Making a Soapbox Can be Slippery Work

Sculptor Mac Star McCusker teaches at Odyssey Clayworks and around the Southeast. In 2016, the artist began using sculpture, installations, and narrative vessels to document LGBTQ rights and gender equality. That work suddenly propelled them onto a national stage — one that’s been both valuable and challenging.

Mac Star McCusker discusses identity issues in community talks and
through bold narrative ceramics.
Portrait by Clark Hodgin

The celebrated maker has already exhibited this year in New Orleans and at the national ceramics conference Claytopia!, held in Minneapolis. But when it comes to politically charged art, a big fanbase doesn’t always equal financial gain.

From the Testosterone Pots series.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Why’d you gravitate to ceramics?

It’s a medium that takes up physical space. I like being able to make people walk around a piece and interact with it. Maybe it’s two inches tall, and they have to come up close. Or it’s life size and they have to stand back. 

When did you start your social-commentary series focused on the policing of gender?

When they passed the bathroom laws in 2016 [North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act that required transgender individuals to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender assignment at birth]. I didn’t give a lot of thought to it; I just sort of reacted. But I didn’t realize the significant effect that it would have on my life.

What’s in a Name?
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Explain …

Well, I never wanted to put myself in the work. And I certainly didn’t want to put myself in my work as a Trans person. Once you are visible, you can’t take it back. People ask about my work now, and I cannot separate it from my life. It’s a lot for someone to take on, when you are showing your work in public. Some people can be cruel. 

Your talk to art students at Asheville High School last year sparked controversy. Carl Mumpower later compared liberal educators to the Khmer Rouge.

I was accused of indoctrinating others with my liberalism [Mumpower, the former Buncombe County Republican County Chairman, published a commentary, “Asheville Schools — Marinating Children in Liberalism,” on buncombegop.org; it was later reported in the Asheville Citizen Times]. But I also refuse for it to be any other way, and I get predominantly positive and supportive feedback. 

Such as?

After I spoke at Asheville High, I think that they installed more gender-neutral restrooms. I was offered speaking engagements around the country. Ceramics students contact me, wanting to do papers on me. Parents message me on Facebook with questions.

That’s a lot of responsibility to assume, huh?

Yeah. The first time I spoke to a group, my voice shook terribly. People assume they know you. They assume they can ask you anything. I am asked about my personal relationships, about what surgeries I have had or will have, and I am constantly misgendered. But I feel I need to do the work I do. 

From the Gender Politics series.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

To use your platform to advocate for others?

Advocating for Trans rights is a pivotal part of what I do. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell my own story.  

Since you began making sociopolitical pieces, is it harder or easier to market your work?

I’ve been in important art and ceramics magazines all over the country. I spoke at the last two national ceramics conferences. But you know what’s strange? Since I started doing these political pieces, I haven’t sold any of them, not a single piece.

I thought you’d say they were selling like hotcakes.

No. But for all the difficulties this comes with, I am so grateful to be a working full-time artist. I get to do what I love, and that’s amazing. Odyssey has supported me 1,000 percent. 

Mac Star McCusker, Odyssey Clayworks (236 Clingman Ave., River Arts District, Asheville, odysseyclayworks.com). For more information, see macmccuskerceramics.com and on Instagram (@mac_art_ceramics). 

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