Ann Mallory: Lifetime of Mindful Making
By Jane King Hession

As an artist, Ann Mallory is emotionally moved to express the joys and sorrows of being human. Although she might have selected paint, prose or poetry as her medium of expression, she chose the “sensual, impression-arresting” material of clay, which, she believes, is uniquely suited to receiving and recording human feelings. In her “lifetime of mindful making,” Mallory has worked to achieve a level of technical expertise that allows her to transform abstract emotions into soulful ceramic objects. "I favor clean volumes, minimal surface decoration and rightness of scale, which promotes a sense of well being, serenity, and interior balance auspicious for thought."

There is an inextricable link between Mallory’s art and the natural world; a connection that has been forged by years of close and thoughtful observation of the power and fragility of nature’s miraculous creations. Indeed, her ceramic pieces resemble objects an observant nature walker or gardener (Mallory is both) might encounter on his or her path. Her contemplation vessels, a series she has been crafting off and on for the past twenty years, resemble in mass and texture objects wrought by the earth’s primal geomorphic upheavals that have been tempered over millennia by the effects of wind, water and weather. Mallory was moved to make the vessels when she considered the small pools of water that collect in the cracks and indentations of rocks and boulders. Illustrative of her visceral approach to her art, she shaped open vessels to “create a center point for personal stillness,” for the focusing of thoughts, she explains. The subtle curves of the ceramic and bronze surfaces, which appear to have been eroded by eons of raindrops, are also contoured to receive teardrops and other human emotions--the presence of which, she believes, should be honored.

The delicate seasonal and cyclical creations of the insect world inspired Mallory’s more recent casings series. Like the self-excreted and self-constructed cocoons insects construct around them while undergoing metamorphoses, Mallory’s casings “metaphorically protect a vulnerable state of transformation.” Her intent in making casings, some of which are more than three-feet tall is not merely to replicate those that occur in nature, but to provide a safe haven for “necessary emotional change and transformation, whether it is desired or inevitable for human survival.” The hollow, thin-walled stoneware or earthenware forms, which are “strong and stand up to the weather,” suggest the shelter that is “essential while the inner life is dramatically changing,” she says.

A California native who is now based in Woodbury, Connecticut, Mallory is both a poetic and methodical thinker. She is a firm believer that “intent shapes everything.“ In 1972, after graduating from Stanford University, she decided to become a full-time ceramic artist. “I was an artist at heart, but there was an abyss of what I didn’t know,” she explained. Determined to overcome that obstacle, she began to learn her craft by building a kick-wheel from a kit and a 27-cubic foot hard brick centenary arch gas-fired downdraft kiln in her back yard in Danville, California. As she struggled to master her craft, she produced pots, mainly planters and wind chimes, to pay the bills. She likens the challenge of achieving ceramic expertise to mastering a musical instrument: “A musician must constantly practice scales if he or she is to create music.” She continued to “practice her scales,” over the next several years honing her skills in a series of self-constructed studios.

In the mid-1970s, Mallory took a workshop with Marguerite Wildenhain, the Bauhaus-educated ceramic artist who founded Pond Farm, an artist cooperative near Guerneville, California in 1942. In the workshop, and in subsequent summer sessions with Wildenhain-trained ceramists Phyllis and Bruce Murray, Mallory learned a method of disciplined throwing using Bauhaus principles of control and refinement. By throwing an increasingly difficult series of forms (most of which were cut in half to assess accuracy) she began to master European tableware and lifestyle forms—for centuries the foundation of a potter’s guild training. “Quite contrary to the tenor of the times, ‘expressing myself’ was not the mantra. I was learning the ‘grammar’ of a language,” Mallory says.

