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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Artist Profile: Mary Leslie

A lens enlarges the smallest of print. A lost piece looks askance, the not-so-perfect fit of a precisely placed slice of metal. Mary Leslie’s assemblages and drypoint etchings probe and provoke. They are exacting, discerning, and utterly seditious.

“I love the idea of drawing on copper,” she says, pulling out a print of measurements, a micrometer, a pair of glasses, instructions. “It’s something you’re not supposed to do and it feels great.”

She talks about her parents, both precise people, people rooted in dimensions, widths, and quantities.

“Measurement was my dad’s deal,” she says, snugging on her magnifying headgear. “I couldn’t learn to drive until I could describe how the clutch works.”

A lot of her assemblages address the way things work accompanied by the feeling that if you could somehow turn them on, there’s no limit to the amount of knowledge accessible.

And yet, there remains a bit of the rebel in there.

“My mother did non-destructive testing for flaw detection in the engineering and aerospace industry—you don’t want those submarine nuclear reactors blowing up,” she says. “My dad was a master tool and die maker for the aerospace program.”

Her pieces have the appearance of an unfamiliar implement, and her illustrative drawing style is more a commitment to reality than a voice of reason. Details count.

Growing up in Melbourne, Florida, watching the rockets go up and later moving to Oakridge, Tennessee, home of the Manhattan Project, she felt surrounded by inevitable doom.

“I was a child of the Cold War,” she says. “The mentality that the world was going to blow up just stayed with me through the years.”

Perhaps her saving grace were the comics and books she found as a young child.

“I learned to read and draw from comics and fairy tale books,” she says, pulling out an aged tome of Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book from her studio shelf and opening up to a page of agonizingly beautiful illustrations, of grotesque stories and fierce magic.

Like those books, Leslie’s work asks the viewer/reader to open them up, to tread lightly, but tread nonetheless into this other place of possibilities, a place we are invited to believe in.

It’s also part of what draws her to maps (another obsession).

On her drafting table, where everything is neat and orderly, each tool in its place, there is an overflow of maps. Behind her worktable is a piece in progress: a wooden drawer with a cut-out topographical map of Kidder County, North Dakota, a place where she spent some time healing.

“For me maps opened up worlds,” she says, focusing again on the small pendant work in front of her. “My parents both believed in another world, one of which was hell. But I thought if I crawled in the right spot at the back of my closet there would be a world no one knows about… a gateway. I dream about that still. And I think that’s why I like maps so much.”

She wonders why we are separated from these other worlds.

“We know they’re there even if we can’t get there.”

In a way, Leslie’s assemblages feel like machines made to measure the distance between those places. The magnifying lenses, the micrometers, the instruments. A way to find the gateway, if not physically, then emotionally. There is also a nod to the artist Lee Bontecu’s combination of organic form and mechanisms in her work.

Leslie’s art—whether it be a drypoint etching, an assemblage, or even the pendant necklaces she’s constructing—all refer back to specific notches of her past, especially the tools of her parents. In the pendants she’s using sawed-off pieces of a three-sided wooden ruler, the kind of precision instrument her father would know well. Underneath the gemstone is a circle from a map.

Because her work is so detailed, the aspects so purposeful, they are an invitation to look closely. And with each revisit, something new pops up.

“I want people to feel as if they found those tiny things in my pieces themselves,” she says. “Like treasure.”

In her sculpture called, “Condemned,” there are leftover pieces of metal plates, discarded bits and knobs arranged in a box she rescued from the rubbish pile.

“That’s what my dad would call something that didn’t work just right. Condemned. It wasn’t just bad, it was ‘condemned,’” she says, lifting a miniscule paper circle into place. “And back then, if people knew about me, a butch dyke kid who didn’t understand where she belonged, I’d be condemned, too.”

Even if you don’t understand the personal meanings in her pieces, the intent of something so deeply felt is communicated, like a secret language. You may not know the words’ meaning but the tone is there. It’s more than enough.

“I know everything I do narrative,” she says, removing her magnifying lenses. “I can’t help myself—and I won’t.”

Through her narrative pieces we get to know who Mary Leslie is and who she is not. And by experiencing these moments, we feel the humming insight of our own small rebellions.  -TBM

Author's Note:  Mary Leslie may be contacted directly via email at


Michele Corriel's article from December introduced the loyal Magpie readers to sculptor Katie Brown.

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