By Allison Hersh
In “Big Game,” a ceramics exhibit on display at the city of Savannah’s Gallery S.P.A.C.E., Mac McCusker attempts to give threatened animals a voice.
Starting with solid blocks of clay, she crafts lifelike elephants, rhinoceroses, orangutans and leopards. Her ceramic sculptures are defined by shiny, lush surfaces and intricate details reflecting a deep passion for wildlife. Many of the works featured at Gallery S.P.A.C.E. include mixed media accents, from drawings to jeweled adornments.
McCusker’s “Elephant Warrior” series has been meticulously handcrafted to evoke the regalia of traditional African warriors, including bamboo spears and jewelry crafted from African glass and brass beads.
“I wanted to be able to arm the elephants with their own weapons,” she explains, “so that they may be given a chance to defend themselves.”
The animals in “Big Game” are threatened by development, habitat encroachment and poaching. An avid environmentalist, McCusker encourages viewers to appreciate the power and majesty of these creatures and to reflect upon the ways in which humans can halt their destruction through strategic conservation efforts.
McCusker recently spoke with the Savannah Morning News about the importance of conservation, the allure of clay and the power of sculpture.
How did you originally get the idea for a ceramic series focusing on large land mammals?
I first heard about the poaching of rhinos for their horns on NPR some years ago. The horns are ground down and made into “Rhino Wine” and used to cure a hangover and as a status symbol of wealth. I did my own research and have read the Lawrence Anthony books about elephants and rhinos and his lifelong mission to help them in Africa. I just started sculpting them as I began to figure out what I wanted to communicate about the diminishing numbers of these animals.
Why was it important for you to share a conservation message with this particular exhibit?
The fact is that these animals are being slaughtered by the thousands. I wanted to make people pay attention to this. There has to be a way that we can stop it. As an artist, I have usually done social commentary. This was just a body of work I was compelled to do.
What are some of the technical challenges of creating such large ceramic works?
One of the reasons I think the ceramic medium really works with this message is its fragility. Clay is delicate. It can be broken, destroyed. Making these larger scale pieces from clay just seemed appropriate.
Please describe your process to create these large-scale ceramic works.
The pieces are made from a solid block of clay. They are then cut apart, hollowed and put back together. Most of the work in this exhibition is fired to around 2,400 degrees. The boxes are made from slabs, fired in the kiln, and then mixed media — like hinges, screws and decals — is added.
How did you first become interested in ceramics?
I started off in school as a painting major at Armstrong State University. I switched to ceramics after taking classes with John Jensen. My background in painting and drawing has always been beneficial in my ceramics.
Why are you drawn to sculpture and to creating three-dimensional work?
Sculpture allows me to take up physical space in ways that a two-dimensional image cannot do. My goal is to make the audience want to walk completely around the piece, to investigate it further. Our world moves so fast that we don’t even really look at art anymore. If I can make someone interact with, engage and examine an object that I have created, that is an amazing experience.