As valuable as the Bauhaus-based training was, Mallory realized “my heart was more emotionally attuned to the forms and aesthetics of Asia, particularly Japan.” In 1981, she studied in Japan as a member of Parson’s School of Design’s first summer program in that country. In addition to her training and the opportunity to visit many famous kiln sites, she was exposed to an array of other cultural disciplines. For three years prior, she had enhanced her knowledge of Japanese aesthetics by studying calligraphy and sumi-e painting, “where ink is spare and each form essential,” she observes. At the suggestion of one of her Japanese teachers, she made a set of wooden throwing tools, “something all serious pottery students did.” She still uses some of the tools to this day. Mallory does not see a conflict between the fundamentally different aesthetics, tools and approaches of the Bauhaus and Japanese traditions in which she is schooled. In her work, she uses a combination of hand building and wheel throwing, and the throwing techniques of both German (metal) and Japanese (wood) tools to form her clay. “The two techniques allow me to express myself in a blend of styles and techniques akin to a fluency in two languages.”

Upon her return from Japan, Mallory established a studio in an artist’s complex in Santa Barbara, where she enjoyed the cross-pollination of artistic energies. In 1984, after producing several hundred serving plates for two local restaurants, she ventured into industrial production. By 1985, she had hydro-cal plaster RAM press molds made from her hand-thrown six-piece dinnerware set and slab-molded serving pieces. She leased a factory in Corona and, for the next ten years, managed A. Mallory of California, a company that produced several lines of her dinnerware and decorative pieces. In 1995, she sold her company to Feltman-Langer, originators of the ceramic no-spill travel mug, and became a design and production consultant for Americaware, the newly merged company. Mallory continued to design production lines and “background designs” (meaning the client’s name, not Mallory’s was on the back stamp) for clients including Donna Karan, Crate & Barrel, Neiman-Marcus and Ethan Allen until 2004.

Missing her studio roots and looking for a new start, Mallory moved to northwest Connecticut in 1993 where she established a studio and, once again, began to produce one-of-a-kind work. In recent years, her work has been exhibited at galleries in Connecticut, Tennessee, California, Idaho, Florida, New Mexico and Washington state; current ones are listed on her website,

Mallory speaks of her medium with intimacy and respect, and the feel of the material, “in its infinite degree of plasticity and gradual hardness,” serves as a potent source of inspiration. Similarly, she does not feel her finished creations can fully convey their essences until touched. She goes so far as to suggest there should be a word in the English language that represents the sense of “rational observation with subjective emotional response,” that one experiences when touching a work of art. Technically speaking, there is an element of risk in Mallory’s quest to produce objects that retain a “memory of wet, plastic beginnings on a potter’s wheel” as well as “the stretch marks of clay handled on the brink of collapse.”

In her most recent work, Mallory has added the additional element of using stacked vertical ‘standing stones’, in the tradition of Inuit inukshuk stone ‘totems’, European menhirs and anthropomorphic stelae to visually communicate information important to the community. Inspiration also came from an ancient reference, the Anglo-Saxon term scrin, (which evolved into the modern English words ‘script’ and ‘shrine’) meaning ‘a secure container protecting sacred writing’. The synthesis of all came together in her most recent sculpture, Water’s Scrin. The pieces bear the imprints of “the writing of water” on its surfaces thereby implying the “sacredness” of the life-sustaining liquid.
The inherent beauty of the overlapping celadon and white porcelain glaze flows holds the moment of ‘water’s writing’ as both visual message and arresting aesthetic. Life and art are one in the same for Mallory. Not only is her work inspired by the universal truths of time, nature and the human condition, it also inspires contemplation of and an opportunity to reflect on the same, as River’s Trace, a recent work illustrates. The arrangement of soft-edged, stone-like forms “distills the journey of water (a metaphor for life) moving across and cutting through the resistant host stones (a metaphor for impervious ideas, feelings or beliefs) of a river bed,” she explains. “Over time, life leaves its mark and beauty results from the traces of those changes over time.” River’s Trace is, in fact, an artistic and poetic expression of Mallory’s commitment to a lifetime of mindful making, in which “the passionate choices made to make meaning in clay create not only beautiful objects but also a beautiful life.”

About the author: Jane King Hession is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia who specializes in art, architecture and design. Her most recently published book is Frank Lloyd Wright in New York: The Plaza Years, 1954-1959.