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Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography
MARY PLASTER - Icons and Wearable Puppets
DR. MARY PLASTER of Duluth, Minnesota is a prolific artist and a frequent visitor to the San
Francisco Bay area.

Using papier-mache, paint, and cloth, Mary also makes larger-than-life, wearable  puppets for celebrations and
community events.   Some of these puppets require 3 people to carry and animate them. Their faces are startlingly
lifelike! Frequently when these puppets appear in public, they are embraced and greeted as living icons.

For this work, Mary received an Individual Artist Grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.

I am a multi-media artist, working across various genres of street theater and studio art for over 25 years. My
formal background is mainly painting of all kinds. For the last five years I have explored a meditative, solitary
process of “writing” religious icons in the ancient medium of egg tempera. I appreciate the divine nature of the face
and the use of pure, earthy, all-natural materials—animal, vegetable and mineral—in a spiritual practice.
I have been working simultaneously in the animated sculptural medium of giant street puppetry—my “dancing
icons.”  The ancestor peacemaker series is inspired by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Episcopal Church mural of the
Dancing Saints.
I sculpt my puppet faces and hands in free slag clay discarded by potters. These forms are cocooned with several
layers of overlapping torn paper, usually newsprint and grocery bags, which are slathered with warm, homemade
cornstarch paste. When dry, the lightweight and durable copies lift off the earthen molds like metamorphosed
butterflies. Rigged with bamboo and wood scraps, festooned with leftover house paint and costumed in donated
surplus fabric rags, the homespun carnivalesque effigies are hoisted airborne. They emote very tangibly dignified
and spiritual presences personifying ancestors, archetypes and elements, dancing with vicarious manipulations of
those who step inside to animate them in parades and festivals. These entities voice our protest of atrocious
governmental decisions or simply promote joy, peace and justice.

Humble but stunning masks and props consist of mostly, well, garbage. My own best teachers were from developing
countries where art is resurrected from the junk affluent nations throw away. I believe now that what we Americans
trash most is the power of our own creativity and ties to community.
My informal papier-mâché apprenticeship in the 1980s was with several street and professional stage theater
groups across the Americas, especially In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre of Minneapolis and
Teatro Libre of Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. They, in turn, were strongly influenced by the legacy of the 1960s
phenomenon, Bread and Puppet Theater, whose director, Peter Schumann staged infamous antiwar
demonstrations in New York City using “cheap art” techniques.

The folk art nature of it is more universally accessible. The process encourages (gives heart to) a community of
participants, rather than merely entertaining lone spectators in a television culture. People show up to help
construct, perform and interact with my designs. I believe this is the essence of political art activism—both making
art/theater from natural or recycled (green) materials/found objects and inspiring each other to form opinions and
speak out. We all should use creativity and imagination for enriching our inner and outer life.
Left:  Mahatma Gandhi gets a hug!

Center:  A new puppet depicts the shining sun.

Right:  Mahatma Gandhi, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and John Lennon
At the 2007 Burning Man Festival -

The festival theme was "The Green Man."  Mary made two Green Man puppets,
which enlivened the Playa with their dancing.
Far left:  Mary
teaches a new
generation of
puppet sculptors.
Mary and her puppets appeared in May 2008 with The Heart of the
Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre at a May Day Celebration in
Minneapolis, Minnesota.  
Above; children carry "future beans/beings"
in the parade.  Above right, a group of mourners grieve for the harm
that humans do to one another, particularly in war.

At right; Mary and these kids made a really big eagle puppet for the
Artmoves Parade!


FOR PURCHASE; please add shipping and handling
Giclee print of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, 8 x 10 inches, $40.00
Mary Plaster writes:  This icon of Sophia, Divine Wisdom, was conceived of my historical research and spiritual
re-imagining, “midwifed” through an intensive workshop with artist Sr. Mary Charles McGough, O.S.B. (1925-2007)
of Subiaco Studio.

In addition to discussion of history and technique of the Byzantine tradition, typical days consisted of fellowship with
other iconography students and the Benedictine community: prayer, contemplative working silence, worship and
shared  meal at the St. Scholastica Monastery.

In the interests of preservation, state-of-the-art materials and techniques were incorporated.  Gouache acrylics and
gold leaf were applied painstakingly in layers onto a recessed, gessoed wooden board courtesy of Gary Erickson
(1949-2006), then blessed and sealed.

Icons are thought of as “Windows to the Sacred” and are traditionally not signed. Giclee prints are accompanied by
a signed certificate of authenticity. Cards and archival prints available. ”Sophia, Divine Wisdom” was finished and
photographed on the Feast day of the Birth of St. Mary Sept. 8, 2003.

