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Q&A with Mark Lester, MOCA's 2018 UNF Artist-in-Residence

December 17, 2018 // by Nan Kavanaugh

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As MOCA's fifth annual University of North Florida Student Artist-in-Residence, Mark Lester created a series of ceramic works including wall hangings and sculptures that blend steel, clay, and glass. These works are now on view in the exhibition, Interior Geography, in the Education Gallery on MOCA's fifth floor. The exhibition reception will be at MOCA on Thursday January 10th from 6:00-8:00 pm. Be sure to visit MOCA on Thursday January 17th for a tour with the artist at 6:00 pm.

Tell us a little a bit about how you became interested in ceramics.

I first became interested in ceramics in high school. My favorite thing to do when I was younger was make things out of wood or whatever else I had on hand, so clay was great because I was able to make just about anything I wanted. I got really into it in high school. In college art wasn't my first major, and I came back to clay when I realized I needed to be doing creative work. 

Describe a typical day in your studio at MOCA.

I usually have some clay or other materials to bring up, so I get that settled and then check on the projects that have been sitting from the day before. The moisture content of the clay has to be monitored or else the clay will get too dry to work on, so I always start by spritzing down anything that I have in the works. Then I open the door so that people can drop in and I start working. I always have three to four projects going at once, so I bounce between those throughout the rest of the day.

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Where do you find inspiration for your work and what kind of themes do you explore?

I’ve always drawn a good deal of inspiration from nature, specifically trees, their textures, and the ways that light interacts with leaves at certain times of day. I’m exploring that idea a bit in this project, through the combination of clay and glass. My goal is to have glass elements in these sculptures that augment the way that the overall piece interacts with ambient light. More recently, I’ve been inspired by the precision of machined items, especially those made from metal. I think this comes through in a lot of what I’ve been making recently. In a lot of my work I begin with organic shapes, and then temper those shapes with hard lines and precise edges found in more mechanical forms. The theme of this particular project is interior space. I will be using clay as a base material and adding glass and metal as needed to construct pieces that convey some aspect of created depth.

How has your experience at UNF been as an artist?

I’ve had a great experience in the Fine Arts program at UNF. The ceramics studio is really well equipped, and our professors are fantastic. I’ve also gotten to do a lot of things I wouldn't have otherwise, like learn how to weld and cast metal. The college has a lot of great opportunities, like this residency, so I feel pretty lucky to have found my way into the program. It’s given me the space to do a lot of artistic exploration. 

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How will this residency at MOCA better prepare you for a career as an artist? 

My long-term goal is to become a professional studio artist, and potentially teach at the college level. Both paths involve working with museums and planning shows, so it’s awesome to get some insight into how things work behind the scenes. I’ve been working with some of the staff at MOCA to plan the show for this work, and just seeing how that process works is really educational. Also, working at MOCA is very independent, so I’m getting a feel for what’s required to be a productive artist outside the school setting. This residency has given me the impetus to go in a totally new direction with my work and have a space to show it. It is an invaluable experience in a lot of ways.

What is the nature of your current project?

The basis of this project is ceramic wall sculpture. I’m really interested in creating ceramic sculpture that can enter the same space that you might normally find a painting. I’m also using some mixed media in these pieces, specifically glass and steel. The theme that connects all of the pieces is going to be a focus on interior space. I’ve always been fascinated by created interior space and hollow places, like caves or the insides of cathedrals. They’re spaces that invite a visitor or viewer to step in and explore what might be hidden inside, and I’m hoping I can capture some of that magic in these pieces. I want the work to arouse curiosity in the viewer, so that they spend some time exploring the interior of the sculpture.

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