Mary Ellen Croteau: Artist, Agitator and Environmentalist

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Mary Ellen Croteau is an award-winning artist who has shown internationally who tackles difficult issues in her art.  Her current body of work uses bottle caps to create images.  In this interview we talk about her art from 1990 to the present.

You call yourself an agitator, which I’ve never seen an artist do before.  Which came first, being an artist or an agitator?

I have been politically active since the Vietnam war.  I actually started being an artist in 1989, after raising 3 kids and returning to school to gain my BFA at age 40.  I thought I would just be making pretty art, but I was astonished that in 1988, young women did not have a clue about the feminist critique of images. So I created a series of monoprints which reversed genders in art-historical paintings. They got it, and so my politics and my art became one.

Do you ever make art that isn’t about a larger issue?  What about the eyes?  (Oh, I suppose those are still about the issue of plastic.)  Have you ever made art that wasn’t about a larger issue?  Or, is the issue the primary motivation for the art?

Yes, my art is driven by the issues that I care about.  I consider my work a dialogue with the viewer.

I became alarmed by the state of the environment about the time I thought I had said all I could about the feminist critique of culture.  Plastic waste was especially troubling because it is made from petroleum, and it seemed that we were going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing people, just to have more plastic bags and bottles to throw away, or worse, litter the streets.

I do wish people would get the critique more than “Oh, isn’t that a cute use of caps!”  I address it whenever I am invited to speak.

I love your piece that’s in the permanent collection at Woman Made Gallery, the virgin Mary covered with newspaper articles about violence against women.  It’s so perfectly mis-aligned, the form and the content.  Much of your earlier work was about religion/Catholicism, but you seem to have moved away from that.  Why?  Did you say all that you had to say? 

Catholicism, and Religion in general, is an endless pit of misaligned allegiances.  It brings war and self-congratulation and misunderstanding. It is ripe for critique.  I may return to it in the future.

I remember that your first bottle caps piece (or the first really big one) was your self-portrait with a nod to Chuck Close.  I imagine you didn’t know when you did that one that this type of work was going to become “what you’re known for,” it’s really taken off and is popular.  How do you feel about that and do you miss other forms of creating?

I really never thought I would be stuck with one media and one style for so long. It is a bit frightening. I hate to think I have arrived at my “mature stage.”  Yet there are so many more bottle caps to be disposed of. People keep mailing me boxes of them. So I persist, for now.

How do you do it?  How on earth do you make images out of bottle caps?  From a distance, the viewer sees the piece as they might a pointillist painting, and up close, they can see the building up and layering of multiple bottle caps to create shading or line.  How did you know how to do that?  Did it just translate from painting?

I have no idea.  I work from a photo and a grid, and I look at that little square and decide what caps to use. I walk back and forth several times to get just the right combination, turning caps upside down and right-side up, testing color against color and fitting size into size.  It takes a long time, but at the end of the day, I step back and say to myself “Wow! look at that!”

You have an awesome studio.  So many women artists don’t.  They work in too-small spaces, they don’t take up the space they need, they defer to their families.  How important has it been for you to have serious work space?  Does it annoy you as much as it does me when you see women artists playing small?

I was the oldest daughter of 10 kids, so I had a lot of responsibility and very little space growing up. I have decided I need a lot of space to think and create.

I put off being an artist till my kids were able to take care of themselves (I was 36 and my youngest was 9 when I went back to school, and she was 12 when I graduated at age 40.)  So I did defer to domesticity. But I always knew I was going to be an artist and I bided my time.  I cannot imagine how women are able to raise kids and make art at the same time.

I am very lucky to have a wonderful husband who supports me 100 percent in my career.  I agree that one must demand the space one needs, and I would find a way no matter what. It DOES matter what kind of space you make art in.

One of the things you’ve done with your studio is turn the storefront windows into a “gallery for the people on the street,” called Art on Armitage.  What’s been the most unexpected result of doing that?  Who gets more out of it, the exhibiting artist, or the people on the street, who are maybe people who don’t usually go to art galleries?

My graduate thesis was about how to make art more accessible to everyday folks.  I was raised in a working-class family and the only art I knew was in Church and in books. “Modern” art was derided as effete and anti-democratic.  We never went to museums and I never saw a gallery.

Artists play into this tendency when they focus on the for-profit gallery system which caters to the monied class and treats the rest of us like ignoramuses.  If we educate people about what we do and why, they are more likely to understand and even BUY art  for their walls. They do put something on their walls, right?  

So Art On Armitage is the realization of that dream. And the people in the neighborhood love it. They tell me so all the time. In my studio, I can hear parents and teachers talking with kids about the art, I hear teens discussing it, and watch adults reading the statements and really looking at the work. They stop to discuss it and they tell me what they like and why. And that proves my thesis.

In addition, I have been able to take artists who have shown in my window to European art fairs for artist-run spaces. It has opened up a whole new world to them. I have traveled to Athens and Stockholm, and have had exchanges with artists from Korea, Iceland, Britain, Germany, Sweden and in the next year will have artists from Quebec, Finland and Switzerland. So this kind of effort pays off in dividends. I really urge artists to get off the treadmill of New York or bust and explore artists in the rest of the world.  

Do you have a favorite of your own art?  Or an underdog piece that you think is amazing, but it doesn’t get the attention it deserves?

There is a 1992 piece titled “Booths: The Socialization of the Species” that has only been exhibited twice.  It is centered with a one-sided glass mirror, one side being a porn peep-show booth (yes, I actually visited one to get the piece just right) and the other is a confessional.  The sides are titled with signs from our grade-school washrooms: “Boys” and “Girls”.  The boy’s side (door reading “LIVE GIRLS XXX RATED”) is a window looking in on the girl’s side. The girl’s side contains the oppositional mirror and a confessional prie dieu, keeping the girl on her knees, looking at herself and wondering what she did wrong.

Text from Jeremiah 13:22 appears above the mirror: “If you ask in your heart why these things befall you, for your great guilt your skirts are stripped away and you are violated.”

Homepage banner image: Mary Ellen Croteau, “Plastic World” installation view, 2014.  Courtesy of Yellow Springs Arts Council Gallery

MooreWomenArtists welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy