Whitehot Magazine

Letter To The Universe: An Interview with Artist Maura Doyle


 Maura Doyle, Erratic Boulder, Public Sculpture in Christie Pits Park, City of Toronto (Commissioned by the Toronto Sculpture Garden), Granite boulder with bronze plaque, 114 x 70 x 63”, 2004 



Maura Doyle? I’m a big fan, long-time fan for at least twenty years now. Her work primarily deals with themes of nature, excess and waste (what she terms ‘garbologic’) without coming off doom-laden, there is always an organic sense of humour: big themes get personable. There has long been a penchance in Canada to make ‘the world’s largest’ (be it a hockey stick or a perogie) and Maura is no different. She almost made the world’s largest gumball and this ‘almost’ is an important part of her work yet not with any notion of disappointment, no no, the exact opposite: it’s fantastic! Process actualizes the manifestation, be it through catalogues, chip bag collecting, posters or larger than life replicas of prize winning paper cups. Canada is the world’s largest country and Maura has lived in various parts of it, Japan too, and is currently residing in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Interview conducted in person elsewhere.

Robert: I hope you don’t mind me getting retrospective because I’ve known you a long time. I still have a total memory of the first time we met -around 1995 or so. My band July Fourth Toilet was rehearsing in a basement - you and artist Annie Dunning showed up. It seemed like you guys had just come off a long road-trip and were there to meet artist Marc Bell. You guys had matching sequined fanny packs! This threw me off and fascinated me at the same time. We’re going back twenty years here. Fanny packs were simply not ‘done.’ It was a fashion faux pas.

Maura: I think we bought them at a store for old ladies.

Robert: They were gorgeous fanny packs.

Maura: I still have mine. It’s part of my fanny pack collection.

Robert: Where did you come to Vancouver from?

Maura: I came from Montreal.  Annie and I drove all the way to Vancouver and then the car broke down shortly after. We got everything from the car and just left it at the side of the road. Never went back to get it.

Robert: How did you and Annie meet?

Maura: We’re childhood friends. Annie and I grew up in rural Ontario. We both had hippy parents, who moved out to the Ottawa Valley in the early 70s. Back to the land-ers. Our parents were friends so we became friends early 

Robert: It seemed natural that you guys would collaborate a lot together, especially early on, as artists.

Maura: We see our collaborations as an extension of what we got up to as kids. Her dad had a bronze casting foundry so we used to make stuff out of wax, these little creatures. We created a little wax universe.

Robert: I can see that in your work. You and Annie started doing your mail order catalogs and did about ten catalogs throughout the 90s and into the 2000s. They’d all be hand drawn and people could actually order these items. I ordered ‘art object’ for five dollars. What I got was a really miniature rendition of the Venus of Willendorf.

Maura: That was from one of the later issues called Very Fine Art. The first Mail Order Catalogue issue was in 1994 and then we did one issue every year after that. We did an Easter themed issue.  Later, we were both living in Japan, so the issue was a bilingual catalog where you could send us anything and we would make a particular kind of reproduction of the item you sent us. You could choose the style of reproduction.

Robert: How many orders would you get per issue?

Maura: We might get anywhere from thirty to seventy.

Robert: You had a special millennium issue celebrating the year 2000 that kinda coincided with the pins you were making. When did you start making these pins that commemorated years?

Maura: I started in ’97 partly because there was a lot of hype leading up to the millennium, then the Y2K thing.

Robert: There was a year panic over it becoming the year 2000 where everything was pinned on a year.

Maura: A year on a pin.

Robert: You reacted with these pins but you also deviated into other years.

Maura: I started making future years and playing around with very basic elements like the size of the pin, the font, the colour. You can read into a font in a lot of ways. For the 1997 one I used a typewriter.

Robert: 1997 was a transition year.

Maura: Yes! Emily Carr (art college in Vancouver) had a special room with typewriters.

Robert: They also had a little room with the internet in it. You were doing your undergrad there. Did you ever hand in your catalogues as part of your work?

