Savannah sculptor Mac McCusker has an unflinching devotion to socially-conscious art. It started when she was painting at Jenkins High School. It entered the world of fired clay when she learned ceramics at Armstrong and Georgia State Universities. And now it continues in her latest exhibit focusing on endangered animals.
“I did this whole series where I did cups on animals’ backs,” McCusker says. “And I started doing rhinos and elephants. And just doing that and looking them up on the Internet and finding out more about them and just being able to sculpt them, I just learned all of this stuff that was going on with the poaching. And it just kind of struck me.”
Pachyderms are endangered throughout Africa and Asia. Not only are poachers shooting them, but deforestation and conflict also are diminishing their habitat.
McCusker’s exhibit is called “The Big Game.” It’ll be at the City of Savannah’s Cultural Arts Gallery in August. It also features endangered orangutans and leopards. And many of the works are interactive. You can turn and slide them. Yes, touch the art!
And then there’s Topsy the Elephant. Thomas Edison in 1903 essentially burned alive this abused creature for the electrified amusement of Coney Island revelers. Topsy’s disturbing tale has a place in the show.
“People tend to want to look away from these subject matters,” McCusker says. “People always think [my art] has a little bit of humor to it, maybe dark humor. But maybe by putting a little bit of humor in it, people are more willing to address the issue.”
Or as I put it in my interview with her, there’s something about seeing Fred Phelps in clay that makes him less scary. Phelps was the anti-gay crusader who died earlier this year after decades of violence-inspiring hate speech. McCusker cast Phelps in one of her earlier series, “In the Name of God.”
Getting behind that series helped me understand McCusker’s zeal for message-driven art. As a young gay person in the South, McCusker says she was angry. And she channeled that anger through her hands and into art. “In the Name of God,” available on her website under “MFA Thesis,” is especially dark.
After that, she focused on her own struggles with addiction. One of her most arresting pieces depicts a human figure crouching in fear.
“That was a self-portrait,” she says. “That was the piece that made me go farther and I sought help.”
She touched on mental illness in another show. Always, she says, her aim isn’t to wallow in emotion but to demystify uneasy topics, including her own bipolar disorder.
“I didn’t think I would be able to do the work I do now when I was first diagnosed,” McCusker says. “I thought once I was medicated, I wouldn’t be the same me. That’s not the case at all. I’m actually more prolific now than I’ve ever been.”
Compared to these previous works, “The Big Game” is more outwardly-focused.
“I’m just not as loud as I used to be,” McCusker says. “And it could be because my family’s great now. I’ve got a very supportive mother.”
It’s a well-worn cycle, gay or straight. Young fires cool over time and turn their attentions to other problems. But somehow I doubt McCusker ever will abandon entirely the work of art in the service of critical issues.
“Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’m under five foot,” she says. “But I love being able to take up physical space and sort of being able to manipulate people and how they see things and making them come closer to things or stay away.”
McCusker’s endangered animals will live at the city’s Cultural Arts Gallery through September fifth.
You can view her previous works at http://www.macmccuskerceramics.com.