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Confluence of Culture

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke

Decades into her career, Mary Ann Peters embraces history, politics and her own heritage.

Mary Ann Peters has been practicing visual art in Seattle for more than 30 years. Whether working with large-scale sculptural materials or delicate drawings and paintings, she constructs gestures grand and sublime, and often incomprehensibly fragile in their ephemerality. (At Out of Sight in 2015, for example, Peters collaborated with MKNZ to create an arabesque-engraved installation on the floor of King Street Station made of 500 lbs. of pressed flour.) Peters has amassed many awards and accolades and is a founder of Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA). With family roots in Syria and Lebanon, her work has become increasingly embedded with political commentary. This spring she was in residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, researching migration histories out of the Middle East, comparing the exodus out of greater Syria at the turn of the 20th century and that of today. Those stories will serve as the foundation for forthcoming works in her series Impossible Monuments. I caught up with her while she was in Cassis.

You visited Syria for the first time a few years ago. How has connecting to your heritage shifted your artwork, if at all?
To be clear, my homeland is America and my heritage is Syrian/Lebanese, two generations removed. This distinction and distancing is key to the shift in my work, which has become more specific in light of current events and my visit to the region in 2010. I felt an urgency before applying my concerns to my work as people of Arab descent were publicly maligned and challenged. I just needed the nerve, which surfaced somewhat unexpectedly at this point in my life.

Are you interviewing migrants for this new work?
The research I’ve been doing in Marseille is tied to archives there and to various people who are preserving the records of migrating histories. I hired a young woman to translate for me. We have visited a handful of history museums, from maritime to contemporary, and walked the streets of Marseille looking for the vestiges of communities in a state of flux. As a port city, it’s been a confluence of cultures for centuries.

Do you think there’s a greater mandate for artists to get politically involved today?
I’ve always believed that artists should be engaged in political and social commentary. I would not want anyone to dabble in activism simply because the current climate has made anxiety a new reason to act. In fact, there are ethical precedents that make how one uses current events particularly sensitive. But I do believe firmly that if you don’t speak up, someone whose perspective you don’t respect might speak for you.

And how does that relate to working as a commercial artist? You’ve been represented by commercial galleries for quite a while—but is that scene changing too?
Working in the arena of the arts has always pitted capital against opportunity. The rub is that someone can do anything they want with their money. And the fickle nature of the art world—its malleable, sometimes sloppy, frantic search for relevance—is always the elephant in the room. But I actually think this moment is opportune.

You spoke to this a bit at a Town Hall talk a few months ago, addressing a heated question about whether commercial galleries are closing up shop in Seattle.
The uncharted ground is decentralizing where art is expected. I’d argue that’s the future. It’s a different kind of respect for the audience if you go to them instead of lamenting that they don’t come to you. Why not have cultural corridors in every neighborhood, not just Pioneer Square? Why not make access to our work more precious instead of ubiquitous?

I understand you’re presenting a special project at the Seattle Art Fair in August.
I’ve been asked to recreate my piece called “the world is a garden” [a mixed-media installation spanning 12 feet made of wood, aramid honeycomb and plastered flowers, originally exhibited at James Harris Gallery in 2015]. The work for the fair will be larger, more sculptural and visible from four sides as opposed to only viewed from one perspective. It will be at the juncture of four aisles inside the fair.

The third annual Seattle Art Fair takes place Aug. 3–6 at CenturyLink Field Event Center.

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