Maura: I considered it part of my practice. It was art work to me, but I didn’t feel like it needed to be validated by the school. It was about being part of this network of zinesters, comic artists and the people that we were corresponding with. It was alive. I did present it once at school and it didn’t go over very well. I think I ended up crying. I had to go meet with the Dean because the faculty on my critique were concerned that I hadn’t done anything. I presented a table with junky, scrappy, glued together things, and the catalogue, a cut and paste photocopied booklet. I had worked on it the whole semester.

Robert: Wow, so you had to validate it.

Maura: I didn’t know how to validate it at the time.

Robert: It feels like things have changed. I always felt very insecure about my comic and zine stuff in school, much less so in Grad school.  One instructor in my under grad, Dennis Burton, showed me how to take care of my nibs and brushes, it was validating, his lettering style was amazing and that was in his work in the 1960s and 70s and here I was, insecure in the 90s. So the pins that you made really got out into the world, people were wearing them. Would people be confused when they saw someone wearing a pin of a year in the future?

Maura: Even when I wore a pin of the current year people always asked.

Robert: How would you answer?

Maura: I would say, “It’s the year. It’s right now.” It’s stating the obvious.

Robert: You created all these pins as a response to the year 2000 coming where all the computers would crash but then nothing happened.

Maura: Nothing changed! I was living in Japan at the time so not a lot of English media, no social media like there is now. I had to go to an internet cafe to “check my internet” (my email). We survived Y2K. However, my button project fizzled out by 2006. My button maker broke. Luckily I had made buttons for the next 100 years. To feel like I was part of something was a big motivation for making and distributing. Part of the new millenium yes, but more so part of a community of artists and weirdos making stuff and sharing ideas, sending stuff through the mail. I don’t have that so much anymore. Now I make things for exhibition and then the works either end up in a box in my studio or sometimes my gallery might sell something.

Robert: With the catalogs would you and Annie make the objects first?

Maura: No. Often, over the course of a couple of weeks we would jam out the catalog. It was a lot of word play and drawing. Most of the time we didn’t know what we would be sending until someone ordered it. Each time someone ordered something we could interpret the description or the drawing however we wanted and make it specific to the customer. It was fun. It was a lot of work, sometimes we would get so many orders we couldn’t keep up with them. It was something we did together, though we weren’t always living in the same city. Sometimes we would…fax each other the different pages.

Robert: Have you and Annie worked on anything since then?

Maura: Noooo!

Robert: Time for a new catalog!

Maura: There’s a lost issue. Issue number eight was lost.

Robert: Maybe it’s time to be found again. You’re both in Ontario….

Maura: We’ve tried a few times but we are both busy with other projects. We like the idea that one day we can reproduce all of the catalogues as a series of ten.

Robert: You both had a shopping cart moving company at the same time -with matching red outfits and white curatorial gloves- to move people’s belongings so long as they fit in a shopping cart. It wasn’t your own shopping cart.

Maura: If we had a moving job we would just go grab one from the alley.

Robert: How many moves did you do?

Maura: Maybe half a dozen.

Robert: Were they people really needing their stuff moved in a shopping cart?

Maura: Once it was a big piece of furniture that was needed to be moved a few blocks.

Robert: Your company had a five block limit. Were they grateful?

Maura: Oh yeah. With one we made the National news. They did a really great story on the project.

Robert: Did the orders go up after the news story?

Maura: A little bit.

Robert: I think I saw ads in supermarkets.

Maura: We postered the city with little tear off phone numbers.

Robert:. I did a little project of tear away numbers but didn’t get them out into the world as you guys did.  It felt so immediate and mysterious.

Maura: There wasn’t as much of that happening in Vancouver at that time, artists doing work that would exist in the world that way.

Robert: Not being kept to the gallery.

Maura: It was just pure luck that a clown found our poster and called Dave Gerry, the TV reporter.

Maura Doyle, Poster traded for 10 empty chip bags (part of a series of 15 posters), Digital print with add-on miniature chip bags and string,11 x 17”, 2004

Robert: Moving on, you got really into potato chips, which you are still into today. Have you been a life-long lover of chips?

