Maya Beverly

Glazing the Past, Remolding the Contemporary // Maya Beverly

With a deep reverence for objects spanning from ancient to the present day, sculptor and ceramicist Maya Beverly uses her practice to investigate beauty, adornment, patterns throughout history, and the power of objects. Maya is most intrigued with objects at their core — what purpose do they serve divorced from their materiality? What was their original intent or function? Traditional West African sculpture, among items from other cultures, are referenced throughout her body of work. Maya seeks to build a bridge between the traditional and the contemporary, and as viewers, we can begin to understand how the past permeates our present day.

What mediums do you work in and how long have you been creating?

I would say it’s sculpture with an emphasis on ceramics. Ceramics has been my medium of choice for the last five or six years, but I do have a background in painting. I studied studio art at NYU, and it was a super interdisciplinary program, but when I started school, ceramics was the medium that I focused on. I’ve been doing art since I was really young – I knew that’s what I wanted to be as early as three years old, but professionally within the last two years.

Double Jade (2022), Ceramics, 12.5 x 4 x 10 in.

How were you first introduced to art, and what was the catalyst that inspired you to become a full-time artist?

I would say it was just something I was drawn towards as a young kid, and it was more so that I needed to make things. I wouldn’t even call it art, but just the desire to create, even if it was making clothes. My grandfather is also a visual artist, so seeing his work while growing up was very inspirational for me. When I got to my senior year of high school, I applied for the Studio Art program at NYU and got in. For the first year, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay, so I explored similar things like media and communications, but I found out that it was the making of things that I was interested in, and I felt the need to have a hands-on practice.

What specifically piqued your interest in sculpture and ceramics?

I think it’s this need for having the tactility of it and being with it in a three-dimensional sense. I liked the end result of painting but the process wasn’t as enjoyable, versus ceramics which was very therapeutic. I can get lost in it, and it’s not so much about the end result for me. Being able to play with it in space is really fun.

…making things or observing things that are contemporary is almost like a way of timekeeping or record keeping. I’m inspired by the ways that objects and cultures were documented and preserved in the past, and I think it’s super important.”

Although the South has a rich cultural history, especially for Black Americans, it’s often overlooked in the art world as a whole. There’s no lack of creativity in the region, but many artists have to move to the Northeast or Europe to have their work recognized. How were you exposed to the arts growing up in Georgia, and has living there influenced your work?

Unfortunately, I feel like growing up, at least in my community, there wasn’t a lot of exposure to the arts. For example, there was maybe one museum, and I don’t think I ever visited a gallery until I moved to New York, so my reference for art was limited. We did have the High Museum in Atlanta, which I loved to visit but growing up, I didn’t really see that many artists in my community. Unfortunately, as a young artist, you are pushed to being in spaces like New York – bigger cities where they have more of a contemporary art moment.

Artist with ‘Disfigure Series’ (2020)

As early as seventh grade, I understood that if I wanted to do art, it would be somewhere like New York. But I still think there are super strong communities of artists in the South, and obviously, that influence on contemporary art is definitely there. I do feel like it’s harder to meet artists and establish a community there. I would love to eventually come back home and do something related to the arts, whether it’s teaching or building a foothold in the community – I think it would be really important.

Your practice is partially driven by your interest in objects and their functionality spanning history. What objects are you usually drawn to, and what qualities spark your interest in them?

I’m inspired by a lot of ancient artifacts, and I love looking at the objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art — specifically the African and Egyptian sections. At least within ancient Egyptian culture, those objects were more than just art for them – now we see them as art and artifacts, but for them, they served a specific purpose. I like to think about that in a contemporary sense and see objects that might have been stand-ins for people or things that serve a specific purpose and what that could look like today. Adornments in that culture and seeing trends over time is also interesting to me. You can visit the Met and see direct influences on jewelry and objects today. I think the interplay between ancient artifacts and cultural, contemporary things is super interesting.

What about contemporary objects interest you compared to something from the 1700s, for example?

For me, making things or observing things that are contemporary is almost like a way of timekeeping or record keeping. I’m inspired by the ways that objects and cultures were documented and preserved in the past, and I think it’s super important. It does require some kind of intentionality for cultures to be kept, recorded, and documented, so I think it’s also part of why I’m interested in present-day objects.

L: Impale (2019), Ceramics, Gold Studs, 4 x 3 x 5 in; R: Chipset (2022), Ceramic & glaze, 15 x 9 x 5 in.

I can see similarities between your work and some traditional West African sculpture, for instance, some of your earlier pieces like Impale (2019) remind me of less defined Akan memorial heads, while others like Chipset (2022) have similarities with fertility dolls. How has traditional African sculpture influenced your work?

