Helen Christou Gallery

From the Collection: Mary Shannon Will

July 1 – September 22, 2022

This exhibition brings together the playful, process based artworks by the late Mary Shannon Will from the ULethbridge art collection.  Ceramic sculpture alongside painting drawing and print media highlight the versatility of her artistic practice over three decades.

Curated by David Smith.

Curatorial Statement

The late Mary Shannon Will is an artist best known for carefully constructed and meticulously planned surfaces, which she executed in ceramics, printmaking, drawing and painting.  Will was born in New York State in 1944 and lived in the USA until she moved to Calgary with her husband, fellow artist John Will, in 1971.  Her formal education included studying ceramics at the University of Iowa (1964-67), the Tuscarora Pottery Summer School (1966-67) and the University of New Mexico (1970-71).  Will remained in Calgary for the rest of her life, but travelled extensively and her annual trips to New Mexico were a continual source of inspiration.

The earliest works in this exhibition begin with the ceramic vases and jars that she made while she was a student in Iowa.  These pieces are largely utilitarian in nature and have an intended purpose.  It is perhaps here, in pieces like Pot with attached slab lid, where we see a shift from the functional to sculptural form.  In the early 1970s, Mary Shannon Will abandoned functional ceramics in favour of works that were completely sculptural; ‘art for art’s sake’ as it were.  These brightly coloured ceramics draw inspiration from the natural world, but they themselves are entirely otherworldly.  The unusual forms with unexpected use of colour are sometimes seen in relation to the California Funk the California Funk movement.  This influential 1960s/70s movement used a similar vocabulary of functionless ceramics.[1]

A breakthrough came in 1978 when Shannon Will experimented with a new way of creating surface pattern.  The artist added nylon fibers to the clay which burnt away in the kiln where they were exposed to the hot air leaving behind disruptions to the surface of the clay body.  In response, she used a ceramic pencil to trace over the apparent pattern.  Adopting a process or structure for creating the surface treatment changed the course of her art making thereafter in all media.[2]  When Shannon Will travelled to Halifax in 1980, the artists working within conceptual practices at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design reinforced her newly embraced way of working.  Within her own practice however, she always allowed for aesthetic concerns and intuition to guide her process in a way that rigid conceptualism didn’t allow for.

Strategies for making choices – such as reaching into a bag of paints to randomly select the next colour, timing herself applying colours or designs, tracing over patterns of notes on a sheet of music or even using a person’s most favourite and least favourite colours together in a painting – were just some of the many creative challenges that she set for herself to follow in creating her artworks.  These strategies first appeared in her ceramics but after she shifted her focus to two-dimensional works in the mid 1980s, she continued to make art this way.  When looking at the finished works, one may not always know the specific rules that informed the pieces but the resulting body of work is highly cohesive, carefully considered and reflects the skill, perseverance and determination of the artist.  Though the most recent work by Shannon Will in the UofL collection is from 1993, she continued making art for the rest of her life.  The many bodies of work created in the intervening years utilizing her signature attention to detail are highly laboured and rooted in her conceptual process-based practice. 

During the summer of 2020, UofL gallery staff packed up over twenty artworks (including many on display here) that were loaned to the Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary for a retrospective exhibition for the artist curated by Diana Sherlock.  The show opened on January 1, 2021 and was held over, due to various pandemic restrictions, until November 27, 2021.  On October 20, 2021 Mary Shannon Will passed away from ALS in Calgary at the age of seventy-seven.

David Smith 

Assistant Curator / Preparator

[1] Sherlock, Diana. “Mary Shannon Will – People, Places and Things.” Nickle at Noon. Lecture, November 24, 2020.

[2] Victoria Baster, “Mary Shannon Will,” Mary Shannon Will (Lethbridge, Alberta: Southern Alberta Art Gallery, 1985), 1.