Maura: Definitely. I like salty over sweet, that’s my preference. I started getting into the chip bag design. I was collecting bags because of that. Well, also because I was eating chips.

Robert: You were drawn to the aesthetics.

Maura: It’s so over the top, right? The names, the mascots, the squiggly lines and the bright colours.

Robert: You liked that there was something excessive about it?

Maura: The packaging is excessive, the product is excessive, it’s not even food.

Robert: Its garbage. It’s probably not even recyclable. It’s landfill food. But it’s affordable. You showed your chip work at Sydney Hermant’s gallery in Vancouver?

Maura: It was a residency. I stayed there at her and Dan’s house. I stayed there for a month or two weeks or something and I showed in the pantry. I set up the pantry with chip bags hanging from strings with a fan blowing them so it looked like they were falling from the sky. It was a simulation of a proposal that I wanted to do, which was to collect ten thousand empty chip bags and then get a helicopter to drop them. Well, originally I just wanted to drop them and see them fall as an event.

Robert: Because it would just look pretty in a weird way?

Maura: Well, that and it’s also excessive-

Robert: Ten thousand-

Maura: -ten thousand is not excessive, it’s accessible, it felt like a number that I could deal with.

Robert: It is excessive and it isn’t excessive. Ten thousand is a lot but in terms of how many chip bags get thrown into landfills it’s not.

Maura: Yeah. Then I realized that I would need some kind of container to catch them all so that’s when I decided to put them in the SkyBowl.

Robert: The SkyDome?

Maura: I had renamed it the SkyBowl for the purpose of the project. 

Robert: Because that’s what would fit empty chip bags. A bowl. And it is shaped like a bowl.

Maura: Yeah. And the SkyBowl has a retractable roof.

 Experiments, pit-fired stoneware, mdf, steel, spray paint, latex paint 106 x 14 x 48" (Pots of various dimensions), 2014-2016

Robert: It’s an absurd over sized building in Toronto where people go watch things, located next to the second highest building (it was the highest at one point) in the world called the CN Tower -which is really just a Space Needle, they just made it bigger. 

Maura: It was a proposal that I really wanted to do. I was taking the steps to see it through. It never actually happened. In the end I was okay with it not happening because if it did happen I wanted it to happen in a way that felt comfortable for me. I didn’t want to pay I think it’s twenty thousand dollars to rent the SkyBowl for 24 hours. Even if I had the twenty thousand dollars is that what I would want to spend it on? Maybe, depending on the circumstances it could happen. I still haven’t totally ruled it out. I’m collecting the chip bags.

Robert: Maybe their prices will go down.

Maura: Supposedly The Girl Guides or the Boy Scouts rent it out and they have a sleep over on the field.

Robert: You could drop the bags on all those kids. 

Maura: Or on a game for a more renegade drop.

Robert: You’d only need it for an hour.

Maura: And then the logistics of getting the bags to drop properly and not being swept up into the propeller.

Robert: That could be dangerous!

Maura: I just wanted to say that for that project the process of collecting the bags became part of the project. I designed these posters that riffed on the chip bag design I was seeing. The posters documented my process and represented my proposal. There was probably half a dozen posters and then visitors could trade ten empty chip bags for a poster.  For every exhibit and also by word of mouth I was distributing posters and collecting chip bags.

Robert: How many bags are you at now?

Maura: I might have a thousand. 

Robert: You’re ten percent there. 

Maura: A lot of them, they’re obsolete now. 

Robert: Do you have Hostess Rave? It came out in the late 90’s. They’re extra salty. 

Maura: Maybe.

 Maura Doyle, Dear Universe (March 2010), gouache on paper, 65 x 46 1⁄2”, 2010

Robert: Your work is so diverse. I see a lot that is funny and personable but there’s also this massiveness. At one point you were trying to make the world’s largest gumball. 

Maura: I forgot about that! Wrigley donated a hundred packs of gum to that project.

Robert: Who had the health concern? 

Maura: That would have been Trident. 

