Gone To Her Heads 

Ceramic artist Marilyn Lysohir talks about her art past and present

As an artist and a businesswoman, Marilyn Lysohir draws from a deep well of ambitious creativity. Her ceramic installations, which are often astounding for their sheer size, evolve from very personal points of inspiration into pieces that are overwhelming not just physically, but also in their simplicity. Lysohir's work isn't burdened with social or political overtones; nor does it beg for speculation on the part of its audience. Instead, Lysohir tends toward a philosophy that's a bare-faced and semi-literal representation of her life and her family and friends, shrugging off complications to rest on a more literal bedrock of interpretation.

High School Portraits, 1968, Good Girls, Sharon, Pennsylvania, Lysohir's 2007 Idaho Triennial piece for Boise Art Museum, reflects the artist's habit of channeling her life into her art. As displayed at BAM, the piece was 43 ceramic portrait busts of the girls with whom Lysohir graduated from high school in 1968. The likenesses, hung against a rich mocha-colored wall in three horizontal rows of 14 busts each (a single bust of the artist herself set off to the side accounted for the 43rd), are in tones of creamy gray and green. Each was poured from the same mold, creating a collection of facial features that are quite similar, though each head is distinguished by its dated hairstyle and features such as glasses or clothing. Some are adorned with ceramic pearls, others with ruffled ceramic blouses. At the base of each bust is etched in individually stamped capital letters the name of the girl to whom the portrait belongs. Taken as a whole, perfectly aligned and in alphabetical order organized vertically, the group of similarly smiling women demands attention, if only for its initial quirkiness.

However, as impressive as the precision of several dozen heads was, the installation at BAM was only a fraction of the piece. In its entirety, Good Girls is 163 individually sculpted heads—each resting on its own corbel—and several frames of ephemera. It's also a documentary in the making, one copy of Lysohir's senior yearbook and a whole lot of history rehashed almost 40 years later.

Lysohir admits that she didn't fully understand the enormity of the project at the time of its inception. But for an artist whose last BAM appearance in 1998 was the mammoth The Dark Side of Dazzle, a two-ton, 24-foot-long, 9-foot-high ceramic battleship, thinking big is what comes naturally.

"I look back on it now, and I can't even think how I did that," Lysohir says about the behemoth. "Now I look at these heads, all 163. I just started at number one, but I do have to say that when I had about 40 or 50 left, I just hit that wall. I thought, 'I can't do it.' You have to have the drive, as well as the idea. And you do it, but it takes an immense amount of discipline. I have to say I wasn't terribly disciplined until the last year."

click to enlarge COURTESY MARILYN LYSOHIR

For an artist who prefers to allow a piece to shape itself over the course of several years, the four years it took Lysohir to complete Good Girls is not an unusually lengthy span of time. However, the idea for the piece is one that Lysohir had been fermenting for nearly a decade. In the early '90s, Lysohir says she was struck with two nebulous ideas at once, something that she describes as rare.

"Usually I'm working on one piece and thinking about what's next because you have a lot of time in the studio," she explains. "And a lot of times, life just gives you clues. So you wait for life to give you that clue or life to kind of move you through and give you that idea. But I had two ideas at once, and Tattooed Ladies was just a better fit in the '90s."

During the '80s, Lysohir earned a reputation as one of the country's foremost ceramics artists. Her career gained momentum with pieces like The Fourth Sister, which featured three different brides looking at three different wedding cakes, and The Alligator's Wife, a ceramic version of herself lying atop a 15-foot ceramic alligator. Like Good Girls, both pieces were kernels from her personal life translated through ceramics; The Fourth Sister was about Lysohir's four unmarried aunts, and her own marriage was the basis for The Alligator's Wife.

In 1984, she landed her first solo show in Los Angeles, featuring Bad Manners. The piece was a life-sized wooden table heaped with an abundance of ceramic food, from vegetables and fruits to gluttonous portions of pasta, pizzas and cakes. Seated at the table were four figures that were essentially hollow clothing—empty dresses, vacant suits. After the piece sold, Lysohir was granted a second solo show for which she created The Dark Side of Dazzle, the battleship that she says commemorates her father's time as a soldier in World War II.

click to enlarge Bad Manners, 10'6" long x 4'2" high, clay and wood, 1983. - COURTESY MARILYN LYSOHIR

It's also the piece for which Lysohir reluctantly admits a fondness.

"I'm not attached to them after they're made. It's pretty much out-of-sight, out-of-mind when they're done," she says. "I've found that each piece is special in its own way, but I think the battleship is the one that moves me a little more than the others." When the exhibit sailed into BAM, an accompanying audio tape related stories from WWII veterans, among them her grandfather and her first boss.

In the late '80s, Lysohir learned iron and porcelain casting at Wisconsin's Kohler Company, where she started a piece called The Last Immigrant.

"I had never done iron or porcelain casting before so that piece is very different," says Lysohir. "I used bear imagery. My grandmother died at age 99, and she was the last immigrant—all my grandparents immigrated from the Ukraine in the early 1900s. So when the last one died, I did a piece to celebrate all my grandparents."

The City of Boise commissioned her in 1994 to create Spring Run, an offshoot of The Last Immigrant. Still installed in Plaza 121 on Ninth Street in downtown Boise, the piece is a collection of bear heads and fish mounted on the side of a building.

When two ideas almost simultaneously struck Lysohir in the early '90s, the work that eventually became The Tattooed Ladies and the Dinosaur took precedence out of convenience. At the time, she was relocating almost every semester to teach at various colleges around the country, doing alternating stints as a visiting professor at the prestigious New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred, the Kansas City Art Institute and Ohio State University. The smaller, more mobile pieces that make up The Tattooed Ladies and the Dinosaur—upwards of 600 dinosaur bones, 150 wall tiles and nine pairs of giant legs—were better suited to the constant traveling and moving during that time in Lysohir's life. And, like Good Girls, Tattooed Ladies was several years in the making.

click to enlarge Detail of legs from Tattooes Ladies and the Dinosaurs, installation at Eastern Washington University, 2001, clay: legs approximately 42" high, 670 clay dinosuar bones in varied sizes from 2" to 4' in length, 150 ceramic glazed tiles. - COURTESY MARILYN LYSOHIR
  • Courtesy Marilyn Lysohir
  • Detail of legs from Tattooes Ladies and the Dinosaurs, installation at Eastern Washington University, 2001, clay: legs approximately 42" high, 670 clay dinosuar bones in varied sizes from 2" to 4' in length, 150 ceramic glazed tiles.

"What was interesting about that piece is that it was three sections: the bones, the tattooed legs and the tiles. But it took me awhile to figure out that form. I knew the bones, and I knew the tiles, but it took me until almost the end of the '90s before I finally figured out that I was going to do giant legs, and that was by accident."

Glancing over at the magazine her husband, artist Ross Coates, had been reading at breakfast, Lysohir spotted the word "Ozymandias," a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous sonnet. "It was about this mighty king who had a vast empire and all that was left was these trunkless legs in a great and vast expanse. Just these giant legs, and I thought, 'OK, that's it.' So it took, and that's an example of life's clues shaping my work."

When Tattooed Ladies was finished, Good Girls was still little more than a vague idea. She says she knew that she wanted do portrait busts in her next piece, but it wasn't until 2000 that life pushed her in the direction of Good Girls.

While housesitting for her parents, who still lived in Sharon, Penn., Lysohir was pumping gas when a woman called out to her, saying they graduated from high school together in 1968.

"I didn't recognize her, but she recognized me after all those years and said how she looked up to me, and I felt bad because I didn't remember her. So when I got back to Moscow, I found my yearbook, and I looked her up. Her name was Mary Reynolds, and she had a twin sister, Nora. She was in band and her sister was in orchestra."

It was that brief encounter in her hometown, what Lysohir would describe as one of "life's little clues," that pushed her desire to complete a series of portrait busts in the direction of the 163 ceramic replicas that became High School Portraits, 1968, Good Girls, Sharon, Pennsylvania.

"That happens with most of my pieces," explains Lysohir. "I'll have an idea, and I have to wait to see what form it takes. That's actually sometimes the hardest part."

Lysohir started the project in 2003 and only finished in May of this year. However, she says that unlike Tattooed Ladies, she spent very little time determining form during the four years it took to complete Good Girls. Instead, her progress on the new piece was impeded by the explosive growth of her chocolate company.

