Born Royal Oak, 1956 / BFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Royal Oak, Michigan
Let’s begin with a few words with which Mary Fortuna does not appreciate being associated: multicultural, Arts vs. Crafts, ‘women’s art,’ and ‘art dolls.’ And a few things she is: generous, frank, inclusive, and deeply intuitive when it comes to locating source material at the very core of human existence. Looking at a single piece produced by this exceptional artist—who has the capacity to draw inspiration from found objects, mythology, religion, folk art, and figurative modeling practices of a great many cultures—it is easy to mistake Fortuna’s output as derivative of any number of existing traditions. But her works belong to an overarching whole, and you can no more estimate Fortuna’s meaning or aesthetic through a single art object, as you can derive a finished picture by looking at a single jigsaw puzzle piece. Hers is a sprawling and detailed personal mythology.
While Fortuna may chafe at certain associations, she is a positive force, constantly broadcasting a deep appreciation for fellow artists, in career moves that have including stints as a curator, and as publisher of Ground Up (1993-1996) art magazine, as well as her constant practice as a social connector. Her process in identifying as an artist didn’t unfold until her mid-thirties, but her relationship with making began early, and she refers to the influence of her parents on its development. “My mom was smart enough to make materials and tools available, and to let us alone to mess around on our own,” Fortuna says. Her father set a strong example, applying the tools of his trade as a film production manager for the Jam Handy Studio in Detroit to a range of creative projects, including the completely original construction of a family tent trailer from plans published in Popular Mechanics. Fortuna’s output embodies his spirit of industriousness and creative generalism—with many of her works executed at the very same dining room table where she ate dinner or worked on projects as a child—but it also echoes the cinematic process of character design in its truest sense. She is perhaps best-known for her iconic dolls: articulated figures, pieced and hand-stitched from leather and found materials, each emanating a sense of personality as determined and palpable as that of their maker, with attitudes ranging from oddball to vaguely sinister. Each bears a name, such as Pointy Headed Simpleton, El Muerte, Bluebird of Happiness, or Siren.
“She Towers Above” was a 2013 solo show at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center—which borrows its title from a song by Alejandro Escovedo, lyrical references being another of Fortuna’s common practices—and offered a rich opportunity to examine the broader constellations of her work. Taken en masse, her recurring motifs emerge clearly. Snakes are one of her most fundamental building blocks, appearing in drawn and painted works, as well as 3D hanging sculptures, like Big Flying Snake, and her works are replete with bees, lotus flowers, sacred hearts, and third eyes. “There have been many occasions where I needed to summon the fierce energy of the Hindu goddess Kali,” says Fortuna, but more often her figures reference an ambiguous blend of cultural signifiers. All the world is fodder for Fortuna’s interests, the collective mythic-mass of human imagination and faith acting as source material to be processed through the filter of her personal creative process. Beeswax models with generic names like Raven Woman sit alongside Chick-a-Boom and Serpent Sisters— freakshow attractions, built around salvaged doll parts. Individually, the pieces are strange and enchanting, but taken collectively, they reveal Fortuna’s practice as a builder of worlds, with an ecosystem of oddities springing from her fingers. The “she” towering above might be a reference to the oversized hanging puppet and piece de resistance of the show, or perhaps an oblique reference to Fortuna’s relationship as Creator to these forms.
One gets the unshakable sense that these are not dolls, waiting for someone to come home and impose narratives on their hollow existence, but active agents in a world that exists whether we are there to observe it or not. In the grand tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, or Tim Burton, Mary Fortuna spins out a mythic existence so clearly realized, it becomes difficult to decide if it is truly her creation, or a reality that has always existed.
Rosie Sharp, May 2015.
Copyright 2015 Essay’d