KCEI

Interview by Mike Tilly KCEI, Aug 2019

      shaffer26sep181 - Mary Shaffer

Fire-Laundry

fire-laundry-1974-5-webpage

OK Harris NYC 1974, Providence, RI 1974, Rome 1973

Power of opposites

I believed that every point in time was equal to every other and that opposites are similar.

In Rome the construction sites used a green plastic mesh to cover the facades of buildings while work was being done. It was thought to be non-flammable so I decided to burn it up using electronic heating elements, the kind used in electric stoves. I found straight ones that would glow red hot. Because I was using high voltage the structure of the heating elements had to be done in three phase. 3 phase means that each electric ‘leg’ had to be in balance, or using as much electricity as each of the other two ‘legs’. So it becomes a balanced structure.

“Fire-Laundry” was exhibited at OK Harris in NYC with the electrical structure and a faked electrical box on the wall. I also had a tape recording of the sounds of the non-flammable material burning—it sounded like electronic music.

Point in Time

Rome, Italy 1975

Locating an exact time

I wondered how someone could communicate an exact time, what that would look like. I decided I would have to find a group of stars that pointed to a place in space by their pattern and structure. Since the universe is moving outward, the stars’ alignment would also denote an exact time. I was surprised to learn there were no three-dimensional maps of the universe then. The work was published in Rome along with that of other conceptual artists.

Perfect Pedestal for a Car


Murray State University, Murray, KY 1977

Comment on traditional sculpture

I was teaching sculpture at the University of RI although it was a studio class, I also talked about the development of sculptural ideas. When I was explaining Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and how Rodin decided to go against tradition and put the figures directly on the ground, not on plinths or sculpture stands. I started thinking about cars, how they are the sculptures of our time. They are an amazing composite of more than a 1,000 different carefully crafted pieces combined into one machine. I decided the perfect pedestal would be a water puddle.

At Murray State University I organized a performance. We dug a hole, filled it with water and put a car in it. Students volunteered to be the performer, or driver. It was a surprise to them how aggressive and angry the passersby were. The anger was similar to what Chris Burden said about his performance work “Five Day Locker Piece,” he said the students were combative and scary in his helpless, vulnerable position locked in a school locker and would poke things at him.

In Memory Of


Fine Arts Gallery Murray State University, Murray KY 1977

Memory and Healing

I was invited to do a show at Murray State’s Fine Arts Gallery, I was on the phone asking about the size of the room, and where the electrical outlets were. When they said every 10 feet in a grid pattern, I immediately had a vision of the show in every detail-- the poster, the title, and the way it would look.

I put college dorm-type gooseneck lamps at every outlet, realizing the space would look like a graveyard as well as an airport landing field. I wanted to put mementoes of the dead in small plastic sleeves under each lamp. I asked friends whether they had someone they wanted to remember. They all had such different ways to honor their dead.

Mike Fink, an art historian at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), came by my house with his baby in his arms. I asked whether he had someone to remember, he pulled a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket. “These are my mother’s,” he said. “She died several years ago.”

I asked my friend Ed Koren, the cartoonist. He said yes and went to his drafting table. From his pencils and pens, he pulled out dental tools. I said, “Oh, do you use these in your work?” He said no, his father had been a dentist and he liked to keep his tools close at hand.

Just the Two of Us

University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 1997

Duality and loneliness 

‘Just the Two of Us’ is experienced by walking into a building, down a hall, then into a large gallery room. In the middle of the room is a cube where a slightly smaller than average door is brightly lit. Beside the door is the text ‘if open enter alone and shut door’. As soon as you walk into the cube (inside a room inside a building) you feel as if you’ve stepped into the middle of the forest. You are in a golden brown canvass tent, there are shadows of tree branches moving above you, the tent is rippling as if in a slight breeze, it smells like the forest and the floor of the tent is on an uneven dirt ground, which you smell also.

There is one sleeping bag on the floor and a small radio with a soulful song playing “Just the Two of Us as happy as can be, just the two of us the way it ought to be, just the two of us, just the two of us…..” then it repeats. The jazz signer told me how sad the song made her feel. On the walls of the swaying tent are identical post card size images taped to the walls two by two of the dual images I took. In the middle of the tent is a single tent pole. You feel very alone and safe, far from other people. You come to understand that duality is the logic of our world. We have two arms and feet, our cars are made in our body image with two headlights. We have up and down, hot and cold. This is our understanding of the world and our place in it is to mate with the other. Our survival as a species demands that.

If you take a guided tour through the Newport mansions, the guide explains that everything in the house had to be symmetrical. If there was only one door into a room, they would create a false door to maintain the summitry.

With ‘Just the Two of Us’ I was mourning the loss of my marriage, a father for my two children. I noticed that when I looked at two stones flanking a driveway or two mailboxes side by side that it made me feel lonely. I started collecting images of things that were two by two, haystacks, entrances to school, street lamps, my daughters pony tails, a car’s headlights among many others. These were the images I used in post card size taped to the walls of the tent.