Number Interviews: Mary Jo Karimnia

By Jesse Butcher

PS Delta Fair Sparklers
PS Delta Fair Sparklers, 36×48 inches, 2016, Mixed Media

Mary Jo Karimnia’s first museum show, Fold, is on view through October 16th in the Mallory/Wurtzburger Gallery at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, TN. Number asked the artist for some insights into the thinking underlying this work.

“Fold” is an impressive display of your current work ranging from outsize steamroller prints to small beaded postcards with luscious beaded paintings in between. There are two main image groups – costumes and origami. How were the images in these groups chosen and how have they evolved?

I have been working on the costume pieces for about four years. These began when I started taking photographs at cosplay conventions where my youngest liked to dress up along with other manga and anime enthusiasts. I became interested in how the teenagers I knew used these costumes to try out different persona and to overcome nervousness and shyness. The costumes gave them a degree of anonymity, helping them to explore themselves, easing the transition into adulthood. The work reflects this anonymous quality by purposely omitting faces. The costumes become a sort of magic object or disguise. The origami work began about a year ago, shortly after the Dixon asked me to do the show and told me that it would be paired with 18th century fans and a collection of ceramic objects. I loved this idea of art on objects. The origami pieces are layers of objects. For some of the work I took photographs of patterns on objects, like vintage clothing in thrift stores and flea markets. I printed this, then folded the resulting paper into objects—origami stars, pinwheels, etc.—built the images using tiny objects (seed beads) on thick panel boards that can hang on a wall or sit on a shelf, like an object. Much like the costumes, these became precious, revered things through embellishment and the deliberate design choice of centering them within the picture plane.

By the choice of materials, your art all-too-easily could be labeled and possibly dismissed as “women’s work,” in particular, your use of beads. So why beads?

The use of beads definitely grew from a place of femininity. While raising my children I learned and worked in various ‘women’s crafts’ like sewing, quilting and knitting, all of which, for me, had a strong tendency toward meticulous processes and the use of rich colors. I love being a woman and a mother and relished working in these craft realms. It took me a bit of time to figure out that straight painting was not a satisfying process for me. The addition and, indeed, emphasis on beads was a more satisfying way of working. I often claim the beads as my chosen super power. They have the capacity to grab and enhance light, even when used on a small scale, in a way that can draw a viewer from across a room. Strength and beauty are both important aspects of feminism and I find that working with beads imbues my work with both of these principles.

You were one of the first recipients of an ArtsAccelerator Grant from ArtsMemphis. What effect has this had on your artwork and career?

It was quite an honor to be a first round recipient of the ArtsAccelerator grant. It enabled a turning point in my career. The money gave me the supplies to increase the scale of my work from 8×10 inches to 36×48 inches. Even more importantly, the writing of the grant helped me think about where my work was and where it could go. The act of writing the application made me sit down and establish some concrete goals. Receiving the grant also gave me a level of confidence in my work. I have become more involved with ArtsMemphis as a member of the Artist Advisory Counsel. This, along with my work at Crosstown Arts has led me to direct the Hustle program (a professional development series for artists that is cosponsored by ArtsMemphis, Crosstown Arts and the Urban Art Commission). The work I do for these various arts organizations, both volunteer and paid, has given me greater visibility within the arts community, helping to carve a pretty direct path from grant recipient to this show at the Dix