Cowgirl Chocolates started out of a combination of Lysohir's curiosity to learn how to successfully sell and market a product and her conviction that her brother's seemingly hairbrained idea of infusing chocolate with chili peppers was brilliant. She started the company out of her kitchen in 1997, and in 10 years, Lysohir has become a successful chocolatier. Ironically, however, Cowgirl Chocolates isn't her first foray into the mysteries of the cocoa bean. In fact, the artist says chocolate is partially to blame for her decision to pursue sculpture-style ceramics.

"My first job at 16 was in a chocolate store and factory," she says. "The person who owned that company loved art, and I did, too. I ended up doing these chocolate sculptures for them, and he wanted a 4-foot rabbit. So I figured out how to do it, and I came back and I said, 'I made a mistake. How big is the door?'"

An error in her calculations led to an 8-foot rabbit that barely fit through the door, but once it was on display, it became a kind of community world wonder.

"We got it in there, and it was this big sensation. It was absolutely amazing. Little kids would bite it; there were thousands of people who came in to see it." After that, Lysohir began sculpting exotic fauna of all species from factory chocolate. Years later, in reference to her dual careers as ceramics sculptor and chocolate maker, she points a finger at that first 8-foot chocolate bunny.

"That's how I got interested in chocolate. And actually, it was interesting because it was very important to how my art developed later on." Describing the East Coast school of thought in ceramics as more pottery-based and Western thought more sculpture-based, Lysohir says that while in graduate school in Washington, she found herself making sculpture and putting it on pottery.

"Finally I thought, 'I'm not really interested in that pottery, I'm interested in the sculpture.' And I thought, 'Oh my goodness, it's the bunny.'"

After Cowgirl Chocolates won several awards in the fiery food business, it appeared on the Food Network and in several magazines and newspapers. The company took off, launching what had begun as an in-home business into a line of specialty chocolate products. It started to consume a good deal of Lysohir's time.

"I was quite busy with the company, so I worked on [Good Girls] when I could," she says. It wasn't until Washington State University scheduled the girls for a show last May that Lysohir really set to work. "I said, 'I have 127 heads to do. How many do I have to do every week so that I have them done by March or April of 2007?'"

While she was finishing the busts, Lysohir met a filmmaker who was interested in documenting the project, further expanding Good Girls. The debut show at Washington State University, which included clips from the documentary-in-progress, was where BAM's assistant curator Amy Pence-Brown first saw Good Girls.

"When I first saw the piece—all 163 pieces—it was stunning," says Pence-Brown. "They wrapped all the way around the room. And, of course, the framed ephemera, there was lots of that. And the documentary was playing. It was so moving to see it all in person."

Good Girls was one of the most popular pieces in the Triennial. Pence-Brown says Lysohir's ability to pay tribute to the women while still touching viewers is part of her charisma as an ideal artist.

Lysohir had her doubts that she'd be able to pull off both feats.

"It was so personal, I thought maybe I had crossed the line, that it wouldn't be a good art piece," confesses Lysohir. "I've learned in the past that if you can air other things with that personal idea, then the artwork has more of a universal belief." As for a universal belief in Good Girls, it's the work's ability to transport viewers back to their youth, something that Lysohir says she didn't expect.

"The piece has a life of its own after a while," she says. "You just trust ideas that pop into your head and don't ignore them."

As she worked on the piece, one of those ideas was to contact the women and ask for updated photos and a letter about their lives over the last 40 years. Of the almost 60 women Lysohir was able to find and speak with, 33 sent her updates, and all of the letters and photos are included as the framed ephemera addendum to the portrait busts. Given the installation's space constraints—Pence-Brown says the only reason Good Girls wasn't shown in its entirety was because of limited space in the group show—only one frame of ephemera accompanied the 43 heads chosen for BAM's show.

Now, Lysohir is letting Good Girls fly out on its own, as part of it the Triennial's tour and then for a showing at Port Angeles Fine Art Center in Washington. She's working to secure a show location in Pennsylvania, where the documentary will be finished, but due to the size of the piece and the costly shipping process, she has yet to shore up anything solid.

"Like I said, I tend to finish a piece and then I detach. That allows me to start the next piece. But this one is hanging on a little bit more, and I think it's because of the film," she says.

However, her next idea has already begun to take shape. After participating in a group show in Baltimore for which she completed a series of nude figures placed in small red bags and then hung on the wall, she's combining that work with something from the recent past. She's planning to revisit The Tattooed Ladies and the Dinosaur with an extension of figurative work that's a nude study of the female form.

She won't start that project, however, until after the holidays—high time in the chocolate business.

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