Artist Mary Klie leans into the discomfort with ‘You Won’t Be Laughing’

The new exhibit, focused on white privilege, will remain on view at Blockfort through the end of February

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Silver Spoon No. 11 by Mary Klie

When Mary Klie finished her graduate studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, she sold all of her artwork and went into hiding, burned out on years of her craft being driven and shaped by outside affirmation.

“I was so young at the time, and so reliant on other people’s opinions of my work, that I really needed to hide out and figure out what was important to me,” Klie said during a recent interview at Blockfort, which will host the artist’s new exhibit, “You Won’t Be Laughing,” through the end of February (a reception is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 12, from 6-8 p.m.). “And, so, for a solid 10 or 15 years, I just made collage for me and started to really get to know the medium.”

While Klie majored in fine art, she’s always been drawn to collage, tracing it through her bloodlines to her childhood years growing up in Akron, Ohio, with a paper salesman father, a connection that afforded her access to an endless supply of paper for crafting. Klie was pulled further down her current path when, at age 13, her grandparents died, and the family traveled to Florida to clean out their house. “They grew up in the Depression era, and they were hoarders, and there were stacks of magazines all around the house,” Klie said. “And for some reason, that had an impact. All that information, all that influence just stacked up.”

As Klie worked in those secluded years, clipping images and incorporating them into pieces that she would then embellish with varnish, paint and nail polish, different themes started to emerge. This was particularly true following the birth of her first daughter, an event that inspired her to delve heavily into issues of femininity and feminism, which remained at the fore of her work for years.

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When the pandemic hit early in 2020, these inspirations started to shift, however, with Klie composing pieces that wrestled with the idea of privilege. Then Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in May 2020. “And when that happened, I remember telling my friends, 'This is it. I'm not the same person anymore. I can’t be quiet,'” Klie said. “And so, you look at your strengths. I’m not a very good public speaker. I don’t have a lot of money. But I have passion, and I have art. So that became my voice, my way of being an activist.”

The work on display in “You Won’t Be Laughing” eviscerates white privilege, with pieces centered on the weaponized tears of white women, white children born into the consequence-free lap of luxury and the brazenly comfortable existence more easily lived out by white Americans. In one stark piece, a young white boy carries a trio of outsized silver spoons alongside a rifle, calling to mind shooters like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed others but experienced little to no consequence for their actions. In another piece, which started as a study of shape, magazine images clipped into multi-sized triangles begin to evoke the pointed hoods of Ku Klux Klansmen.

March of Triangles by Mary Klie

Throughout the exhibit, certain images repeat, with multiple pieces including clipped photos of firearms, silver spoons and white women reclined on pillowy beds — visuals Klie described as common to the vintage magazines she combs for source material.

“Looking through these magazines, registering for silver was a big deal, so you have all of these ads for high-end silver,” Klie said. “You start seeing these repetitive images: silver and luxurious food and bedding. These women, they’re so relaxed. They’re loving life, so protected and comfortable.”

Another series of works, dubbed “Bad Drawings,” takes up the north wall of the gallery and marries Klie’s collage work to her portraiture, which previously existed primarily as a means of finding escape from the heavier images featured elsewhere at Blockfort. “I love doing portrait work, but usually it’s my kids, and it’s to take time away from collage and zone out,” said Klie, who overlaid portions of each portrait with related images clipped from magazines. “With these, I kind of went the opposite, where it was really uncomfortable subject matter.”

Bad Drawings by Mary Klie

Subjects of these “Bad Drawings” include David Duke, a neo-Nazi, convicted felon and the former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; James Holmes, who killed 12 and injured another 58 in a 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; and Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and convicted sex trafficker.

“I didn’t look forward to doing them. … I was like, ‘I don’t want to stare at his or her face for any amount of time,’” Klie said. “But I did it because I believed in the purpose, even though I’d be crabby afterwards.”

The urge driving the experiment speaks to an idea central to “You Won’t Be Laughing”: Leaning into discomfort is necessary to bring white supremacy to an end.

“I want to be one of the people who stands up against it,” Klie said. “I felt a responsibility, even in that tiny reach that I have right now. I had to do something, and maybe it can inspire others to do the same. You don’t know where it can go, really.”