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Ringwald's spirited wall structure was inspired by a photo of a Native American longhouse in Maryland. 

Abstract sheds glide across the painting "Exurbia #2," exhibited last year at The Phillips Collection.

Ringwald creates brightly colored wood collages.

Subtle mixed-media huts were made of materials left over from larger sculptures. Each measures roughly five inches tall.

Mixed-media hut.

Mixed-media hut.

Marie Ringwald displays a new, unfinished wood sculpture in her studio. Photo: Bob Narod

Common Places

Washington sculptor Marie Ringwald builds on shared memories

Remnants of plaster on exposed-brick walls in Marie Ringwald’s studio resemble the weathered surfaces of her sculptures: Humble farm buildings, sheds and storefronts, lovingly devised, appear worn by the passage of time. In a similar way, the row house in which she works has remained standing, through repairs and renovations, for more than 150 years.

Kinship between Ringwald’s studio and sculptures runs deep. When she and her husband, Michael Kerr, bought the house in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood back in 1978, they started taking down walls to open up spaces. Ringwald saved and reused building materials, repurposing its rough-hewn lath as siding on wall-mounted sculptures, influenced by tobacco-drying barns she had seen on trips to North Carolina.

“The kinds of structures I’m attracted to are built out of really simple, everyday materials,” says the sculptor. Those same materials inform her art. Made primarily of wood, her assemblages often incorporate sheet metals, rubber and some plastics, all commonly used in construction.

Ringwald compares her fascination with modest buildings to the endurance of landscapes and human figures in art. “They are such common images,” she says about the structures that have absorbed her imagination for nearly half a century. “We live in them, work in them, store things in them or have our animals in them. They’re so universal.” And as towers increasingly arise, Ringwald’s art holds an irresistible charm. Her portrayals of architecture reduced to its vernacular essence revisit a nostalgic past, connecting us to a simpler life.

Ideas for her sculptures spring from many sources. On her worktable during a recent visit, the sculptor was constructing a shallow piece 30 inches high and three feet wide, based on a warehouse image taken by Shirley True, a local photographer whose pictures of weary, utilitarian buildings inspire the sculptor. Images for future reference are stacked nearby, among them a log cabin illustrated in a news story, a plain Fundamentalist church, a vintage gas station in a photo taken by the sculptor in Takoma Park, DC.

“I like to emphasize what strikes me visually and then pare it down,” Ringwald says, while noting, “Lately I’ve been staying pretty close to the image.” Heading through her extensive workspace—past jars filled with brushes and paints stored along one wall—she reaches a large filing cabinet, pulling out a corrugated metal sheet. Used mainly for miniatures—as in dollhouses—Ringwald applied it as siding on her work-in-progress.

The sculptor typically works on several pieces at once. Constructing sculptures of different sizes simultaneously encourages reuse of materials from large structures to smaller ones, an approach often taken on actual farm buildings. “They call them dependencies,” she points out, citing the example of a small shack that might be constructed with leftovers.

Over the past two years, she has transformed reclaimed materials into a series of 74 flat, textural huts, each about five inches tall. Living and working in Washington her entire career, Ringwald also has repurposed surplus materials relinquished by other sources, from wood decking to scraps passed along by furnituremaker and friend Rick Wall. Most spectacularly, the sculptor was given sections of the original, late-19th-century copper roof—now patinated to a rich teal—from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where she taught freshman design and mixed media for 27 years.

While many of her wood sculptures are stained in natural tones or washed with thinned paint, Ringwald notes, “I also really love color. Sometimes the color or color combinations take over as inspiration.” Brilliant hues dominate in several abstract series including Patchwork and Fractured Rectangles, as well as colorful tabletop buildings. “I think about it like quilting,” she says, “except I’m doing it with wood and metal, screws and nuts.”

During the height of the pandemic, the sculptor traveled less and painted more—including works on paper. One piece from that period was selected for a centennial exhibition of local artists at The Phillips Collection. In crystalline water-based paints and graphite, that painting depicts a row of abstract sheds, part of her Exurbia series.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Ringwald followed a fairly straightforward career path. Starting out, she recalls, “We always lived in houses, not apartments. That sense of a separate building influenced me.” In kindergarten she remembers building with giant blocks, and covering one structure with crumpled brown paper to make a cave. “In a way,” she reflects, “I always liked playing around with materials.” Benefitting from her father’s work for the New York Central Railroad, the family rode trains from Canada to Florida; as a budding sculptor, she loved looking through the window at the changing landscape.

Ringwald went on to major in sculpture at Hunter College. There, she learned to use professional power tools like the drill press, band saw and sanders that now stand in her light-filled workshop. Picking up a jagged wood scrap, she cradles it between her fingers as if it were an archaeological find. Contemplating its potential, she smiles knowingly and says, “This is the kind of thing that makes me very happy.”

For more information, visit marieringwald.com.

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