Mary Gorrara's studio is crammed with an impressive army of sculptures
carved from granite, alabaster, marble and ebony. Some of the pieces
are large while others are small, some figurative, others abstract.
Some have been cast in bronze while others are as yet unfinished.
The walls are filled with pencil sketches, studies of past and future
projects. Her small office is plastered with family photographs and
postcards, a corner is crammed with an abundance of well-thumbed art
books. The studio spills out through sliding doors into a garden that
is Mary's pride and joy. Two-tiered, it houses an extraordinary variety
of flowering plants that graciously frame one of her larger pieces.
In the lower patio there is an enormous "hopton wood stone"
lying on a custom-built bunker (or sculpting table), which Mary has
yet to work. She comments that it is from an old Commonwealth building,
a favourite haunting ground for sculpting materials.
Mary Gorrara was born in London, England in 1923 with a disease called
Charcot Maritooth. She likes to joke about her handicap. Laughing,
she describes herself as "all crooked" and brushes it off
by mischievously adding that she long ago nicknamed herself "no-knees
Gorrara." Charcot Maritooth is linked to muscular distrophy and
has been responsible for the progressive erosion of Mary's knees.
As a result, she is painfully knockkneed and arthritic; walking has
become increasingly difficult. Her studio is equiped with an automatic
chair that is hooked up to the staircase and effortlessly transports
her up and down. Although the disease is also responsible for the
constant tremor in Mary's hands, it in no way affects the powerful
grip of her handshake, a testament perhaps to her lifelong love of
sculpting and the consequent strength she developed in her arms and
hands from working laboriously with chisel and hammer. Even a cursory
glance at her work makes it apparent that Mary's medical condition
has never been an impediment to the creation of her art. Grudgingly,
however, she concedes that "in England, if I had not been handicapped,
I could have gotten a lot further. I couldn't move, I couldn't meet
people, I couldn't go where I wanted to go all the time. I could have
done much bigger stuff." But she is quick to point out that although
"it was frustrating, you accept it and get on with your life
and things come to you to a large extent."
She categorically informs me that she "started large," explaining
that she began sculpting by doing "big concrete stuff. It was
cheap and I could [therefore afford to] go big. It is a wonderful
feeling working big breathing differently." Shrugging, she adds,
"at that time you had to show you could do big things large sculptureyou
had to show you could cope with anything. My legs were getting worse
and it was very painful but there was nothing they [doctors] could
do so I just had to keep on working." Her only concession to
her handicap is occasionally to take medication to stop the tremor
in her hands when she does a portrait or something that is "very
fine." Even this, however, is conquered by Mary's resolute determination.
She adds that "at certain times, when you concentrate very hard,
it doesn't seem to matter much." One cannot help but sense that
Mary has used the strength in her spirit as well as in her arms to
do and achieve the "large" things that her physical limitations
might not have allowed her to do otherwise. Health reasons were what
finally prompted Mary to join her family in Toronto. First she had
to have surgery to remove the cataracts in her eyes and later a series
of operations on both her knees. "Now I have got both artificial
knees and the muscular distrophy rehab has decided that I've got to
have lifting gear. Actually they're going to put it in for me which
is absolutely fantastic." This means Mary will no longer have
to depend on assistance from other people in order to lift and move
the very heavy materials she works with. Her small frame and cropped
grey hair enhance large, dark eyes that exudea quiet andcontrolled
The impression she gives is of a woman who has always done exactly
what she wanted. I am not surprised when my comments regarding the
difficulties she must have faced early in her career, not simply as
a handicapped individual, but more importantly, as a woman and sculptor
at a time when the art world was dominated almost exclusively by men,
prompt an abrupt and emphatic assertion: "I just never felt the
problem. It was not the same as a man, a little different, but I never
had a problem. I just did it." Mary's service in the British
Navy during World War II helped her to reject to some degree the conventional
female role dictated by post-war English society. "I got a grant
at the end of it which was very nice." That grant enabled Mary
to emoll at the Camberwell School of Art where she attended sculpture
classes. "I met a man there who was very enthusiastic about Aztec
work and that's when the sculpture bug hit me." It was there
that Mary also met and fell in love with her Italian model, Primo
Gorrara. "I went on learning how to carve wood and stone and
then got pregnant. We decided to get married six months after."
Almost reluctantly, she explains, "I was brought up in a very
large suburban family. When the war came, because of circumstances,
I broke away from it and met so many different people. I decided to
marry my gorgeous beautiful model, Primo, because he was so different
from my family you see." Mary's casual tone is typical of her
understated attitude towards the obstacles she must have encountered.
Later, she confesses that "my parents didn't approve of me for
a long time. I was always the odd one out. I was one of the wierdies
long hair, long skirts, bare feet, earrings and all that sort of thing.
