Fabric artist Salley Mavor’s current show has finally come home to Cape Cod following a detour last year through the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell after a planned show at Highfield Hall in Falmouth was cancelled when the artist and members of Highfield’s board were unable to see eye to eye on the exclusion of certain pieces in the show.
If you’ve kept up with the story, as she approached the age of 60, Ms. Mavor turned toward the incorporation of current affairs in her work, a change that turned political after the 2016 election.
Several of these new pieces were on view last year at the Cahoon Museum of American Art’s “Twisted, Twined & Woven: Contemporary Fiber Art.” Those works included 2016’s “Displaced” which featured a caravan of people carrying their belongings, walking on a winding path through an ominous-looking forest, and “Cover Up,” a piece featuring 45 tiny female doll busts, each with a different head covering, hat, veil, burka, etcetera. The contemporary art in the Cotuit show is mostly focused on White House politics.
Ms. Mavor is a Falmouth artist, familiar to many for her Wee Felt Folk, tiny hand-stitched dolls and fairies, some sporting acorn hats, created and arranged in scenes to illustrated children’s books of fairy tales and nursery rhymes such as “Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes 2010.”
“Liberty and Justice: The Sweet to Satirical Art of Salley Mavor,” is currently on view at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. The show is hung upstairs in the center, along with the show “Serious Fun” an open juried exibit in which Ms. Mavor served as the juror. The upstairs space is smaller and more intimate than the downstairs gallery, which is currently featuring the abstract enough to appear mystical landscape paintings by Georganna Lenssen.
The show also includes earlier works by Ms. Mavor in a section of the show titled “The Innocent Years.” Along with scenes from her books, that portion of the exhibit includes “The Red Chair,” which shows a nursing mom in a red chair. The domestic scene was once referred to by Ms. Mavor as her only piece of “controversial” work prior to the debut of the Wee Folk Players, which Ms. Mavor began creating in 2016 specifically for her satirical work.
When you first encounter the row of photographs of the Wee Folk Players—President Trump, Vice President Pence, Kellyanne Conway, Vladimir Putin, Steven Bannon, and others featured in elaborate set-ups—the first reaction is to appreciate how clever Ms. Mavor is.
In one photograph a Trump doll in Tudor style dress (think Henry XIII) stands on a replica of an antique map. The headline reads “President of the Flat Earth Society.”
In another a Trump in present-day attire (blue suit and red tie), stands before his reflection in a three-panel mirror. The caption reads “The Three Branches of U.S. Government: ME, MYSELF, and I.”
In “Mr. Pence Goes to Washington,” a Vice President Pence doll, dressed in a blue-checkered dress stands atop a yellow brick road that leads, in the distance, to the White House. Pence/Dorothy is accompanied by a familiar small brown dog, except this one has a human face — Trump’s.
“Liberty and Justice: A Cautionary Tale in the Land of the Free,” the pièce de résistance (thus far) of Ms. Mavor’s politically motivated art, is a 13-minute stop motion video featuring a cast of Wee Folk Players and two out-of-work players, Liberty and Justice, who are led astray, Hansel and Gretel-like, through an enchanted forest by a blue Twitter bird and other shady characters.
That Ms. Mavor is best known for creating characters to illustrate fairy tales and nursery rhymes, makes the film both in keeping with what her audiences might expect while also being strikingly different. While Hansel and Gretel are ultimately rescued by their own wits, no such good fortune befalls Liberty and Justice. I’d love to tell you how it ends, but my words can’t do it justice. See it yourself if even it’s only online—the video can be seen on Ms. Mavor’s website www.weefolkstudio.com. The film was a year in the making and was a collaboration between Ms. Mavor and her husband Rob Goldsborough. It features music and sound effects by Stellwagen Symphonette.
While much has been written about the new direction in Ms. Mavor’s work, it’s still important to note the craftsmanship and attention to detail paid to each work. The work and detail are more than evident among the pieces included in the “The Innocent Years” portion of the show but they are there in the political works as well. And therein lies the strange, disturbing, duality aspect of the show. We know why “Birds of Beebe Woods” would be lovingly rendered, a large piece picturing 12 three-dimensional fabric birds, created to scale, with stitching and bead work creating all the details and textures in the birds from the crest of a cedar waxwing to the variations in a downy woodpecker’s wing. Presumably Ms. Mavor meticulously created these birds to show how lovely each individual species is, right down to the last feather, and how vital each is to its habitat.
Ms. Mavor also pays that same kind of attention to her Wee Folk Players. Take, for example, Steve Bannon’s brown coat with its tiny precise stitching along the cuffs, the tiny pocket, the lapel which is a different shade of brown, and even the minute white stitching made to look like a zipper down both sides of the coat.
What’s unsettling is that while we like birds and can easily appreciate their beauty — regardless of how you feel personally about Mr. Bannon, President Trump, or Vice President Pence — they are certainly the villains of these Wee Folk Player photographs, and yet Ms. Mavor has created them with the same exquisite artistry she uses in her charming fabric reliefs of mothers, children, and nature.
The images don’t make you uncomfortable; quite the opposite. They are hand-sewn dolls, warm and inviting. There’s nothing offensive here, no Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe, rather they draw you in, much like the naive Liberty and Justice, with all their domestic qualities and with the beauty of the works themselves. That’s Ms. Mavor’s gift. These little dolls are adorable and yet the scenes they are in are chilling. There’s a slow-dawning air of creepiness to it in much the same way that you might have come to realize, after singing along for years, that a favorite upbeat song has dark lyrics. It’s more the metaphor of the frog in the water that slowly boils, than in-your-face political art.
There’s much to appreciate in Ms. Mavor’s work and much to think about in her message. “Liberty and Justice: The Sweet to Satirical Art of Salley Mavor,” will be on view through April 20 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, 4404 Falmouth Road in Cotuit.