Robert: When you wrote them requesting gum. You had it on display at The Dynamo Gallery in Vancouver while you were trying to make it bigger.

Maura: Then I wrote to Ripley’s. They weren’t interested. They didn’t want The World’s Largest Gumball. There is one on record now but it’s not much bigger than mine. 

Robert: It’s only going to take fifty more packs. Where is the gumball now?

Maura: It’s on a shelf in my kitchen. My eight year old son told me that it was gross. 

Robert: Would I be right with your aesthetic? The SkyBowl is massive but not personable… 

Maura: But the process of collecting the chips and interacting with the people doing the trade. 

Robert: That’s personable. You didn’t build The SkyBowl. It was already there.

Maura: I built a maquette. I think it’s partly that I’m ambitious but I’m not realistic.

Robert: To me, the SkyBowl itself doesn’t seem very realistic. I guess renting it for the day is not realistic either.

Maura: Especially someone in my income bracket.

Robert: But you can try. Maybe the idea of it is uh- 

Maura: -is enough? In some ways I agree but I can never let go of the fact that I may still one day drop those ten thousand bags, heck, maybe it will be more than ten thousand. The same with the gumball. I can keep working on that. I can break the world record.  And also, I guess I like the absurdity, it’s a great motivator. 

Robert: We talk about the excess, the waste of chips. You were raised by hippies in this element of back to the land and nature.  In your more recent work this exists side by side. You have sticks. Were they real sticks. 

Maura: Yes. Lucky sticks. They were sticks. We dipped them in diamond water.

Robert: Where’d you get the diamond water from?

Maura: From Shayne Ehman. I think he was living with Zoe and their house had it on tap.

Robert: You use sticks and stones a lot in your work. They’re kind of like nature’s waste. You’re doing replicas of sticks too and over-sized replicas of say, a Tim Horton’s paper cup.

Maura: It was a winning cup. You’d roll up the rim of the cup and you could either get ‘try again’ or ‘winner.’ It was a winning cup. 

Robert: It was twenty times the size of a normal cup.

 Maura Doyle, Spring barrel firing, digital image, 2014

Maura: I jacked it to biggest scale I could that would fit in my studio.

Robert: Was it all about the winning or that it was trash?

Maura: It was both. It was for a show I did where everything was over sized.

Robert: Including bones.

Maura: Porcelain bones-

Robert: -bones are human waste-

Maura: Yah, and also in that show letters to the universe. 

Robert: With the letters to the universe you would ask really big questions to the universe then ask about the Doritos mystery chip  flavour. Again I see the combination of nature’s grand mystery and waste with the chips.

Maura: Tasty garbage. Definitely scale and time as a context that these small gestures can fit inside, it makes them seem futile or more important than they really are.

Robert: What could you normally win with a winning Tim Horton cup? 

Maura: You could win a Rav4.

Robert: It was a small gesture but you could win big. It was a discarded Tim Horton winning cup? 

Maura: Yeah. That whole show I was thinking about the idea of a prayer or a wish. If I make it big or if I make it loud then the universe will hear me. That’s why I scaled everything up.  I wanted to win that Rav4! I had these questions that I wanted to ask the universe. They’re funny but a lot of the time I mix the humour with things that are really important to me. 

Robert: Do you expect answers?

Maura: I don’t think you have to get an answer. It’s stating an intention, figuring out what you want. 

Robert: It’s not like The Secret wish fulfillment. The act is a way of figuring it out. 

Maura: As an artist the act of making or realizing something from an idea to something that exists in the world is similar. The gesture of transforming your thoughts into an artwork, whether it’s explicit or not, is a way to figure stuff out. With the letters (to the universe), it was explicit. They ask for what I want, what I wonder about.

Robert: When you say you are not being realistic, in a way, you are making it happen anyways. What would filling up The SkyBowl with chip bags actually do? 

Maura: It makes it a garbage receptacle.

Robert: Not that different from what they use it for normally.