My father wanted me to be finished properly and married to a certain
type. It was very difficult but they came to love me in the end."
Considering the social mores of the time, Mary's defiant rejection
of the traditionally constricting female role, her dogged pursuit
of an artistic career and quiet rebellion against the patriarchal
establishment is remarkable. It was not an easy time but Mary was
ingenious and resourceful. Having very little money, the newly married
couple lived for the most part on Mary's grant and rented out rooms
to supplement their income. She speaks fondly of those early days.
"We had a house full of tenants all sorts of characters. The
house was full of energy. It was a really great time." Her husband,
she explains with palpable appreciation, was always supportive and
converted the front basement of their large and rambling home into
a studio for Mary to work in. Wistfully, she adds, "I loved that
studio." While discarded tombstones eagerly hunted out in old
churchyards were an inexpensive source of working material, it was
through Primo that Mary began to experiment with concrete. "I
was one of the first to use concrete because Primo and his family
were in the building trade. I learned you could do a lot with it.
Primo showed me how to use the concrete and how to mix it. I learned
how to handle it and how to model with it. I learned to build concrete
armatures. You had to have a lot of starnina. I didn't have a mixer.
I was the mixer." Grinning, she adds, "It not only takes
a great deal of energy but you get very dirty. I had a lot of bleeding
fingers before I learned that if you don't wear rubber gloves you'll
take the skin off the tip of your fingers!"
Mary threw herself whole-heartedly into mastering her craft. After
Camberwell, she enrolled at the City and Guilds School of Art in Kennington
and then studied sculpture at the Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel.
Working for other sculptors not only helped to make ends meet but
also provided an invaluable learning environment. Not even the birth
of her two children (Perry, with whom she lives in Toronto, and Andy,
who commutes between Norway and England), slowed her down. "Of
course, I had to stop sculpting for a short time. A very short time,"
she stresses, while explaining that the "c-sections" she
had with both children "held me back for awhile." She continued
to work by day for other sculptors, hopping on her bicycle when finished
to collect the children from school. "I was determined to enjoy
my children," she states emphatically, "and I was very strong."
She does admit that juggling everything was not without the occasional
mishap. Laughingly, she tells me about the time that she "wanted
so badly to do some work" so she put her daughter, Perry, into
a pram and tried to "bump" her down the stairs into the
studio where she could keep an eye on her while she worked. "I
slipped and nearly shot ... [her] through the window!"
Mary also "had to teach to keep things going," [In particular
at St Mary's Town & Country School, in Eton Avenue, a stone's
throw from her house in Steele Road] an experience she considers invaluable.
"I learned a great deal by teaching," she explains. "I
realized I had to know an awful lot. I used to tackle practically
anything and then teach it afterward." She joined the staff of
the Carnden Art Centre in Hampstead, London in 1967 and began by teaching
children art. She was subsequently asked to teach sculpture and eventually
appointed head of the department. "It was tremendously rewarding.
It was a great place. Some good work went on there great exhibitions
and I sold a lot"
She is proud to inform me that when she left the school in 1984 the
Sculpture Department was closed. She remains nonchalant when addressing
the obvious difficulties inherent in combining the management of her
large household, her work, as well as her career as a sculptor, insisting
that she was for the most part indifferent to the woman's movement
and feminist issues. "Very important things are happening now
but then I was far too busy working, working and working. We lived
in a big old house. I cleaned it, I did the shopping, I was the sculptor,
I was the mother, I looked after the children and I taught."
grudgingly admits to the occasional testy moment, however: "To
have a temper is a very important thing with a sculptor. Carving is
a way of releasing it," she comments smiling. Despite Mary's
insistence that feminist issues have never consciously shaped her
work, there are a number of pieces in her studio that appear to me
to be evidence of its unconscious influence. I am enthralled by a
striking series of sculptures of reclining women that have a tangibly
sorrowful quality. Curled up in a fetal position, all the women have
their wombs eerily scooped out, hauntingly empty and sterile. Mary
explains that they are "late" pieces, sculpted in her late
thirties and early forties. Eyes clouded, she confesses they echo
her rage at the treatment of pregnant women in English hospitals.
"I lost my first child and that was so traumatic. I was strong.
I was fine. Because of this disease I've got, my pelvis is small and
crooked and they never gave me an internal examination. I had a certain
amount of pain, but not much. I had 36 hours of labour. And then the
baby was lost." Painfully, she adds, "My first waking, the
first words fiom the nurse were "Well, she better get over it"
That really hurt and the ward was full of women having babies all
over the place. It really ripped me, it tore right through me. I was
very ill but'1 was strong and recovered quickly. After that I had
to have caesarians. So it was a fairly dramatic experience."
The "empty wombs," as I come to think of them, are in stark
contrast to the numerous sculptures of pregnant women also scattered
throughout Mary's studio. Passively seated and quietly radiant, hands
resting on full and welcome bellies, they are peculiarly beatifying.
These pieces, she explains, came long before the hauntingly hollow
Her interest was sparked by her daughter's first pregnancy, a time
she remembers as being frankly "marvellous," prompting a
series of sculptures of a young and pregnant model. Musingly, she
adds, "Later, when I thought about it, I did a little one and
I cut out the stomach and that really was about losing my first baby."
I am reminded of a particular passage in Lucy Lippard's book, From
the Center, Feminist Essays on Women's Art (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin
and Co., 1976) in which she debates the question of whether there
is a "feminist" art. In concluding that there "are
aspects of art by women which are inaccessible to men and that these
aspects arise from the fact that a woman's political, biological and
social experience in this society is different from that of a man,"
Lippard maintains that the characteristics of a "female sensibility"
are manifested in "certain elements -a central focus (often "empty,"
often circular or oval), parabolic baglike forms, obsessive line and
detail, veiled strata, tactile or sensuous surfaces and forms, associative
fragmentation, autobiographical emphasis, and so forth." While
for Mary these issues were not a conscious consideration, Lippard
could very well be describing Mary Gorrara's empty wombs.
seems that for Mary the struggle to be accepted by her peers, almost
exclusively male, was arduous and her repeated references to having
had "to prove herself' by "working big" can be seen
as meaning being able to work on the same level as a man. In this
context, Lucy Lippard's comment that "the resistance on the part
of some women artists to identification with other women artists is
the product of years of rebellion against the derogatory connations
of the word 'feminine' applied to art or any other facet of life"
seems once again to reflect Mary Gorrara's reality.Mary stresses that
her sculptures of women are more than just a subconsious expression
of the loss of her child "It was partially because I felt very
interested in the male and female in a woman too, in people. That
is all part of it too. The male-female in everybody." She points
to a beautiful 34-inch ebony sculpture of a woman standing, arms raised
over her head, graceful in its abandon, frank sexuality and understated
strength. "That's more about that," she says. "I call
it "Woman." That is the woman, really male and female. There's
a certain strength there. I like it." Some of the more recent
pieces are openly celebratory, joyous expressions of womanhood and
the feminine creative principle.
"Three Buds" is an exquisite sculpture, carved out of Carrara
marble, an imposing piece of which Mary is particularly proud. When
I comment that the work evokes the shape of a young woman's breasts,
Mary laughs appreciatively, acknowledging that this sculpture was
as much inspired by her daughter's pregnancy as it was by her love
of flowers and gardens. "I had a camelia tree in my garden,"
she explains. "It always had wonderful buds. Then my daughter
became pregnant and so [this work] was a celebration of [Perry's]
becoming pregnant, settling down, and my camelia." Underlying
the work is a statement about woman's place in nature and the cycle
of life, which is evident in another equally impressive work carved
from alabaster, which was also the product of intensive studies made
in Mary's garden of an hydragen flower. "It took a lot of drawings
and a lot of thought," she remarks, adding that one "can't
do anything without a lot of research." She began by working
on two little flowers, the piece eventually blossoming into its present
majesty. "Almost like a symphony," she states "tied
up with breaking away from Primo and coming here." It is a happy
piece, serene, joyful, fulfilled.
Mary Gorrara's strength is clearly both internal and physical. It
is manifest in the personal power she exerted to overcome any limitations
her physical handicap may have imposed as well as the subtle and not-so-subtle
constrictions of a society hostile to women's independence and creativity,
a power that is reflected in the size, the dynamic and the diversity
of her work. The energy that vibrates in her art is a tangible expression
of the wealth of Mary's spiritual depth and intuition as well as her
experience as a woman and artist. Mary Gorrara has been having successful
one-woman exhibitions since 1960. Although in Toronto she was recently
part of a group exhibition at the Neo Faber Gallery, finding a permanent
gallery suitable for exhibiting her work has not been easy.
Adapting to life in a new country is always stressful and for Mary
this is compounded by the fact that mobility is difficult. The problems
with her health have also been disconcertingly disruptive and it is
somewhat ruefully that she adds, "it's been very spasmodic because
I've been in the hospital so much." But Mary is eager to get
back to sculpting and she is looking forward to the arrival of the
lifting equipment. "I want to know more about the different typesof
stones in Canada,"she saysexcitedly. "Now I'll be able to
work comfortably and there are a lot of things smouldering."
Nevertheless, she seems uncertain about her future and is poignant
when she comments softly, "I just want to work. I want to have
a clear run." It is with characteristic determination that she
asserts, "It seems to me that I can go on working for a very
long time, another ten years of good work."
WOMAN STUDIES/LES CAHIERS DE LA FEMME