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Racine Art Museum acquires archive of works by ceramic sculptor Mara Superior
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Racine Art Museum acquires archive of works by ceramic sculptor Mara Superior

From the Things to do in and around Racine County series
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Americana by Mara Superior

"Americana: A Collection of Blue Salt-glazed Stoneware" was made by Mara Superior in 2016 using porcelain, ceramic oxides, underglaze, glaze, gold leaf, miniature delft chargers, tin-glaze enamel and earthenware.

RACINE — The Racine Art Museum (RAM) announced that it has recently acquired a multiple-piece archive of works by the contemporary American ceramic artist, Mara Superior, for its permanent collection.

In 2018, a Kohler Foundation project focused on the preservation of a major portion of Superior's work. This effort included contributions of her ceramics to important museum decorative arts and contemporary craft collections across the U.S. including: the Chipstone Foundation, Milwaukee; Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, N.H.; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design; and Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Part of the foundation’s gift included 31 of the artist’s ceramic works presented to RAM. Spanning the years 1982 through 2018, these pieces join three other examples of Superior’s career output already in the museum’s collection. RAM will debut this archive in the exhibition, "Collection Focus: Mara Superior" which will run through Jan. 15.

Superior was born and raised in New York City. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting at the University of Connecticut and an MAT in ceramics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In her youth, Superior visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art constantly, becoming familiar with a wide range of cultures from around the world and from different time periods. She considers the icons of art history as points of departure for the diverse compositions in her works, and her pieces reference the education she received as an avid museum-goer.

Superior’s preferred medium is porcelain. She creates high relief wall works and three-dimensional sculptures that use the shapes of historic decorative arts objects, such as teapots, serving ware, presentation items and articles for domestic use but in a larger scale. Superior is known for her thorough grasp of historical precedents and her charming reinterpretations of themes from art history, culture and the experience of travel. She employs these interests as the subject matter and imagery for her work.

Her pieces frequently have large flat areas which provide her with a substantial surface on which she creates elaborate painted compositions. Superior’s drawn imagery recalls a large range of visual resources from cultures around the world, ranging from classical Greece and Renaissance Italy to the United States. Her work is also inspired by a number of historic sources, including decorated British and American ceramics and stitched textile samplers, much of which is traditionally considered to be “women’s work.” These pieces are narrative in nature and range from personal and domestic subjects to contemporary culture and its relationship to history, and also to political and environmental issues.

RAM curator of exhibitions Lena Vigna notes that Superior’s work is as provocative as it is playful. 

“Akin to a few stand out makers in the late 1800s, Superior so sweetly yet so pointedly subverts assumptions about women as merely the decorators of porcelain vessels," said Vigna. While that may seem a removed point for contemporary audiences, it serves to underscore the historical framework in which this type of object resides. Her palette full of soft — almost pastel — colors and decorative embellishments seems traditional yet her vessels upend function and her narratives full of personal and meaningful content remind us that this is a modern artist filtering the world through her own lens.”

“RAM has a particular interest in assembling archival collections of major artists working in the contemporary craft field,” said Bruce Pepich, RAM executive director and curator of collections. “We believe that by presenting examples of work from early, middle and late portions of an artist’s career we can better demonstrate to the public how an artist develops ideas and how these aesthetic concepts change over time. This body of work documents how Superior selected different life experiences and blended these with the encyclopedic resources of references to culture and history that she has developed. Her work makes the joy of visits to art museums and the educational opportunities they offer readily apparent,” Pepich added.

In addition to the aforementioned art museums, Superior’s work is represented in numerous public collections across the U.S., many of which are famed for their decorative arts and contemporary craft holdings, including the: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the White House Collection of American Crafts, Clinton Presidential Center, Little Rock, Ark. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship and numerous individual artist grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2010, Superior was interviewed for the oral history program of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

RAM currently holds the largest contemporary craft collection of any art museum in the U.S. The museum collects broadly within the craft field with examples of artists from the U.S. and abroad who work in clay, fiber, glass, metal, polymer and wood — both functional objects and sculptural pieces. These works make up more than half of its 10,000-piece collection. The other portion is devoted to works on paper by internationally recognized contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers.

By continually showing works from these two sections of its collection in changing temporary exhibitions throughout the museum, RAM places craft media within the context of works produced in the painting and sculpture fields of the same time period, demonstrating commonalities rather than differences. By current count, 40% of the artists in RAM’s collection are women, a figure substantially greater than at many other collecting institutions. The museum’s long-term interest in these artists has been reinforced by open-minded donors who have collected quality work, regardless of the artist’s gender, and presented them as gifts to RAM over the past 80 years.

The Racine Art Museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is $7, or $5 for seniors 62 and older and students. For more information, go to ramart.org.

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