Review: “Beautiful Decay” sculptures featured at MCC through Oct. 30

By Patsy Isenberg

“Beautiful Decay” is the theme of a mixed media sculpture exhibit by Cara O’Brien, showing through Oct. 30 at Mott Community College’s Fine Arts Gallery in the Visual Arts and Design Center. The show is a 16-piece collection of abstract sculptures made from both natural found materials and porcelain pieces.

“Big Scuttle” by Cara O’Brien, on display through Oct. 30 at Mott Community College (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)

O’Brien’s works are  sleek and modern but also rustic, because the pieces reflect nature. The rural environment she lives in provides for her opportunities to find some of the materials she uses in her sculptures. She seeks out pieces of driftwood, discarded lumber,  metal, and barn wood.

The other material in the sculptures in the “Beautiful Decay” show are small porcelain pieces in the shapes of nature, but a distinct contrast to the wood or metal they are applied to which is striking. When O’Brien, 42,  is creating a piece she says she surrounds herself by what she calls “piles of creative potential.”

O’Brien lives in Whitehall with her husband of 14 years, Chester Winowiecki. The couple live on a farm and are both artists. They have been modifying the house and other buildings to suit their needs for creating their art. O’Brien’s studio used to be the farm’s wood shed but now houses the materials, tools and workspace she needs to create her many sculptures.

O’Brien said her process is a lot more involved than one might think. Her goal is to make her pieces appear “seamless,” but getting the sculptures to that level requires a lot of painstaking effort. For example, the small porcelain pieces that are attached to the base of either wood or metal often require a substructure so that each small porcelain piece can be wired into the plywood beneath it. And that all comes after finding materials that appeal to her, drying them, finishing them and having lots of the small pieces at hand to work with which are hand made by O’Brien. She glazes and fires them, sometimes with color added in choses places during the glazing process. The color is not just painted on, it’s fired into the porcelain. O’Brien isn’t a fan of paint or glue in her pieces–they are quite permanent.   She works strictly with porcelain sometimes too.

“The Choir” by Cara O’Brien (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)

“I spend a lot of time trying to make my pieces look seamless so they are different but still polished and finished,”  she said. “these natural materials are “beautiful laying in the woods but when you bring them into your home or put it on a gallery it wall it changes its position in the world and makes it more ‘precious.’

She said she prefers subtle coloration and sometimes uses color but that she’s “not dedicated to using a lot of color… usually I use color as kind of a jewel accent… not the main focus…” Her work is “more about texture and shape and form, letting the light show the different values.” But she said she’s been using a little more color lately and has been continuing to work on pieces of the same style as the ones in the Mott exhibit.

“But there are pieces that I made for the show that aren’t necessarily what I do all the time like the pieces displayed on the floor in the Mott exhibit that are a trial and brand new. I wanted to do something for that space that was different than my normal.

“I had gotten all these really beautiful weathered sticks and I thought they would be interesting kind of wandering around the gallery but they’re the same feeling as the other pieces,”  she said.

She’s referring to the piece titled “Walking sticks,”  numerous weathered sticks that have been given thin copper “legs” to  raise the sticks off the floor.  The effect is to give a kind of movement toward the corner of the rest of the exhibit on the walls and a different shape, form, and texture than the others.

O’Brien attended Central Michigan University obtaining a B.F.A., magna cum aude, with a concentration on 3D. Her minors were marketing and art history. It wasn’t until ten years ago that she took the “leap of faith” to becoming a full-time artist. 

While she was at Central she got invited through her church to visit Viccio, Italy for a summer apprenticeship with artist Jerome Cox who was remodeling a building there. Cox, a sculptor and jeweler, taught O’Brien skills such as wax casting and metal finishing that she would eventually use to create her own work.

“Emerge lll” by Cara O’Brien (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)

After graduation from Central, O’Brien held administrative jobs at art centers, taught, lectured and showed her jewelry at various art fairs. But also during this time she was mentoring with Ray Jansma. Her time studying with Jansma lasted from 1994-2003. She credits him with providing the encouragement to eventually settle on her current full-time sculpting career. She’s been successful at this choice of a career that makes her happy. O’Brien said Jansma “would always say,  ‘if I can make a living in the arts, you can make a living in the arts.’” In fact O’Brien said she was fortunate to be surrounded with a lot of support including that of her parents.

“I’m really grateful to Mott Community College for hosting my exhibit,” she said.  “it was enjoyable for me to curate my own show with my own work. As part of my administrative job I’d worked in galleries curating shows. It was really fun to figure out how I wanted to display it.”

The show at Mott is the first time she was able to do that. She chose not to display her artist statement or posted explanations and titles of the pieces on the walls. Instead she placed a tiny number by each piece. There is a sheet available for viewers by the entrance with the numbers listed next to the title and the medium used. She said, “the most important thing is standing and looking at the work. I like to look at artist titles and statements too, but I prefer to look at their work first and then go and look at their statement.”

O’Brien also works with other types of clay and has done several wall installations of her clay and porcelain pieces. More of her work and photos of O’Brien in her studio can be seen on her website at  To see O’Brien’s show visit the gallery weekdays from 9 to 4:40. For more information call the Art and Design office at 810-762-0443. 

Banner image:  “Emerge lll”  (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)

EVM staff writer and arts reporter Patsy Isenberg can be reached at

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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