Maura: The SkyBowl is a place of excess: it’s got the entry tickets, you can buy lots of things, the hot dogs. Pro sports is so extreme, the music, the screams, the noise, the fans. Don’t get me wrong, I like going to games. But my background, growing up in a small village with hippy parents and hippy neighbours I definitely see the world through that lens and I am very conscientious of my personal impact on my environment and also urban life and culture in general.

Robert: You could have easily put ‘sorry, try again’ on the Tim Horton’s cup and be part of defeatist culture but there’s a certain glee about winning.

Maura: I want to win, I’m in it to win it. 

Robert: You want to be aware of these things but want to enjoy the luxuries. When people ask how Donald Trump came about and you say, “Look at chips, look at McDonald’s.” These things of excess with no nutritional value. 

Maura: I struggle with that in art-making. This last show I installed at Carleton University, I hired someone to make all these MDF plinths. I had a lot of anxiety about it because MDF is really toxic material. I went through with it. It’s fine. On the scale of the kinds of things that happen in modern society it is a drop in the bucket.

Robert: I work at a movie theatre and the amount of stuff they throw in the landfill, the amount of Pepsi cups and bags that can’t be recycled. 

Maura: It’s really hard to know when to participate. It’s impossible not to be part of it.

Robert: When people advertise themselves as carbon footprint free. That term is impossible! 

Maura: It’s an ideal to aspire to. My parents were environmental activists before it was a thing. Not activists as in protest but in how they chose to live their life.

Robert: We talk about this love/hate of chips, we know they’re waste. 

Maura: I know they’re bad for me. 

Robert: We can praise and appraise them, when you replicate them you make them as nice as possible and I still see your playful line.

Maura: It’s hand-made.

Robert: You’re doing a lot of pottery now and you’re firing them with chip bags, aren’t you? 

Maura: With chips. Dill Pickle, Ketchup and All Dressed. 

Robert: They’re clay objects? 

Maura: Most of them are a play on the form of the pot.

Robert: They’re more subtle in some ways, a little more under-stated but I can still see your playful style and that hand-made quality.

Maura: They’re quiet. When I made them that was the space I was wanting to be in. I didn’t want to be on the computer anymore. I had been making a lot of conceptually based work and it was exhausting me mentally and I found that the projects ended up being administrative where I would come up with idea and then I would have to implement it somehow.  I had been doing ceramics for many years on the side. It’s very slow. My pots are hand coiled, it’s very relaxing and rejuvenating. It gives me energy. 

Robert: Yet you’re still incorporating elements of excess with the chips. I see our brains getting fatigued. Even in cinema I have been seeing slow movies as a reaction to Hollywood blockbusters. I don’t want a bunch of blowing shit up.  And even when you go see your ceramic work it’s more still.

Maura: It’s more solitary. It’s just where I’m at right now. I really like it. I like the pace of it. I’m firing them outdoors either in a pit or in a barrel with an open flame.

Robert: It’s still distinctively you!

Maura: Yes! 

Robert: The squiggly coils…

Maura: It’s very playful still. I really tried to develop my skill but I have a hard time getting away from that sloppy or quick… 

Robert: …That’s something I think about a lot. I can’t draw a straight line but I am actually trying to make it look good. I’ll try to incorporate Art Deco into my work but it will come out looking fucked up. Do you feel that way?

Maura: To a degree. I think that I’ve built up my skills enough in hand building that I can build anything I want. My preference is still to have a wonky shaped pot or I like building them with thicker walls because they’re sturdier and faster. Hand-building is so slow. 

Robert: Okay, so you got pulled into that old chestnut where once a year or so the newspapers want to sell some papers and do a cover story going, “This is art????? The taxpayers are paying for this!!!!”

Maura: That was last year or the year before I guess. It was on the front page of The Toronto Sun.

Robert: You made the front page of the Toronto daily paper.

Maura: One of them, yup.

Robert: Oh right, there’s more than one.