It’s had a tremendous influence on my work. I think it’s interesting pulling in different aspects of it, and again, with this emphasis on contemporary culture, translating that or the way they thought about things into the present and weaving it into what I’m thinking about. Now, technology is something interesting that I’m investigating, in addition to revisiting cultures and seeing how they approach technology and translating that. Sometimes it’s not even about translating, but it’s seeing how innovative they were with what they had.

Not so many things are original — things are just being revisited. I think it’s about drawing parallels between then and now, and of course, stuff is always happening, so everyone is still creating things. For me, it’s about engaging with the present and the past and honoring traditions.

It’s almost like you’re continuing or preserving these traditions but in the contemporary realm. The items may not be used for the same purpose, but they’re connected.

Linked (2021), Ceramics, 9 x 8 x 21 in. Created at The Archie Bray Foundation

When you mentioned fertility idols, even that connects to what’s happening now with Roe v. Wade and conversations about bodily autonomy. It’s stuff that’s continually happening. These things won’t stop, but by looking at older cultures and artifacts, we can find solutions or explanations.

Many of your pieces depict faces without defined characteristics, but I can still tell that they’re meant to represent people across the African diaspora. What is your approach to personifying these objects, who are these figures, and where are you sourcing them from?

That’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot because I love hearing other people’s perspectives of what the art is or isn’t. I think it’s my job to play with that and see what defining characteristics I can include or not include. It’s not even like I’m the one in charge of saying that – it’s almost like I create these objects, and then it’s up to the viewer to decide what it is. For me, I feel like it’s including or excluding certain things, for example, not having a mouth or including ears. I think there’s intentionality behind that. Even when I’m making objects, oftentimes, I’m not sure how to define them, and sometimes I’m not even thinking of it as abstract versus figurative or even considering if it’s more of a person or an entity.

Sometimes I can say after the work is done, and sometimes it’s unclear to me, but I do enjoy hearing other people’s thoughts about it. I think it’s my responsibility as an artist not to impose too much on it but to let people see themselves or interpret what they feel.

Do you have a planning process when making your work? Do the pieces grow organically, or are you very intentional about what you want them to look like in the end?

Sapphire Child 03 (2021), Ceramics, 7 × 5 × 2 .5 in.

It definitely changes. There are times when I start off with a concept, even if it’s what the figure is. I’ll think maybe it will be something to do with bodily autonomy or something referencing specific fertility idols, and then I’ll research different elements that I might want to include in my work. I’ll either write them down or store them for later, but as far as clearly defining what I’m doing before I do it, I don’t do as much. Sometimes I make little sketches, but lately, I feel like I want to work a little bit bigger, and that requires more planning, just because with ceramics, the material can get overbearing. Going forward, I would like to do more sketching and planning. As far as what the piece is going to be, I think it’s just starting somewhere conceptually, and when I have those ideas, I can play around and see what forms come out of experimenting.

“Now, technology is something interesting that I’m investigating, in addition to revisiting cultures and seeing how they approach technology and translating that. Sometimes it’s not even about translating, but it’s seeing how innovative they were with what they had.”

You bring a lot of your pieces into the contemporary by accessorizing them with gold hoops, adorning them with pearls, or experimenting with more unusual shapes that I feel fit into this time. How did you develop your particular style?

Because I started off painting, I think a lot of my inspiration was initially from the kinds of figures I wanted to make. From there, it was about how do I translate them into a three-dimensional sense. A lot of my paintings aren’t available online, but they’re my initial studies for who I wanted these characters to be. I think of the objects almost as characters in a way, and oftentimes, I revisit older work that I’ve done and pull elements that I liked – I continue to reinvent them and see what they could look like.

I think it started off as sketching these figures that I wanted to be ambiguous; I didn’t want them to be people or referencing any one specific person – it was kind of like capturing something, almost like a default person, and then continuing to play with that and seeing how I could stretch that. Now, specifically for the figurative works, they’re more like characters. I’m sure in the future I’ll look back at these works and pull elements that I’m interested in, but of course, while referencing the other artifacts that I’ve talked about and seeing how other artists engage with figurative works as well.

Going back to the gold hoops I mentioned, I see that bamboo earrings make a reappearance in a few of your pieces, and I especially love how they’re implemented in Door Knocker (2021). Could you share more about that piece and the significance of gold hoops in your work overall?

That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently and have been trying to revisit as well. I feel like my earlier work had a lot to do with gold, bamboo, door knockers, and that culture — specifically, how objects that carry cultural significance within the Black diaspora and African American culture are often appropriated. Within Impale (2019), it was kind of like a two-fold thing because there are earring studs in the hair, and the name Impale is referencing this penetration of the stud into the skull. I think there’s beauty in the figure, but there’s also a complexity I’m interested in – even in engaging with beauty supply stores and objects that are meant to resemble gold but aren’t gold. Some of my research was looking into how faux gold and objects that look like gold are toxic and have carcinogens in them. There’s this dance with beauty and things that are symbolic but also dangerous. I don’t think it’s entirely a positive or negative thing, but it’s relevant to our culture now.