The original has her permanent home with Andrew Harvey, poet, novelist, translator, mystical scholar and my dear
friend. The copyright belongs to me. I live on Spirit Mountain near Duluth, Minnesota with my family:

“Sophia” is a mythical dimension of the Creator that is a sacred feminine personification of Wisdom found in the
Hebrew and Christian Bibles as well as Deuterocanonical accounts. In Russian Eastern Orthodox tradition of
iconography she is allegorically  represented as a bejeweled, white, winged woman on a throne in the hierarchical
“Kingdom of Heaven.” My version’s face was inspired by my own daughter, Azahar. I depict Lady Wisdom seated in
the context of the entire Cosmos, beckoning us to inclusive and sustainable decision making that gently cooperates
with global community. Ageless, androgynous, indigenous and totally unconcerned with material wealth She insists
on a new way of thinking that can potentially turn the world as we know it upside down.

After writing this contemporary icon, I discovered that "Dark, Divine, Earth Mother" is common to other spiritual
traditions that pre-date Christianity and continues to resurface in the worldwide “Black Madonna” phenomenon. I
have personally witnessed her in Mexico, France, South America and India. This work also continues to gather
personal meaning for me as a result of the tsunami and hurricane Katrina disasters.
Mary Plaster with
Green Man
photograph by
Matthew R. Perrine
of the Duluth
Theotokos of Tenderness
egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted
board, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2005
The Image Not Made by Hands
egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted
board, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2008
Christ Emmanuel
egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted
board, 11 x 14 inches, 2007
Archangel Michael
9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2003
egg tempera and gold leaf
on sculpted board
Archangel Gabriel
9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2004
egg tempera and gold leaf
on sculpted board
Saint John the Baptist
9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2004
egg tempera and gold leaf on
sculpted board
Sophia, Divine Wisdom
Gouache and gold leaf on sculpted board
13 x 18 inches, 2003
Copyright Mary Plaster 2003
Available as a giclee print 8 x 10 inches
Christ Pantocrator
(Sustainer of All)
24 x 36 inches, 2002
Gouache and gold leaf
on panel
Theotokos of the Sweet Kiss
9 x 12 inches, 2002
Gouache and gold leaf on panel
Mary Plaster's first icon; a prototype from
Sister Mary Charles, O.S.B. (1925-2007)
Mary Plaster served as Guest Curator for an Exhibition of Puppets

August 14 through November 4, 2008
Duluth Art Institute, Duluth, Minnesota
See more work by Dr. Mary Plaster at her website

Mary Plaster, MA, DMin, is a multi-media artist, facilitator, and presenter, residing with her family since 2000 on
Spirit Mountain, which overlooks scenic Duluth, Minnesota on the shores of Great Lake Superior. She has been
creating and teaching across various genres and venues of studio and theater art for 30 years, earning degrees,
grants, and world travel experiences on this path. Mary practices traditional religious iconography and has created
a compelling contemporary image called, Sophia, Divine Wisdom. In contrast, her knowledge of cheap art magic
was initially gleaned years ago living south of the border, working with creative recycling, papier-mâché experts of
central Mexico. She has traveled and admired inventive folk art and myths of the Americas, India and France. Mary
recently acquired a Doctorate in Ministry from Wisdom University in San Francisco, researching her dissertation on
giant street puppets and masks in ritual and celebration.

With her Spirit Mountain Dancing Icons, Mary has focused on the organic nature of larger-than-life paper entities,
which call for inventive re-use of discarded materials, as well as a group process that encourages (gives heart to)
collectives of actively engaged participants. In seasonal rituals, parades and celebrations Mary volunteers the
possibility of “stepping into” the role of a famous ancestor peacemaker or a personified energy for social justice.
Her series features: Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and more abstract archetypes of the
Elements, Green Man, Gaia, and the Black Madonna.

Mary is currently designing gods and creatures for the University of Minnesota’s musical theater spring 2011
production of The Odyssey. She recently completed original masks for the Minnesota Ballet’s Carnival of the
Animals and the Duluth Playhouse and Scottish Rite Clinic Stage Play theater program for children with autism
spectrum disorder. Mary and her moving 3D creations have toured to several interfaith conferences across the
Midwest and California Bay Area, and to the 2007 Burning Man Project in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. She was
staff artist for HOBT’s 2008 MayDay Parade in Minneapolis brainstorming, “A New Bridge, Infrastructure for Future
Beings,” and she annually co-creates for the St. Paul Ordway Center’s ARTmoves Parade with inner city youth.

Mary received a 2008 McKnight/ARAC (Arrowhead Regional Arts Council) Individual Career Development Grant to
attend the July apprentice program with Peter Schumann’s 47-year-old Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover,
Vermont. Immediately upon her return from the “Northeast Kingdom,” she was a guest curator for the Duluth Art
Institute (DAI), organizing an exhibit, Effigies of Peace and Protest: The Art of Social Activism, featuring four
decades of selected historically significant street theater art. This 2008 pre-election show displayed Bread and
Puppet Theater, the 37-year-old In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre (HoBT) of Minneapolis and
local works. The art show inspired All Souls Night (Dia de los Muertos) now annual events in downtown Duluth,
which received an art project grant from McKnight/ARAC under her artistic direction.

Mary’s work is available for sale and she can be easily contacted for custom ideas.