Mop art Consider the mop. Melissa Dorn Richards does. She considers it art.
Artist transforms humble mop heads into artwork
Consider the mop, the Rodney Dangerfield of the hall closet. ♦ The broom, at least, can be a symbol of power. Baseball players break out the brooms to celebrate sweeping a series against an opponent. But the mop-up man is the lowliest reliever, tasked with absorbing innings after other pitchers have made a mess. ♦ Now artist Melissa Dorn Richards has elevated the mop from afterthought to star in a new exhibit at Frank Juarez Gallery. In “Mopping Up,” Dorn Richards creates images of mop heads and uses industrial mop heads themselves in sculptures, finding both personal and communal associations in the stringy yeoman that swabs our decks. ♦“Mopping Up” is one of many exhibits open during Milwaukee’s quarterly Gallery Night and Day Friday and Saturday.
“Mopping Up” also offers some insight in how an artist like Dorn Richards works. Often stimulated by everyday objects, she tends to work in series until she has mined out a vein of inspiration. Her mop period has been going strong for more than two years now with no sign of exhaustion.
In a recent interview, Dorn Richards said she had been reading Sarah Thornton’s book “33 Artists in 3 Acts” when she bumped into the word “mop.” She mused on it as a funny word and wrote it down.
Later, thinking about the subject some more, the Milwaukee artist drew a mop in her sketchbook, the place where all of her art begins.
That abstracted mop-head form, which resembles a head of hair, recurs throughout Dorn Richards’ current series of paintings, largely executed in black and white, sometimes strictly either black or white.
“It’s a lot about the texture, the way it feels … that’s attractive to me,” Dorn Richards said.
Her mop form’s likeness to a head of hair is no accident. Dorn Richards has long wavy hair. When she was a girl, her short-haired mother called her a mophead, an anecdote she enjoys telling now.
“I’m good with my hair now,” she said. “I won’t let them straighten it out when I go and get it cut.”
The more mop art she made, the more associations she found. She connected mops to labor. While she did some maintenance work in the past, Dorn Richards said “I was not a good mopper. I didn’t have the patience to be a good mopper.”
She also associates mops with domestic work traditionally performed by women.
Dorn Richards is both a painter and a sculptor. Her mop paintings, including one that’s 8 feet by 6 feet, begin their lives as drawings. The paintings are all planned out, she said, “so that when I get to the canvas, it is really about laying down paint.” She’s been applying that paint with a palette knife, giving these works a three-dimension texture.
But the work that jumped out at me during a visit to the gallery was Dorn Richards’ sculptures, which incorporate industrial mop heads. (Before she liberates them from their wrapping, they look like gigantic ramen packages.)
While visiting another artist’s studio, Dorn Richards noticed a bright yellow toaster partly covered by a cozy. In her car she sketched out a work with mop fibers sticking out. That’s turned into a mop-covered sculpture on yellow legs with the nubby texture of a Chia pet.
Dorn Richards realized she could use latch hooking to make art with mop strands sticking out like unruly hair. “It was that piece, too, when I realized how long latch hooking takes, especially when you’re not doing it with the yarn that comes in the kit,” she said.
She has created an enormous wall hanging by latch hooking mop fibers through orange snow fencing, with the orange background occasionally showing through the white fibers.
The artist enjoys the repetitive nature of latch hooking. “I can get to a place that’s meditative for me,” she said. “It would probably take a lotta lotta practice to get there any other way.”
She’s still working on a piece that’s either a rolling-pin mop or a mop rolling pin.
“There’s the toaster, there’s the rolling pin, there will be an ironing board cover and potentially a whole ironing board. I’m still working that idea out,” she said.
With so many personal connections to the source material, Dorn Richards thinks of her mop art as “the closest thing to a self-portrait that I’ll ever do.”
Playfully, she considered the notion of making herself a mop wig to wear at the gallery opening, but then decided “my hair’s pretty moppy, so I think that covers it.”
Above: In her recent artwork, Melissa Dorn Richards uses industrial mop heads as both image and material. Below: She is still deciding whether this is a rolling-pin mop or a mop rolling pin.
A detail from a mop wall hanging by Melissa Dorn Richards.
Melissa Dorn Richards said this mop-head sculpture was inspired by a toaster cozy she saw in another artist's studio.
Melissa Dorn Richards' abstracted mop form resembles a human head of hair.