L: Top Beauty (Series) (2019), Ceramics, Bamboo Hoop Earrings; R: Door Knocker (2021), Ceramics, 9 x 5 x 21 in. created at The Archie Bray Foundation

I really like how you implement it, and it makes me think of the bamboo door knocker in a new way because I feel like it’s so common to see it used in contemporary art in a way that’s a bit kitschy in my opinion. I know it’s a symbol of African American culture and style, but I think the way you described it, the way you implement it, and just learning that some faux gold is toxic makes me think of other things in our beauty culture, specifically for Black women that are toxic, like relaxers and other hair products.

“Some of my research was looking into how faux gold and objects that look like gold are toxic and have carcinogens in them. There’s this dance with beauty and things that are symbolic but also dangerous. I don’t think it’s entirely a positive or negative thing, but it’s relevant to our culture now.”

To that point, I would be doing a disservice to the community without saying gold is beautiful, but there are things to be aware of. Like you’re saying about relaxers or lye or all types of things that are super damaging that we accepted as staples in our community, I think it’s interesting to explore that interplay, and that’s what I’m interested in looking at going forward – the things we recognize as significant, and figuring out the nuance in them.

The last time we connected, you mentioned that you were in a residency or about to attend one. How did your practice develop there, and what did you work on?

It was a super amazing time! It was a residency called Township10 in North Carolina and was in a super secluded environment. I’m used to working in a more community-centric space, usually with people in the studio, or you can have conversations about the work, but for this specific residency, it was a time to be by myself in the studio. That meant very few distractions, and I could get up and work as needed, which is like the first time I didn’t have any other obligations outside of making work. I was able to hone in on what I was interested in conceptually, which was investigating adornment and technology and seeing these things as extensions of the body.

Motherboard (2022), Ceramic & glaze, 8.5 × 11 × 8.5 in.

What’s something you’re proud of?

Staying true to myself and how I navigate the world. We’re made to feel like we should be in a certain box or be doing a certain thing, but I just try to live my life as authentically as possible. It’s not all the time, but it’s something that I’m consciously thinking about and showing up as the person that I want to be.

Who is an artist or project that’s impacted you over the last year?

The Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition that opened up in Chelsea, which I guess is technically a retrospective, was so incredible. I thought it was special that his family curated it, and to see that side of him, because everybody has their own experiences and perspectives of him. It was one of the more honest shows of his work where you saw who he was as a child, what he went through, some objects in his collection, and things that we never really would’ve seen.

Luna (2023), Ceramics, 8.75 x 4.5 x 8.25 in.

I saw one of Bisa Butler‘s shows at Katonah Museum of Art in Westchester. I was super inspired by the way she uses materials. I’m always impressed when I can’t tell how something was made, and I think she utilizes fabrics in such an interesting way. Seeing stuff that’s not sculptural but could be considered sculptural while playing with the two-dimensional in sculptural forms is super interesting.

What’s next for you and where do you imagine yourself within the next year or so?

So right now, I don’t have studio space, which is something that’s kind of difficult. I’m looking for studio space and looking for new spaces to make work, but also utilizing the space I have now, which is at my house. I’d say using that space and playing with different materials and objects that I can use creatively, which I’m not used to doing because ceramics is a specific medium where you need specific things, so I think this period is about utilizing what I have now and seeing how that can push my work creatively.

I think looking for more found materials, found objects, and bringing those in conversation with ceramics would be interesting – that’s the main thing I’m focused on right now. I’m also working towards some other shows in the future.

Can you provide a few tips for other artists?

Having a presence on social media has helped me a ton. I think I made my Instagram over two years ago, but before, I didn’t have an official art page, I had a website, but nobody can really see your work if it’s not actively presented. I’ve connected with you and many other people by virtue of being on Instagram and sharing my work — I’d say that’s a big one. Something that I would say is a tip and that I’m working on is going to more shows and seeing art more, which is something I wanted to do in 2020 after I graduated, but then COVID hit, so that put a delay on really getting out there. In the shows that I’ve been to, I’ve met a lot of awesome people, and you really never know who is an artist or somebody looking to collaborate or looking for work.

L: Untitled (Tall Blue) (2023), Ceramics, 4.5 x 3.5 x 9.75 in; R: Aegean Watchtower (2023), Ceramics, 7.5 x 7.5 x 22 in.

Lastly, I would say, for me, was committing to being an artist and whatever that looked like. I would say over the last two years, I’ve kind of just thought, even if this is not something that I want to do forever (which I’m sure I’ll be an artist in some capacity forever), but it was just making an intentional decision to create work, show work, and to do it now and not put it off. There were really no limits for me, and I had all this time during COVID to make the art and see what could happen. For me, it was just committing to it and appreciating the process of being an artist because it’s not the easiest thing all the time.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and was conducted in Summer 2022.

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