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No Longer Concerned About Gallery Sales, Molly Sawyer Thriving In Museums, Art Centers

Colby Caldwell

Molly Sawyer used to sculpt stylized horses and human figures from clay. That changed after her battle with breast cancer.

“The work became a response to my own direct experience with life, death,” she said. “I guess the issue of mortality has always been present in my deeper thought process.”

Today, Sawyer’s work is a mashup of found objects such as driftwood, stone and metal rods with braided or balled-up wool, twine, ash and fur. She usually works large, with some installations at once clumped on the floor, leaning against a wall and hanging from the ceiling.  

The dimensions and materials make this body of work difficult to place in galleries focused on sales, but Sawyer is riding a wave of exposure in area museums and art centers. She’s among the 50 artists invited into the Asheville Art Museum’s “Appalachia Now!” exhibition, and Sawyer is soon opening solo shows at Revolve in Asheville and at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

Opening reception at Revolve is Jan. 10 and the exhibition runs through Feb. 16. At Western Carolina University’s Bardo Arts Center, Sawyer’s work will be on view through Feb. 25.

“I would like to feel acceptance in a broader art world,” she said. “I do in one sense already feel that, because I’m just following my own path.”

Sawyer grew up in Atlanta and went through surgery at 10 to remove a benign but entangled brain tumor. She later studied ceramics at Guilford College in Greensboro and eventually moved to Manhattan just before 9/11. After her bout with breast cancer, she and her husband moved to Asheville.

“I needed to get away from New York for a while,” she said. “I needed some quiet and, when I got here, I was able to get my first studio outside of my home.”

By bringing organic material into her work--fabric, fiber and hair that breaks down over time—Sawyer introduced a fragility and evolution that only later did she understand as metaphors for mortality.

“It can take a long time to put pieces together,” she said. “You’ve seen my studio, it’s chockablock full of things that sit for a long time and wait until suddenly I look into a corner and see a block of wood and then it all makes sense to me that day. I like to watch the work and try to allow it to do what it’s doing and learn from it. What I’m looking for in my work is peace.”

Her initial installation for “Appalachia Now!” brought her anything but peace. Titled “At What Cost?,” it included ashen planks of wood on the floor beneath long, polished tree limbs suspended from the ceiling, wrapped in bulbous, cocooned wool. Sawyer brought the installation to the Asheville Art Museum in August, only to have the piece sit more than two months before the museum opened. Museum staff told Sawyer they couldn’t maintain her installation and, at their request, she replaced it with a different artwork.

“I spent over a year of my life working on this piece knowing that it needs to be seen,” Sawyer said.

And it will be, in the exhibition at Revolve.

“If nobody’s buying the work, why the hell not just make what I’m envisioning? As opposed to trying to figure out where you’re going to show it or sell it before you make it, because that creates a censor and you can’t make the work,” Sawyer said. “The result itself is just a thing, it’s really the process. It’s a personal exploration in many ways and an attempt to find a balance in my own life.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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