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Mary Wellehan

Artists Focus Interview by Katie Bonadies

Pictured: Mary Wellehan in her studio.

Mary has been at RWS since early spring of 2021. When Mary sits down to create she sits down without a plan, which is surprising but also makes sense considering she taught middle school for 24 years. She started as a theater teacher and evolved into an art teacher, though her love for creating started at a very young age. Mary was a crafter as a kid in a house filled with artwork. She remembers how she would go over the top with class projects, like the time she modeled a detailed medieval castle out of plaster. She loved every opportunity to bring art into what she was doing and Mary was drawn to teaching because it felt like a sustainable way to continue making art, and she loved it, “I loved being able to see that lightbulb in someone else and be able to empower a kid who thought they weren’t creative and didn’t know what to do and see their face light up when they saw their own work and think Wow, I did something really cool.”

She also really loved designing school projects and then making them herself. For a short time she taught at King Middle School in Portland, which has an expeditionary learning model wherein all of the subjects work together in depth around a specific focus. One focus was immigration and she designed a project where the class asked students who were new to the country to participate in a value portrait series that examined the relationship between light and dark values. They chose a turquoise spectrum that ranged from white to black with turquoise in the middle.

Tall Vase. Clay. 13"x4"x4".

The school had made a big piece of wood in the shape of the Statue of Liberty and students put the portraits at the top, “It was such an inclusive, empowering, piece of artwork.” Mary also felt that teaching was a gift because she had summer to pursue her own art. Summertime is when she would take workshops to fulfill the requirements to keep up her teaching credentials and she ended up taking classes at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and Penland School of Crafts. Roughly 20 years ago she took a sabbatical and spent an extended amount of time at Penland doing a concentration and ended up staying through the winter. When she returned to Seattle where she was living at the time, she signed up for classes at the University of Washington and got hooked on clay. She took another year off in 2020 when Covid hit and stepped away from teaching–following the pull to ‘go make’--to go and do what she really loved doing.

Platter. Clay. 10"x15"x3".

Mary first used a treadle wheel, which is a pottery wheel powered by a foot pedal, while studying at Penland. Her teacher was using one and asked if she’d like to give it a try. Mary had been frustrated with the electric wheel at the time and felt detached from it. She fell in love the moment she tried the treadle wheel, “It was an experience I had never had; I felt so connected and it was such a wow moment that I started to cry.” The slowness of the experience and the whole body connection spoke to her. It was also a moment where different life interests came together; she was a dancer growing up who had dreams of going to New York and becoming a prima ballerina. She hasn’t always been comfortable in her tall body and using the treadle made her feel like she fit perfectly. The wheel became an extension of herself with its whole body integration powered by her movement. Now she has her own treadle wheel that she named ‘Tulip’.

Bowl. Clay. 14"x6".

Mug. Clay. 6.5"x5"x3".

Plates. Clay. 10.5", 8", and 6".

Full Vase. Clay. 13"x6"x3".

Mary likes to be moved by the clay and see where it takes her, “Sometimes I’ve thought This is enough clay for a bowl or a mug. Often, I’m not intentional and it’s more of What do I feel like making at this moment? What do I want to do with this clay right now?” With her sculptural pieces, she stretches the clay by hand and follows the way each individual piece wants to fold in on itself, propping it up to create the form. All of her work, be it handbuilt sculptures or functional pottery thrown on her treadle wheel, possesses Mary’s preference for movement and softness in clay. When she’s throwing she thinks about how to alter the form just slightly to cut the linearity of the piece and create more visual interest. This creates a softness, by using curves and roundness, that gives each form a more organic elegance and unexpected feel inspired by the forms she sees in nature. Inspiration comes to Mary when she’s quiet and paying attention, “From letting go of my thoughts, letting go of what I have to do, and being present where I’m at and taking in and observing where I am right here, right now.” When she’s able to be present in this way, Mary is blown away by what she sees. Right now she is noticing spring and watching things wake up. She’s in awe of how it happens, in awe of nature in general and especially the ocean and bodies of water for their energy and power. There are days she’s in her head when she starts walking and she stops to look at the wonders everywhere around her. She can feel that physical shift into being awed, into a full sensory experience. Contact Mary on Instagram @mwellehan.


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