Mary Shannon Will

A stunning exhibition, “Mary Shannon Will: People, Places and Things” surveyed the Calgary artist’s luminous work across five decades and several media. Had it travelled outside Alberta, the retrospective, curated by Diana Sherlock for the Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary, would have been a revelation. Shannon Will is well known in Alberta but underrecognized elsewhere, though Roald Nasgaard included her in his book Abstract Painting in Canada for what are essentially two careers. In the first she was an innovative ceramic artist; in the second, a distinctive abstract painter. However, the two halves of her body of work are connected, as this astutely selected exhibition aptly demonstrated.

Her work in all media conveys intense materiality. Its interconnections were immediately apparent in her regard for materials and in her aesthetic approach to colour, pattern, texture and idiosyncratic form. Nothing in the show was very big, but everything had presence that far exceeded its size, again a quality typical of all her work. Even viewers who thought they knew her work well found revelations in its remarkable consistency and in the coherence of her exploratory trains of thought, her rigorous approach to the processes of artmaking, her meticulous execution of formal elements and her work’s vital, unflagging energy.

Born in New York State in 1944, Shannon Will studied ceramics at the University of Iowa (1964 to 1967) and the University of New Mexico (1970 to 1971) at a time when clay was muscling its way out of craft and into the precinct of art. Between universities, she attended three eight-week sessions of the Tuscarora Pottery Summer School under Paul Soldner, an influential ceramic artist and the first student of Peter Voulkos, who founded the California Clay Movement in the 1950s. Shannon Will describes her early ceramics, made with techniques such as raku, as “little brown pots.” These rapidly gave way to brightly coloured, hand-built ceramic sculptures influenced by California funk. They in turn evolved into ever more refined hand-thrown works that had more in common with the movement’s Finish Fetish branch in Los Angeles. Finish Fetish included artists Kenneth Price, Ron Nagle and Robert Irwin, and originated the LA look, which took in pop, minimalism and light and space. Shannon Will absorbed what she liked and went her own way after she moved to Calgary in 1971.

From 1968, the earliest sculpture in the exhibition crosses funk with pop in a bisque-fired clay rendition of a hot dog, the fat wiener painted red with automotive paint. The shotgun marriage of ceramic tropes is vulgar and funny. It was followed in the 1970s by lush, highly coloured, biomorphic sculptures that are creature-like objects with often sack-like bodies and various extrusions inspired by deep-sea creatures, cacti and flowers. Their raised surface textures simultaneously evoke textiles, such as a wide-wale corduroy or a diamond weave, and create physical overall patterns in the clay that follow a form’s sensuous bulges and curves. Shannon Will was looking for and found beauty in clashing colour combinations, but despite this and the pieces’ high finish, funk connotations stick to these works because, like most funk ceramics, they are figurative.

Mary Shannon Will, Untitled (working drawing), 1981, felt pen and crayon, 35.6 x 27.9 centimetres. University of Lethbridge Art Collection. Purchased in 1984 with funds provided by the Alberta Art Foundation and the Alberta 1980s Endowment Fund. Photo: MN Hutchinson. Courtesy the artist and Paul Kuhn Gallery.

Figuration drops away entirely in the abstract geometric sculptures of the 1980s in which spheres, ovoids, rods or finger-like elements balance on or penetrate cones or truncated cylinders whose cut surfaces are faceted. Once again highly coloured, these sleek constructivist works are covered with hand-drawn patterns on pale grounds set off by rectangles of solid colour. But instead of adding visual weight to the material as before, these patterns are ethereal and threaten to dematerialize the hard, shiny surfaces of the white earthenware. The disjunctions between surface and form are a source of energy in this body of work that carries forward into Shannon Will’s paintings, where materials and conceptual processes, like making rules to generate a painting, come into play.

Her professed obsession with pattern and interest in elaborated surfaces led Shannon Will to begin painting in 1983; she stopped making ceramics altogether by 1985. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Amy Gogarty argues that her ceramics constitute “the original site at which [she] worked out her unique approach to making art.” This was borne out by the paintings in the exhibition. Flat surfaces of canvas, paper or wood become the focal point of Shannon Will’s discipline and meticulous attention to process and the way things are made. Colour becomes light; pattern becomes surface. Her visual vocabulary expands to embrace images from dreams, intense experiences of natural phenomena and geometries inspired by hooked rugs, Mexican sarapes, beadwork, mirror-appliquéd East Indian textiles and ancient symbols used in Indigenous cultures— spirals, circles, triangles, zigzags, arrows, wavy bars. The latter are derived from such sources as basketry, weaving and drawings on pueblo walls, especially those at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a ritual site with an astrological calendar, which Shannon Will has visited half a dozen times.

Mary Shannon Will, Untitled (U of L #2), 1982, glazed white earthenware, 7 x 7.25 inches. From the University of Lethbridge Art Collection. Purchased in 1984 with funds provided by the Alberta Art Foundation in honour of the centennial of the City of Lethbridge. Photo: MN Hutchinson. Courtesy the artist and Paul Kuhn Gallery.

The rich materiality of her painting is often set in counterpoint to its support and the way the medium is typically handled. Paint becomes a material with which, like clay, she builds, only now in low relief. The surface of Stopping the Hat for the Fire, 1986–87, has been layered with a myriad of tiny dots until it resembles a field of beadwork, with subtle changes of depth that occur when its varicoloured abstract images overlap. The thickly layered pastels of Glory Hole (Tuscarora, Nevada), 1992, acquire the visual tactility of a napped fabric.

Abstract images of the 1980s and early ’90s often suggest the construction of homespun cosmologies whose backstories are based on things that happen in everyday life. From the 1990s onward, the square and the grid intensify Shannon Will’s focus and hint at her regard for Agnes Martin. In a series of six, small, square paintings from 2015, she builds the surface with thin ridges of different paint colours that follow the sides of flat, glass polygonal shapes set in the centre. The eccentric shapes determine the disposition of the ridged lines; the colours she uses were chosen by friends. As these late works turn to the grid and to squares of stacked horizontal lines, they point to Shannon Will’s work in the studio, with the practice of painting as a daily meditation. These are paintings-as-object that themselves become objects for meditation.

For Shannon Will, the abstract and the spiritual reside in and emerge from the physical material world. Theoretically, the grid and the horizontal line are infinitely expandable. Her grid paintings, whose squares-within-squares units recall the Parthenon’s coffered ceiling, and the square paintings of horizontal lines, whose colours are arranged in repeating registers that evoke vast landscapes, are cartographies of the immeasurable. Profound in their simplicity, they embody time, the patient, here-andnow time it took to make them, which is one with the time of the universe. No one talks about uplift these days, but this was a special exhibition that lifted the spirit. ❚

Mary Shannon Will, Fajada Butte, 2019, acrylic on wood, 10 x 10 inches. Collection of the artist. Photo: MN Hutchinson. Courtesy Paul Kuhn Gallery.

“Mary Shannon Will: People, Places and Things” was exhibited at Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary, from January 1, 2021, to October 10, 2021.

Mary Shannon Will died of ALS on October 20, 2021.

Nancy Tousley, recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2011, is an art critic, writer and independent curator based in Calgary.