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Cecil County Life

Making art from things thrown away

Jan 08, 2015 05:56PM ● By Kerigan Butt

Clay pigs and cows are some of Creshkoff's popular items.

By John Chambless

Staff Writer

Maggie Creshkoff is holding a ragged chunk of tire that's so weather-beaten and bleached by the sun that you wouldn't glance at it on the side of the road. Placing it gently on a tabletop, she asks, "Now, doesn't that look like a frog?"

And when you look again, of course it's a frog. It couldn't be anything else.

That's the kind of vision that Creshkoff brings to her art -- a genre-defying body of work that spans both fine pottery and found-object assemblages that reflect a busy, creative mind.

To reach her studio in Port Deposit, you have to follow her directions carefully, turning into a driveway that looks like the wrong place, and then just trusting that the rutted gravel path will lead you to her home. The warren of outbuildings by her historic stone house gives you a good idea of how her mind works: Ramshackle sheds that are vaguely connected by a roof, random piles of fascinating metal objects half-buried in the leaves, and a porch that's piled high with things that other people might call trash. But when Creshkoff gets rolling, you can see artistic possibilities in every last scrap.

Her mother's side of the family are Freemans, the family that founded Freeman's Auctioneers in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago, and they have owned land in Cecil County for generations, Creshkoff explained while making coffee.

When she was 7 or 8 years old, Creshkoff took a nature walk with conservationist Barbara O'Neill, who was a friend of her grandmother's. She ended up digging clay out of an overgrown stream bed on the property where she now lives. "I remembered it all those years," she said. "I didn't do much art in high school. I was mostly interested in writing, and in American history. I went to college for that at Antioch in Ohio, but there was a very long period of political upheaval during the 1970s -- students were striking, teachers couldn't hold classes, and I didn't think that was a wise way to spend my parents' money."

She spent over a year in San Francisco on a work-study program through the college. "At 19, I kind of stumbled into a pottery class, and really liked it," she said. "I never changed my major or anything, but I did decide that I wanted to pursue pottery."

That led to working in a stained glass studio for a couple of years, then extended stays in South America and Mexico, where she pursued her master's degree in crafts and worked as a studio assistant.

"It was a great place to learn," she said. "They didn't have any stores or supply houses in that area of Mexico. Students would burn bones to get bone ash. We'd dig up our own clay. It taught me all about natural resources. Also, every village had its own style of decorating pottery. ... These people, to smooth the surface of the clay, used a corner of a plastic laundry detergent bottle instead of an ancient river stone. I thought, 'Wow, it works just as well. Isn't this grand, that things can be melded like that?"

She has worked with Cecil County clay since moving here in 1982, digging it from Stancill's Sand and Gravel in Perryville. Her immediately identifiable pottery includes whimsical cows and pigs with expressive eyes, along with "far more crocks with names on them than you can imagine," she said.

That part of her business -- making clay pots decorated with the names of people and places -- "is a lot of what I do," she said. "I'm touched by how much people care about the places they come from. I have people buy them for weddings, for births, or for family reunions. Some people will buy one for every town they've lived in."

While she spoke, Creshkoff inserted rusty antique nails into holes in a large pottery vessel, giving it a primitive, tribal look that bristled with energy. "This is one of the biggest pieces I've made in quite some time, as far as concept goes," she said. "I'd like to explore it some more. I'd like to be a little braver and fire one with the nails in it, to see what happens."

Her creativity dovetailed with her own self-confessed "pack-ratting instincts." A hoard of stuff fills the sheds and outbuildings, providing Creshkoff with an inexhaustible supply of inspiration and materials.

"People bring me things," Creshkoff said. "People do hate to waste stuff. But it has to have something in it to make me not throw it away or burn it first."

Creshkoff makes people, animals and other things out of repurposed tin cans, but it's her "rusty angels" that have set her apart. "People really like them," she said, "I started making them when my mother was very ill. She was ill for a long time. There's something about loss that's  sad and beautiful at the same time."

The elegant decay and serene grace reflected in her angel sculptures is immediately arresting. Creshkoff sculpts the pottery faces for them in one of the shed buildings, and then digs around for properly weathered metal or other things to use as bodies for them.

"It's hard to explain to someone how to do this," she said, tinkering with a rusty chunk of tin. "You have to just bend it until it looks right."

In a corner of her property, Creshkoff has piled up oil drums, roofing tin and other metal and left it open to the weather, waiting until it's just rusty enough, but not so fragile that it falls apart. "In some sense, I welcome that with some of my recycled work -- the fact that it is so obviously transient, so ephemeral, that everything is falling apart right before your eyes," she said.

Creshkoff made the rusty angel sculpture that stood outside the Oxford Presbyterian Church in Oxford for several months during this past summer's Southern Chester County Sculpture Trail. She worried about how it would stand up to the elements. "I was so nervous about it that, for the first three weeks, I'd drive by it every day to make sure it was still there," she said, laughing.

Creshkoff was a board member of the Cecil County Arts Council for several years, and worked to promote the artists of the region. "The challenge is telling people about the arts often enough, and making it sound interesting," she said. "I don't think marketing is a dirty word."

Out of that association came the Trashy Women, a changing group of artists who use recycled materials in their work.

"At that time, the Arts Council had two gallery spaces," Creshkoff said. "one at the Elkton Art Center, and a gallery space in Chesapeake City Town Hall that coordinated with the summer music program that was going on during July and August."

In 2004, facing a gap in the exhibition schedule for the gallery in Chesapeake City, Creshkoff called three friends "and I asked them if they'd like to be part of this group that I was forming that very second," she said, laughing. The show was a hit, and the Trashy Women have continued, with a changing roster of artists.

"In Chesapeake City, we always offered free classes," she said. "It's important to have people make something, not just watch a demonstration. There were some exciting shows. I did a tin can robot workshop and I had 18 to 20 people, all spread across the floor, working on their pieces. There were people in their 70s as well as kids. I was really happy about that."

The crafts she teaches can be as simple as using shears to cut through a tin can and curl the strips to make flowers, or connecting castoffs to make people or animal sculptures. "I try to show people how to see beyond the surface," she said. "It makes the world fresh again."

As a frequent exhibitor at regional fairs and art shows, Creshkoff makes sure to spread her message of recycling materials and getting people interested in making their own art.

"I go to one show, an apple butter festival, that I've been doing for decades," she said. "I still drag out a kick wheel to do clay demonstrations. Kids want to make something. I always make them take it with them. Because even if the clay breaks -- which it will -- it doesn't matter. It means that they've made something, and maybe they'll get hooked. That's part of my mission."

The comments she gets from passers-by at shows include "Fun, or cute," she said. "Sometimes, farmers will walk by and just shake their heads. But I do have regular customers, and I think that's amazing."

In the meantime, Creshkoff lives amidst her inspirations. "Isn't this a gorgeous leaf?" she asked, gently cradling a massive, brown sycamore leaf. "I'm just going to put it out there until I can resolve it. It'll stay until something happens. I just don't know what that will be yet."

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