You never know what’s going to catch M’Lou Mayo’s eye for possible use in her artwork.
“I’m material oriented,” she said. “I always see things through a different light than other people.”
Dead lizards, for example.
Before moving to San Luis Obispo, the artist lived in the Paso Robles countryside where she’d collect the squashed and dried-out reptiles on the unpaved roads.
“These became like lizard jerky, buried in the mud,” Mayo said.
Pressing a lizard body into a claylike material, she would then use the form to make stamps.
One example of this, “Swimming with Lizards,” is in her solo exhibit at Arts Space Obispo. The retrospective, “A Material World,” covers Mayo’s work from 1970 to the present.
Her most recent pieces involve weaving thin metal strips along with cutouts of various critters.
Although she works with metals, she avoids anything that requires soldering or welding, preferring weaving, wire wrapping, and glue and other adhesives.
“I take a certain amount of satisfaction out of working with simple materials,” she said, which includes strips of Xeroxed photos, dental wire, childrens’ toys and avocado pits. Mayo said she takes something ordinary “and tries to turn it into something that is not ordinary.”
She works with metal that is light enough to cut with scissors or an X-Acto knife. It compresses as she works with it, giving it more strength yet remaining pliable.
Mayo also works with copper, such as the inverted bowl in “Avocado Garden.”
“I pounded on that a lot to get it into that shape,” she said, then applied a chemical to make it green and age it. “I’m not prone to shine.”
Because she doesn’t like traditional frames, she invented an alternative, using corrugated cardboard. With its honeycomb-like pattern, the cardboard becomes part of the artwork.
Her earlier work includes weavings of raffia and linen and mixed media collage.
For the 3-D pieces “Breaking Out” and “Breaking In,” her son and daughter served as models, their cutout figures entering or exiting houselike structures, with photocopied Barbie doll faces forming the floor pattern, like linoleum tile.
Although her subjects are as varied as her mediums, most of her work involves the human figure, which is ironic, she believes. While studying at Scripps College in Claremont she focused on such crafts as weaving, mosaics and enameling.
As she neared graduation, she faced her one shortcoming: “I can’t really think of myself as a real artist if I can’t draw the figure.” She took the plunge, enrolled in some life-drawing classes and ended up doing her master’s project on figure drawing.
Before Marian Stevens took over life-drawing at Cuesta College, Mayo taught the subject, as well as many other art classes, in her 23-year career there.
Retired since 2000, she continues taking life drawing to keep her skills as sharp as her cutting tools.
“It’s always a challenge, she said. “It’s always something new.”