Mary Frank: "What is art for?"

The sculptor, painter and photographer reflects on the core value of art during a presentation for Harvard's Ceramics Program. 

By Anita Lo '16

“I constantly make lists,” artist Mary Frank said early in her speech on Oct. 22 at Harvard. “Lists like, ‘What is art for?’ Which is like asking, ‘What are we for?’ And my list is: to comfort the dead. To wake the living. To know nature, and that we are nature. To know the migration of stars, fish, birds, mammals and insects. To turn pain to joy. To take nothing for granted.”

It was a lengthy list, and the audience members murmured to themselves. Frank continued: “Before chamber musicians begin playing, they inhale. When they exhale, they start together. I would love to make, paint or draw that moment visible.”

I spoke with Frank briefly before her Visiting Artist Lecture, presented by the Ceramics Program at Harvard and the Harvard Ed Portal. Frank, after studying woodcarving for 15 years, has spent more years self-studying painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and photography with no formal instruction. Her art is often motivated by intuition, improvisation and free expression. Although I had questions prepared, I realized quickly that Frank wouldn’t give me answers that I could anticipate: Her conversation, like her artistry, tended to deviate from the prompt to hit on something deeper. 

“I’m curious how you managed to learn to work with so many different types of media,” I began.

“I couldn’t really explain,” she answered, before pausing and shaking her head. “Doing only one thing isn’t in my nature. People doing work that’s signature, where you can tell that it’s their work by the thing they do over and over – that’s something that’s not interesting to me. Style isn’t interesting. I feel that it’s a limitation.” 

I nodded, filling in the jump in conversation that she’d taken: “So, if you don’t think style is interesting, do you think anything really unites your work in painting, sculpture, photography, drawing?” 

“Art – I think it’s important to not just look at art,” she said, “but to look at the people looking at art. And hopefully it’d speak, or sing.” 

We both sat silently for a beat. Frank stared contemplatively at the stage before turning back to me to say, “I taught here once, and I had my entire class drawing a model on a 25-foot piece of paper on the ground, with the model moving slowly. And they were horrified, at first – that they would bump into someone else’s drawing or worse, be bumped into. But after a while the fear left, and we had these beautiful friezes. Fear gets in the way, always.” Frank punctuated this anecdote with a nod of such finality that I took this to be the end of her thoughts on the subject. 

As I was scrawling my last notes and readying my next questions, though, she continued: “Hopefully, there is something beyond style. Style is just something that’s applied to it after, not the actual art. When you strip that away, by switching mediums, you’re just left with what’s at the core.” 

“What’s at the core?” 

Frank laughed. “What’s at the core? The core. Corazón. Cuore. In different languages, it’s different, but it’s whatever comes from the deep place. Sometimes it’s conscious; sometimes it’s not. There’s a chance element, too.” 

I didn’t know yet exactly what she meant by this, but continued speaking with her until the room filled up and she was welcomed to the stage. After briefly giving her lists and musing on the pre-unison inhale of chamber music, she began speaking about her artwork – in no chronological order, moving from sculpture to sketch to encaustic with deliberation, but with reasons that were obscure to me. 

About her triptychs: “I loved watching people open and close them, when they closed one side or both sides, when they closed it around themselves. I liked the idea of triptychs being painted because they were easy to transport, but maybe they could also transport you.” 

About a painting that reminded her of how important drawing was to her: “I draw all the time. On leaves, and rocks, and things, but also on anchovy tins, sardine tins. It makes you observe the world –inner and outer – and you need your mind, heart and eyes.” She tilted her head, as if considering what she had just heard, and after subtly nodding in satisfaction gestured to the next slide. 

On The Near Far, a 2008 exhibition of painted portraits in the DC Moore gallery: “I liked that they faced each other in a corner. I was hoping they could talk to each other.” 

I couldn’t easily discern a particular order or reason to the order in which she displayed her artwork, nor was I particularly concerned with the reason as the presentation continued. As she jumped from painting to carving to torn paper landscapes backlit by window-filtered sunlight, I understood that there was perhaps no good way to record it all. To capture something constantly moving, to put down on paper someone constantly evolving, I would just have to capture what was at the core.

And what was at the core, cuore, corazón? I’m not sure, but it sang. 

Mary Frank’s solo exhibition Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow will be on display in Gallery Kayafas until November 28. Frank’s sculpture “Presence” is also on Harvard Business School’s campus, in front of Hamilton Hall.