Maura: It was a sculpture that I did in 2004. It’s an erratic glacial boulder. When the ice sheet receded 15,000 years ago from this area of Ontario it dropped a bunch of boulders that had been ground down to these nice, smooth rocks in different locations heading up towards The Canadian Shield. So I brought one from The Canadian Shield about 150 kilometres north of Toronto into the city and put it into The Sculpture Garden as public art.

Robert: This is someone else’s work!

Maura: It’s the hand of God. The universe. There’s a little plaque on it that says ‘Erratic Boulder.’ In addition to the actual sculpture I made a city guide book which gives the social background of twenty different other rocks around the city. 

Robert: You had done this in Vancouver, as well. You even did a tour. 

Maura: Probably. 

Robert: I was on the tour! You did!

Maura: Yeah…..I lost my train of thought. …The guidebook and the rock were companion pieces. There was a map on site that showed the locations around the city of the other twenty rocks. I worked with the geologists and we created a history for each rock. I did community research talking to people in the neighbourhoods gathering anecdotes and stories involving different activities that involved the rock.

Robert: It was much more than a boulder with a plaque and anyone who went to The Sculpture Garden would be able to know that?

Maura: The thing is the city owns it now and it’s in Christie Pits park so the guidebook is not tied to it anymore.

Robert: So when The Toronto Sun reported it they focused on the rock, they didn’t focus on the guidebook or that it was a free gift to the city?

Maura: Or that it wasn’t actually publicly funded, it was privately funded. They fucked the whole story up. I’m the one that really paid for it because I was paid next to nothing. I worked so hard on that project.

Robert: How did you feel when it made the front page? Was it a weird feeling?

Maura: No, I enjoyed that because I knew that it was art. I was happy to have the media coverage. It was on the front page twice actually. 

Robert: Same reason? 

Maura: Yeah 

Robert: Yet people are saying again and again and again in the story’s online comments section that it was not publicly funded!

Maura: My Dad posted in the comments section and his comment was, “Everything is art.” That’s where I’m coming from basically.

Robert: What are you up to now?

Maura: I’m doing another guidebook. It’s on removed public art in Ottawa. Some unauthorized, and in the case with publicly funded, work that is controversial or work that’s so bad or uninteresting that nobody even notices it.

Robert: So we are dealing with two extremes. Work that has to be safe but if it’s too safe it also gets removed. 

Maura: If it’s really, really bad it gets media coverage as well. There’s such a range with public art and what it can be. Public art funding comes from so many places and different kinds of juries, from community and business improvement associations. The range at work is phenomenal: the range of kinds of work and quality of work. Who am I to judge? I am coming from my own background of what I think public art should be and I think it should relate somehow to what’s happening in contemporary art. I am doing this in the city of Ottawa, so a lot of public art is monuments.

Robert: The nation’s capital city.

Maura: There’s a lot of bronze monuments. 

Robert: A lot of Canadians forget that Ottawa is our nation’s capital. It’s not a go-to city. 

Maura: The only time people are there, it’s because they are passing through or they are on a Canada Council jury. There’s a well known and controversial sculpture that is now in storage at the National Gallery in Canada. I’m hoping, as part of my piece, to bring it out of storage and set it up somewhere in the city. That part of the project - I’m having some logistical problems.

Robert: Fingers crossed! I have one last question! You have the term ‘garbologic.’ Where are we in relation to nature? 

Maura: I like to think of ourselves as part of nature. Obviously there’s a division of some kind but I think that it’s a lot smaller than culture has established it.

Robert: You even see that in your ‘garbologic’ photos of man-made items like corn syrup cans that have been buried beneath the ground for years then dredged up and photographed.

Maura: A Mr. Freeze wrapper...

Robert: …probably from forty years ago, that’s somewhat integrated itself with nature.

Maura: I feel like almost all of my projects touch on that in some way, to try to clarify or debunk this division and what it means. I'm talking about the division between us and the natural world or the inanimate world, and even the world beyond earth, the cosmos. To create new scenarios that level the playing field. That wasn’t very well stated. I’ll edit it. WM



Robert Dayton

Robert Dayton is a writer, artist and performer based in Toronto Ontario, Canada www.robertdayton.com


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