 2010, baby harvest

Product of Eden, 2010, baby growing in mould

Product of Eden, 2010, baby garden in fromt of the kitchener Waterloo Art Gallery, 2010

Product of Eden, 2010, squash, 20" long (baby)


What specific historic artists have influenced your work? 

As far as historical influences go, I have always been drawn to the best (late) examples of medieval church carvings. This work has a strong physical presence while maintaining a personal or intimate quality - even when incorporated into large architectural monuments - such as Notre Dame in Paris (completed 1300's). I find that the saints carrying or standing on their attributes, plants, and animals are animate, feel sentient. I think that it is curious that the craftsmen and masons who produced this work remain anonymous. It is not about the artist, it is about the strongly imagined entity inspiring or conjured up by the image.

I am also drawn to the work of several painters and draftsmen from the early Renaissance. Giotto's frescoes in the upper and lower churches of Assisi (early 1300s) – I fortunately got to see these before the 1997 earthquake, – like the Notre Dame sculptures, have a physical presence and an intimate appeal. Some of the objects in the frescoes are real representations – the same olive trees are just outside the (former) walls of the city, real constructed perspective leads us into imagined spaces, and very solid thrones float in the sky. The line between the imagined and the real becomes mutable. I am interested in how, where and why we draw these lines.


Great Hare, 2011, installing the ears

Great Hare, 2011, raking the rabbit - watering bottles are for watering at the roots.

Great Hare, 2011, soil & turf, 15' long

Great Hare, 2011, soil & turf, 15' long


What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work? 

Louise Bourgeois' mature work has had a huge impact on my development as a sculptor. When I wandered through her cells several years ago I was gob-smacked by her (personal) images, objects, and command of material, not merely in the technical sense, but as conveyances for an examination of psychological states.

I have also been interested in a lot of the work of the generation of British sculptors that emerged in the 1980s – examples would be Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, and Rachel Whitereed. I do not particularly associate my style or impetus for work with theirs, but respect their understanding and ability to clearly, intelligently, and coherently manipulate material to convey feeling.


Product of Eden, 2007, hot pepper, brass, brine, beeswax, glass jar, 10 x 2 x 2"

Product of Eden, 2007, eggplants, brass, brine, beeswax, glass jar, 10 x 2.75 x 2.75"


When you were a child, did you want to become an artist?

When I was a child I wanted to become either an artist or a scientist. I loved to draw and was considered to be good at it. At my grandparents house there were boxes of obsolete letterhead from my grandfather's business and coloured pencils that I used to create my early masterpieces. My grandmother painted and my mother briefly attended art school before getting a degree in art history. When I was nine, I was switched from a school that did not offer art lessons to one that did. It was SO exciting. I loved it. Mother St. Alice, a crusty and ancient nun, would play West Side Story or Nana Mouskouri and the few of us who stayed after school would work away into the dark winter evenings. There were times when I was restless, but generally I was completely happy. I think that the times in the studio when everything is flowing and music playing, is probably what is referred to as being "in a state of grace".


Product of Eden, 2010, clay figures being prepared for making moulds

Product of Eden, 2010, pollenating a squash baby flower.


Tell us about your studio and how you work:

When my daughter was young I converted my garage into a studio. It is really too small, but allowed me to work "at home". My house has a south facing back porch and since 2006 I have erected a temporary (very home-made) greenhouse on it. A few years ago, I constructed panels covered with clear tarp and filled with bubble wrap that makes the conversion a bit easier. It is about 10' x 8' and keeps anything that I might be growing from freezing. On sunny winter days it gets really hot and I use it to passively heat my house. If it is neither too hot nor too cold, and space permits, I sometime do other than garden work there because the light is so good. The plants like my carbon dioxide and it is nice to be sort of outside.

When I start a new project I usually procrastinate for a bit and then just charge in. I usually have a plan, but more often than not, things change as the work progresses


Happy Thanksgiving Polar Bear Pumpkin Pie, 2008, polar bear pumpkins, pastry, taxidermy findings, 16" diasmeter


What project has given you the most satisfaction and why?

Sometimes I am lucky and get the most satisfaction from the project that I am engaged in or just finished. Right now I would say that the Great Hare has given me the most satisfaction. He was planted in early August and allowed to grow with minor pruning until the middle of September. It was just a fuzzy rabbit shape. In the middle of September I spent a few days combing, cutting, adding moss for eyes and nose and all at once he really seemed alive. I had no idea if this was going to happen. When you stroke the grass, you really feel as though you are touching a live creature (as you are) and it is quite pleasant to comb him. I am pleased with the way that the piece equates plant aliveness and animal aliveness, and with the size and location.

It is going to stay at the Cambridge Sculpture Garden through the winter, but I have not been pruning it since the last weekend of CAFKA – so it may start to look like a rabbitish porcupine. I will probably be sick of it in a few weeks.


Hope Springs Eternal, 2008. pumpkins, brass, paint, dimensions variable


Where do you imagine your work in five years? 

I find it difficult to think about my work beyond the next project – one thing leads to another. As long as this continues to happen it is o.k.


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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.