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We Chat With Artist Mary Engel About Her Pun-Tastic Dog Sculptures

The Georgia-based artist creates found-object animal sculptures that play on words, such as a dog covered with watches -- get it?

Phillip Mlynar  |  Nov 25th 2015


You haven’t seen anything like Mary Engel‘s sculptures before. The Athens, Georgia-based artist makes models of animals and then covers them with found objects that play into the creatures’ names in a pun-tastic fashion. So Mary’s Blue Watch Dog piece is covered with — yep, you guessed it — hundreds of watch faces.

Here, take a look:

MaryEngelBlueWatchDog

Blue Watch Dog by Mary Engel.

As this is Dogster, you might have also guessed that much of Mary’s art is canine-themed. She says that she always loved being around animals as a kid and often doodled pictures of dogs and cats and pigs. Before becoming a sculptor, she was a potter who liked to embellish the tops of teapots and jars with animal figures. Then she reached a tipping point where “the animals started to become more important than the vessel,” she said, “and I stopped making pots and it was just all about the animals.”

I spoke to Mary about the intricacies of her artistic process, the pitfalls of working with shark teeth, and why covering a dog with hundreds of dice can have you teetering on the edge of going crazy.

MaryEngelWatchDogAndSpot

Watch Dog and Spot by Mary Engel.

Dogster: What sort of process and methods do you use to create your sculptures

Mary Engel: They are made out of wire and mesh, so I kinda make an outline out of wire, and then I build up volume with the mesh. Then over that it’s almost like papier-mâché, but a really strong version that includes layers of fabric, and I wrap that around the mesh to create a surface. I add epoxy to that and then the objects.

MaryEngelBlumWatchDog

Blum Watch Dog by Mary Engel.

How long does it take to add all the objects?

I do a small section at a time, as the epoxy takes an hour to set. I’ll mix it up with the objects, so I’ll do watches for a watch dog or porcelain birds if it’s a bird dog. I just kinda surround myself with all the objects. When I’m building, I have to think about balance and gravity as well as the form, but it becomes very intuitive and subconscious, and I just get lost in the surface while I’m creating them.

MaryEngelLucky

Lucky by Mary Engel.

With something like Lucky, the dog covered in dice, was a there a point when you almost felt like you were going crazy?

A little bit, yes! I’ve done it with even tinier objects, too — dice are a quarter-inch, and I was cutting them in half to keep the surface even. But I love every stage of the process: I like building it; I like meeting the people I get the found objects from — like meeting someone who has a collection of 3,000 tiny Toy Poodles. I also get lost in the process of filling in all the spaces. There’s actually a term for that: “horror vacui” — the need to fill in space.

Do you remember how many dice you used for Lucky?

I don’t, but it’s hundreds and hundreds.

MaryEngelRedPup

Red Pup by Mary Engel.

Where do you find most of the objects you use on the sculptures?

I love to travel, and I go to all these flea markets and junk stores and antique stores when I’m out of the country. Sometimes I’ll build the form knowing that I’m going to cover it in, say, watches or live ammo, so I’ll be on the lookout for those things. Then sometimes I’ll come across a certain object or a certain color, like a turquoise, and be inspired by that.

Have you tried any objects that for some reason just didn’t work?

Shark teeth. It’s a cool thing to find shark teeth on the beach and use them, but it just wasn’t an interesting surface.

MaryEngelSpot

Spot by Mary Engel.

Do you have any dogs yourself?

I have two. Gabrielle has some kind of whiskers, so there may be some Terrier in him, and then Tinkerbelle is brown with some black markings, so maybe there’s a little bit of Boxer there.

How do Gabrielle and Tinkerbelle react to the sculptures of other animals?

Sometimes they will lie next to one out in the garden, but they’re pretty used to them by now. I’ve had other dogs bark and react to them. I had a show at the South Carolina State Museum, and I loved seeing some of the dogs barking at my sculptures and sniffing my sculptures — I take that as the hugest compliment. I have also had a dog who liked to pee on them, which I guess should also be flattering. But for my dogs, the sculptures are all over the house, so maybe they’re so used to them they don’t tend to react.

MaryEngelRedWatchDog

Red Watch Dog by Mary Engel.

Have you created any sculptures of your own dogs?

I have — there’s a work in progress right now where they’re up on their back feet dancing. They’re just so in love with each other and love to play. Tinkerbelle came to stay for just one night at a time when Gabrielle was very sad that our old dog had passed away, but Tinkerbelle just brightened him right up. So, yes, I’m doing a piece on them at the moment.

MaryEngelFifi

Fifi by Mary Engel.

What sort of memorable reactions have you had when people see your sculptures

Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, I had that piece of jewelry!” So it can bring up memories for people, especially when they feel like I was able to capture the presence of their own animal, maybe through the pose. Also, I often see people nervously laughing at them, and I tell them it’s okay to laugh — a Poodle covered with thousands of Poodles is funny!

There are also the really beautiful stories I hear about, such as someone seeing a piece at the children’s hospital during the worst time in their life, but it brought them joy to see a really playful dog covered with all different porcelain figurines. That means a lot to me.

Check out more of Mary Engel’s work over at her website. Commissions start at $6,000.

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About the author: Phillip Mlynar writes about cats, music, food, and sometimes a mix of all three. He considers himself the world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats.