The Artist's Corner Profile: Valerie Mann

 08/04/2017 - 13:22
Artist Valerie Mann with her installation exhibit, The Gun Show
Artist Valerie Mann with her Installation Exhibit, The Gun Show

If you know anything about the art scene in Saline, you have surely heard of local artist Valerie Mann.  An extremely talented and diverse artist, Val not only creates meaningful and powerful art of her own, she encourages and inspires young artists throughout the area.  Whether she’s working in her studio, teaching at Saline’s new Arts Center, Salt Valley Arts, or putting together an exhibit at WSG Gallery in Ann Arbor, Mann’s fingers are always moving, making the arts a more vital focus of Saline, Ann Arbor, and beyond.

Mann has been creating since she was a young girl.  Of her earliest decision to create, she says, “I think it was when I was a little kid and decided to scrape wall paper off with a metal nail file.  I knew I wasn't supposed to be doing it, so I chose a place behind the recliner that would be less noticeable.  I liked doing things with my hands and was always busy doing...making.  My grandmother sewed, knitted, crocheted, tatted, and made wedding cakes.  She taught me how to do so many things, including staying busy with my hands and imagination.  I grew up on a large farm and there were lots of 'things' lying around...and a fair amount of unsupervised time.  My mom always says, ‘kids need to get bored to get creative’ and I think there's a lot of truth to that.  If we EVER said we were bored, we got the worst job assigned to us.  So we got creative with our time.”

As she grew, Mann continued to pursue creative arts, studying painting at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and sculpture in grad school at Michigan State.  Of her time studying art, Mann stated, “I'm so glad I got to study both 2D and 3D, because I feel like my understanding of 2D got better when I started working in 3D.  My understanding of how to represent a 3D object in a 2D format improved.”

She has been inspired by many artists, both famous sculptors and painters - Louise Bourgeois, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Iris Van Herpen, Alberto Giacometti, Andy Goldsworthy, Martin Puryear, Alexander Calder, John Singer Sargent, Edouard Manet, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Henri Matisse - and locally famous Michigan artists such as Ken Thompson, Martha Keller, Adrienne Kaplan, Jill Wagner, Nora Venturelli, Sharon Que, Keith McGuire, Takeshi Takahara and many more.

Mann may have been inspired by these artists, but she also hopes to inspire others through the messages she sends in her own artistic endeavors.  Each body of work, whether it’s her bird series, plein air watercolors, still life watercolors, or installation pieces, sends a different message.

“In the bird body of work, I am very interested in shadows and the ephemeral nature of birds - they are there one second, gone the next.  I might have seen the red crest of the ruby-crowned kinglet, or maybe not.  So I am trying to capture something of the specific qualities of that bird, but using the shadows or movement in the piece to speak about the ephemeral nature of birds and bird watching in general.

“The installation work is sculptural in nature.  An installation is a piece that uses smaller elements to build a larger piece within an exhibit space.  For example, my piece 'Evening Gowns for the Midwestern Woman' is a large grouping of evening gowns sewn from cotton and linen seed bags from my family's farm.  Five separate evening gowns hang together to create this larger sculpture.  Using cables and hand-hewn cedar hangers that I made from repurposed split-rail fencing, the piece can hang in different configurations each time I display it because the exhibit space will have different dimensions each time.

“And the watercolor work is an ongoing exploration of color and my love of painting.  I teach watercolors (and other media) at Salt Valley Arts and other places.  I explore color and technique so I have some exciting stuff to share with students, but the challenge of working with watercolor is exciting!  I have a new series called 'The Window Strikes Series', which is essentially death portraits of birds, but I like to approach them like figure studies, looking at proportion, shadow, and the little details I cannot possibly notice when they are flying.  I realize this might sound weird.  A few years ago I was spending time at the U of M Natural History Museum drawing and painting in the bird collection.  It was such a privilege to look at the birds and touch them.  Some of the specimens are from when the University first started, which is pretty cool.”

Valerie’s artistic process is different for each body of work.  “My sculptural process is very much materials driven.  I use a lot of repurposed materials - have since I was in undergrad 30 years ago.  I think growing up on a farm where we used and reused things really informs my use of repurposed materials.  However, I look at the materials at just that and aim to have them transcend their 'objectness' so that the original purpose of the material isn't necessarily apparent.

“For my sculptural work, I do a lot of drawing in my sketchbook, which helps me work out ideas and methods of construction.  For my watercolors, I work for no more than an hour at a time, take a break, and get back to work.  This lets me rest my eyes and step away from the piece, so I can see anew.  I step back from the work a lot to get some perspective.”

Over time, Mann has had to change how she has worked to fit her artistic practices into changes in her life, home, and family.  “I've been raising a family at the same time that I've been making my art, teaching and building an art career.  One thing that has taught me is to be quick on my feet.  I have to be ready to change directions and be very productive in, say, 15 minutes here, 45 minutes there.  I also home-schooled my kids for several years on and off.  I would pack art supplies with me so I could work as I waited on the kids' activities and I missed out on a fair amount of sleep.  I actually had a hard time focusing when I first got wide swathes of time to work and the kids were in middle school or high school!  So my practice is still changing, I think.”

Currently, Mann is preparing to have one of her installation pieces at Grand Rapids’ ninth ArtPrize.  ArtPrize, one of the largest art events in the world, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, and features artists from around the world.  Valerie, in her first time exhibiting at ArtPrize, will have a chance to share “The Gun Show”, a powerful piece that will be installed at Richard App Gallery at The City Water Building.  

Of “The Gun Show”, Mann says, “The Gun Show is a collection of evening gowns and
handbags.  Each evening gown is specific to a mass shooting – for instance, the red ‘Sunday Best’ features the weapon – a glock – used at the Bethel AME church shooting in Charleston, S.C. 2 years ago.  Dark Knight Premiere is specific to the shooting in an Aurora, CO movie theater on the opening night of the Batman movie of the same title...Each gown has the exact weapon used in that shooting drawn onto it with my sewing machine.  I also have evening bags that go with the gowns.”

While this topic may be a difficult one for some to discuss, Mann’s art has provided a way to open a discussion with people from very different viewpoints.  She says, “At 'The Gun Show' last September [at WSG Gallery], a man and woman came through the show, asked about my work, read my artist statement, then, after really taking their time with the show, the guy came back to me and said, 'You know, I'm pro-gun, but you really did a great job with this.'  A piece like 'The Gun Show' is meant to instigate conversation about difficult things - things we hold at arm's length, if we have the luxury.  It's rewarding when what I intended to happen with a piece, actually happens.”

Locally, Mann continues to bless Saline with her artistic vision and immense talent.  She has proposed a sculpture for Henne Field titled ‘Leslee’s Smile” - an abstract homage to Saline District Library’s former director Leslee Niethammer, who died of cancer in March of 2016. She hopes to get the funding in place soon, so the piece can be fabricated and installed.  (Donations can be made by clicking here -> [Link]

And for artists who need a little encouragement, Mann says that the best piece of advice she has been given is: “Go to your studio every day, even if you just clean and organize.”  

Katherine H. Downie
Katherine Downie is a local artist and art educator. She serves on the executive committee of the Saline Celtic Festival, on the board of the Saline Area Players, and on the Saline Library Art Exhibit Committee.

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