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Artist Profile: Mary Tafoya


Artist: Mary Tafoya
Location: Old Town, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Websites & Blogs:
Mary Tafoya’s Seriousbeadin’ (Etsy shop)
Mary Tafoya’s Seriousbeadin’ (blog)
Mary’s Flickr Photos

Mary, how do you describe your beadwork?
I think of my work as graphic. I worked as a graphic designer and taught graphic arts for several years, and I think that has greatly influenced my compositions, which I try to keep clear and readable. I think a lot about rhythm and unity in my work, as well as various forms of balance, which have all come to me through my graphic arts training.

Recently, Beadwork Magazine’s Marlene Blessing used the work “iconic” in relation to my work, and I like that too. I often rely on myth, dreams and folklore for subject matter, as well as personal stories. I am also a fan of Jungian psychology (think “Women Who Run with the Wolves”), and the idea that archetypes are more or less universal and make for powerful subject matter that lots of people can connect with. Icons are also spiritual symbols, and although I’m not patently religious, I do strive to convey that deeper stuff in my work. Heck, if I’m going to spend 100+ hours on a piece, I want it to be more than just a rant or an abstract concept.

Other than that, my beadwork is obviously textural and detailed. I’m doing other work now too, such as polymer clay and painting, partly because I wanted to learn to get contrasting surface textures in my work. Beadwork is slow – so I tend to work more deeply in it. Polymer clay is so tactile, it’s very satisfying in a physical sense. Painting – that’s like sticking my finger into an electrical outlet! It is so immediate compared to beadwork, I find I can access my current state of being very quickly, whereas in the beadwork I tend to work with ideas that are more integrated, digested.

What is your creative process like?
Well the main ingredient is to just sit down and start working. I am so busy these days with a full-time job and graduate school that it’s not practical to take on those larger wall pieces right now. But there are many ways to be creative, to make things. I remember in a documentary about Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party project, one of the women said the most important thing she learned was to keep her butt in the chair. That is my motto now! The housework can wait (it always has). I need to make something or I start feeling funny. I have been making stuff with my hands nearly every day for probably thirty years now. A fair amount of it is crap, but every once in awhile I hit a home run. You kind of have to be there every day on the off chance it’ll be a blue moon masterpiece. I learned that in the book Art and Fear.

So these days, I allow myself to make earrings if that’s all I have time to make. I’m not entering shows like I used to, not until I’m out of school. If I’m tired or if I’m helping my kid with homework, I’ll cut up metal tins, gesso a few wooden boxes, or wrap a bunch of pearls into jewelry charms. My favorite creative times are weekends. I jump up as early as I can and head toward my work table. I do try to make a list, even if it’s just a mental list, of what I want to finish each week. It’s just as important to finish as it is to start! I learned that from polymer clay artist Victoria Hughes. She sometimes has weekend workshops where you bring your unfinished projects and finish them up.

Depending on the piece, I might do a whole lot of thinking before I start to work. A complex beadwork project has to be engineered. For example, in Shepherdess Angel, I quilted the silk, then stuffed it more in certain places (via the trapunto technique). To incorporate the shepherd’s crook, I had to first make it, and then stitch it down, and then I beaded a little swatch of right angle weave to cover it. I stitched that down, then positioned the crook at the proper angle, and then I injected watchtip cement underneath the right angle weave to anchor the crook in place. After beading the entire surface and before backing it, I had to attach the metal figure eights that would connect the beaded straps to the angel. I also made the bead embroidered connectors for the clasp. And since I wanted her head to hang higher than her feet, I couldn’t make symmetrical straps. I think I made each of the six strands at least three times before they came out right. And I used a heavy counterbalance. All of this required a lot of pre-planning! My Medusa mirror practically hurt my head by the time I’d figured out how to make it. But good ideas are worth the trouble, I think. Believe me, it’s disappointing when a good idea doesn’t turn out that well. I’ve got a few of those lying around, too.

So it’s nice to balance out all that cognitive stuff with some painting, assemblage, and, especially, my first love, earrings. I laugh when people comment that my mixed media work must have taken a long time. Nothing takes as long as beadwork!

I get ideas in the morning, when I first wake up, when looking at other people’s work, and sometimes, I just get a feeling of unrest inside, and then eventually explore it to find something I care about that needs expressing. Dreams are a great source for original ideas. Most of all, I make a commitment to bead what I love, and to follow my inspiration. It’s very easy, especially when you’ve been published or awarded or whatever, to think you have to hit one out of the park every time you’re up to bat. It’s also very easy to be influenced by what’s going on around us. This happens to me in subtle and insidious ways. For instance, I see that someone is oxidizing their findings and I think I’m supposed to be doing that, too. Or I see that Charla Khanna is selling her work for thousands of dollars and I feel like a doofus with my $16 earrings. It’s extremely difficult to turn away from non-authentic influences (by authentic I mean the ones that come from inside us). But you do have to turn off the computer and put your books and magazines away, and have your most important conversations with your materials.

I used to find it impossible to work in classes. I was too self-conscious and then, AC (After Children), I was too chatty. I was used to working alone. I still am, but now, when I go to a class or a workshop gathering, I work my butt off. I work until I’m ready to drop. I go to an annual private craft retreat in Northern New Mexico, and if possible I only leave to sleep at night and go to the bathroom! It’s very intense, but it’s the only time I have to work uninterrupted, except occasionally on the weekends.

What kind of training did you have which helped you achieve your current level of artistry?
I earned my B.A. in Studio Art, but art school wasn’t a good environment for me. I found it to be rather soulless, and because I come from Kentucky, and have my roots in traditional craft, it was hard being in a place where that wasn’t acknowledged or cultivated. I do love being in New Mexico, though. I remember ditching art history class to go to a Joan Miro exhibit in Santa Fe, and the professor let me enter my response to the show in my journal rather than on the class topic. I studied Medieval woodcuts when I was supposed to be looking at 20th century printmaking. I played with African sculptures at a flea market that would cost a small fortune today. It wasn’t until I started taking Art Education classes as electives that I started to see what my path could be like after school. I learned to make prints from cut up tire treads, and to make natural dyes and spin yarn. A few years later I started teaching graphic arts at a community college for Native American students. That’s when I got interested in beadwork.

I took a lot of classes from Margo Field, and I can see her techniques in just about everything I make. I also enjoyed my classes with Keith LoBue and Susan Lenart Kazmer – I learned a lot of techniques from them, but also ways of approaching art making that have proven very useful, especially now that my art time is limited. I spend time when I can at OFFCenter Community Arts Studio near my home, which is a free, open studio. It’s where I go to restore the joy and freedom of just being, it’s a nice refuge when I’ve put myself under too much pressure to teach or write. I tend to get a lot of good work done there. I also took an amazing class with Holly Roberts, a local photographer and painter who is probably the best art teacher I’ve ever had. I complain a lot about being in school, but the truth is, it’s just another place to tap into creativity. I feel very acknowledged, alive and deeply mentored by two professors in particular – my Educational Leadership advisor and my distance learning instructor. Currently, one of my class projects is writing about being an artist. Imagine that – getting graduate credit for writing about what I love.

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