Art collectors and enthusiasts walk carefully through Mary Anne Turley-Emett’s studio — a Japanese-style structure surrounded by a robust garden adjacent to her house at The Reserve in Indian Wells. As they examine her installation of ceramic kimonos, resin hares, bronze vests, and stainless steel chairs, the artist reveals the stories that inspired the works. The open studio event was a teaser for her first solo exhibition at Heather James Fine Art in Palm Desert.
How did you develop your passion for travel and culture?
I was radicalized by the French. I grew up in Georgia, got a scholarship to Barnard College in New York, and went to study for a summer in France. It was the first foreign country I had gone to, and I was 20. I had never tasted red wine or crème fraîche. I saw French people take their kids to the museums and talk to them like they were adults. I became totally imprinted.
Did you return to Paris after that summer?
Yes, I taught French in Georgia, and then moved to Paris to work as a translator for Merrill Lynch and a law office. [Turley-Emett had studied language and linguistics in the masters program at Georgetown University.] I went to every museum and realized there’s so much I don’t know.
Did you aspire to become an artist?
I had no idea I was an artist. I always thought there was a big chasm between people who love art and people who make it. [After moving to California,] a friend asked me to take a class in ceramics. I made a kimono, and I sold it. That friend talked me into going to Japan in 1987, and it changed my life. I became an artist, and I owned it.
How do your travels to the Far East inform your art?
I’ve always been intrigued by the stories and the beauty in artifacts. I channel so much of my experience in Japan and China and Hong Kong. When I started making art, it came out in kimonos, horses that look like Han dynasty, and the hare. When we look at the moon, we see a face. When Japanese look at the moon, they see a hare. I’m interested in the mythology. And I love the beauty of the dragonfly, which symbolizes that all of this is fleeting.
What appeals to you about the materials you choose — clay, resin, and metal?
Clay is my great love. It’s therapeutic; it’s what I adore. Everything I do starts from clay. If what I make is universally appealing, there’s the temptation to fire it, take it to the foundry, and do a mold [for bronze, stainless steel, and resin]. I love the colors of resin. And the stainless steel vests and chairs opened a whole new audience. The industrial material works well with Renaissance subject matter.