It’s no accident University of North Florida sculpture major Mary Ratcliff’s new art studio has an inviting feel to it.
Or that home is the central refrain of the emerging three-dimensional artist’s senior project.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville’s 2016 student-in-residence says she longs for her work and her workspace to bond people.
Just as houses and, in turn, communities do.
“Houses symbolize comfort and unity and support and so many other important things that bring people together,” she said during an interview in her fifth-floor MOCA studio. “I guess you could say that home and community have a big influence on who I am.”
Ratcliff welcomes visitors to pop in during her studio hours, lounge around on her rattan chair or loveseat and indulge in their own artwork.
Her residency will continue through December, when her nearly four-month exhibition opens in the Downtown museum’s Florida Blue Education Gallery.
Launched in 2014, the highly competitive MOCA residency program provides a UNF student space for a semester to work on a requisite senior art project.
The program also more than fulfills the requirement for the project to be publicly exhibited for at least a week.
“It’s an amazing opportunity — super rewarding — because the exhibit will be up for almost four months when some people have trouble getting a place to show their art for a week,” she said.
While Ratcliff specializes in metal sculpture, her senior project — “Interwoven: Heart, Home, and Community” — will encompass various art disciplines, partly due to the studio space not being conducive to metalsmithing.
A network of yarn, fiber, wood and cast iron forming a house, “Interwoven” also includes a collaborative element: Ratcliff is sounding an all-call on social media for people to crochet chains that will be linked to others in the project.
“The more people who participate, the more successful it will be, in my eyes,” she said.
Being an artist, not an art teacher
Ratcliff, 30, was immersed in art projects as a child by her mother, a data-entry worker whose painting, crocheting and craftwork were a staple in the family’s close-knit home in rural Allensville, Ohio.
“She wouldn’t own up to it, but she’s very skilled,” Ratcliff says of her mother.
After high school, Ratcliff moved around a bit before settling on studying fashion design at Savannah College of Art and Design at age 24.
She transferred a year later to UNF and switched majors to education, figuring her best chance in the art field was to teach.
Her perspective on the potential of earning a living being an artist rather than teaching art significantly broadened during her first three-dimensional design class at UNF.
UNF sculpture professor Jenny Hager-Vickery said she saw a spark in her new student’s eye on Day 1.
“I could tell she was going to be really good at it — and she’s done amazing work ever since,” the professor said.
Ratcliff’s first significant three-dimensional project — an elaborate dress built with cardboard, book pages and branches — won MOCA’s material alterations contest in 2014.
The piece, “In Nature, I Believe,” was displayed in the museum’s lobby during Art Walk.
“I had never even attempted to do three-dimensional work until then,” she said. “You see sculpture, but you don’t ever think that you could be the person who does it.”
Hager-Vickery convinced the emerging sculptor to change her major.
“It was an easy decision,” Ratcliff said. “I was hooked.”
She has followed suit with additional large-scale public outdoor projects, including a 17-foot-tall brain- and neuron-inspired creation outside UNF’s Thomas G. Carpenter Library; a bike rack and bench at UNF; and a metal piece, “Abstracted Geometry,” at a Kentucky sculpture park.
In June, her solar-powered steel and fiberglass creation, “Symbiosis,” was unveiled at the UNF Seaside Sculpture Park in Jacksonville Beach. It’ll be on display for a year.
Already, she’s had some commercial success, selling small, commissioned pieces.
“I’m paying for student loans, so I try to make the most of every opportunity I have,” said Ratcliff, who takes on as many as three part-time jobs at a time.
Connecting through yarn
Ratcliff and two colleagues went on what they called a “grad school road trip” this summer, visiting seven universities in five days.
The expedition confirmed Ratcliff’s goal of furthering her art studies, specifically in sculpture.
While her graduate school decision is still up in the air, she hopes to attend a Southeastern university because the weather is conducive to working on large-scale outdoor projects.
Meanwhile, she’s largely focused on “Interwoven,” which has distinct size parameters because of the exhibition space it will be occupy.
She also has to work through regulatory and engineering issues, like maintaining access to doorways and determining how to stabilize the project, which she expects to be 13 feet tall and as much as twice as wide.
“I never imagined there would be so much math in art,” she said.
Though she has very little experience with yarn, she selected it as one of “Interwoven’s” principal mediums because of her desire for the project to be collaborative.
“It’s funny that I’m embarking on this project without really knowing how to crochet,” she said. “I just know one stitch, the one my mom taught me and that’s all I’m looking for (from collaborators).”
Ratcliff said she chose crocheting as “Interwoven’s” collaborative medium because of its simplicity and ability to connect generations.
“It’s kind of a forgotten craft,” she said. “We kind of live in a crazy world right now and it’s just a way to kind of ground people to get to the core of what really matters, which is connectedness.”
Ratcliff said family and friends in Ohio already are making yarn chains for the project. “I can’t wait to starting getting them in the mail,” she said.
She also fancies the notion of having a sculpture exhibition in her hometown, someday.
“I hope that whatever I do and wherever I do it, I can inspire others that possibilities and opportunities to do big things are out there,” she said.
Want to get involved?
Artist Mary Ratcliff’s vision for her senior project is to involve as many people by adding their crocheted yarn chains.
A yarn chain video tutorial is on Ratcliff’s website, maryratcliff.com, and the community Facebook page “Interwoven: Heart, Home, and Community.”
To add crocheted yarn chains or to donate yarn, thread and rope for the project:
• Deliver or mail items to Ratliff at MOCA Jacksonville, 333 N. Laura St., Jacksonville, FL 32202 (include a return address)
• Visit her fifth-floor studio noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays (noon-9 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month for Art Walk) and 6-9 p.m. Thursdays
• Contact Ratcliff at (904) 366-6911 or [email protected] to arrange for pickup in the Jacksonville area
Participants are asked to provide a count of the number of collaborators who helped create yarn chain contributions.