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In a wooden studio with shelves and walls full of art materials, a Black man with short graying hair and goatee, black glasses, and black T-shirt gestures toward a sculpture of a standing figure with white mask and outstretched hands.

In his studio, Malone works on I Can Only Suggest, the Choices Are Yours.

Photo by Steven M. Cummings

  • Pieces of Life: Chris Malone’s Sculptures Tell Stories of Spirituality and an Unknown Past

    Once, as a boy living on a farm in rural Indiana, Chris Malone worked a sheet of aluminum foil until it gave way to the fragile figure of a horse. “Wow, you’re pretty good at this,” his mother said. “How about we give you some modeling clay?”

    “What’s modeling clay?” Malone asked.

    Today, Malone, based in Maryland, makes striking clay figures and complex mosaic sculptures. Through them he tells stories about his “unknown African past” and expresses his spirituality. The faces of his intricate busts and dolls are often looking up or frowning or fixing the spectator with a piercing gaze.

    Malone’s work has appeared in such disparate publications as The Washington Post and Art Doll Quarterly. He has shown at the Brooklyn Museum in New York and is represented by Stella Jones Gallery in New Orleans. Several of his dolls were featured in the 2012 film Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day, starring Pam Grier and Blair Underwood.

    Malone, who is largely self-taught, credits his success to the power of creativity and a strong personal drive derived from his upbringing. “This was a true old-fashioned farm,” he says of his childhood home. His family rose early to tend to the cows, chickens, and skunk kits that called the farm home, before the school bus came. “There was nothing like, ‘I didn’t get around to milking the cow’ or ‘Oh, I forgot about the eggs.’ No, that was your responsibility.

    “To this day, I’m up in the morning by 6:30, and I’m taking care of things,” he says. “I’m working in the garden. I’m taking care of the animals,” which include bull mastiffs, a labradoodle, a bloodhound, and peafowls. “There’s no day off.” By 8 a.m., he’s in his home studio sculpting. Each of his pieces takes about a month to finish, and he works on two or more at once.

    Sculpture of a head with black face with etched pattern in white, and white spiked hair made of clay.
    They Told Me I Had No Reason To Be Angry by Chris Malone (2022)
    Photo by Steven M. Cummings
    Sculpture of head with dark eyes, black face with etched patterns in white, cylindrical hairdo with white and yellow thumbprint shapes, and blurry background of green trees.
    Just Imagine by Chris Malone (2022)
    Photo by Steven M. Cummings

    Malone typically creates his sculptures in sections. When making a doll, he begins by covering an aluminum core with polymer clay. He toasts each section for twenty minutes before painting it and joining it to another part of the doll. When working on a bust, he covers an armature with paper, and then covers the paper with ceramic clay. The type of armature varies based on the size of the bust. He allows the clay to sit for almost an hour before cutting the head and body in two. He then hollows out the sections, scores them, and joins them back together.

    Many of his busts feature adornments such as feathers, fabric, beads, tiles, sculpted flowers, and geometric shapes—even parts of old sculptures that he breaks off and repurposes. It’s a freeform process of building and experimentation. He allows the materials to determine how the story behind an individual sculpture or mosaic is conveyed.

    “It’s a lot like everyday life,” Malone explains, giving insight into this creative process. “You just make the right choices. I’m thinking about different kinds of things to use for hair. Maybe wire, and I could put felt on top of the wire. I could put beads on top of that or into the felt to make it look like the hair is moving.”

    Fabric from local shops and feathers feature prominently. “I have peacocks that drop their feathers every year,” he says. “I get their feathers, clean them off, and dry them out. I use those inside, around the head, or in different places on it. I like for fabric to come from all over the world, different fabrics. Just like me—it took a lot of different kinds of people to create me. That’s what I do with the fabrics.”

    Front and back views of a sculpture, a tall rectangular panel with tiled mosaic on both sides. The mosaic includes images of blooming flowers, an eye, and Black figures.
    The Runaway Is Hiding in the Garden by Chris Malone (2021)
    Photo courtesy of Chris Malone
    Sculpture of a head with white face with brown line drawings, spiked crown, and mosaic jug-like base.
    But You Cannot Have My Power by Chris Malone (2021)
    Photo courtesy of Chris Malone

    For a doll such as Her (Don’t Move They Might Be Watching) (2019), Malone might fasten cloth and mirrors to the doll’s obsidian polymer skin. “I hollow out the head, then I join it back together so there’s a hole in the back, large enough that I can set the eyes in. The eyes are very important, because I want the eyes to grab people.” Malone embeds tiles and pieces of glass into the soft clay to provide movement and to control the degree of brilliance emanating from the fragments.

    Malone is open to and inspired by voices that others might disregard or simply not hear. The creation of his mosaic-on-foam-board sculpture The Runaway Is Hiding in the Garden (2020) followed an encounter with a spirit.

    “When I first moved to Alexandria, I was walking through Old Town, either late at night or early in the morning,” Malone says. “Old Town is kind of creepy anyway. At night, there aren’t many people. I walked from my apartment, and a spirit came to me.” The spirit asked whether Malone was real. “Yes, I’m real,” he responded.

    The spirit said, “I don’t think I’m real.”

    “I don’t think you’re real either,” Malone said.

    The spirit added, “I don’t think I’m alive.”

    The spirit told Malone that he had escaped from somewhere and was hiding in an old woman’s garden. He asked whether Malone was running away. Then he asked, “Who owns you?”

    “No one owns anyone anymore,” Malone said. “Or they shouldn’t.”

    When Malone explained that he was an artist living in the present day, the spirit said he wanted him to tell his story. The spirit’s energy continued to pester him, leaving his side only when the mosaic sculpture was completed.

    Experiences such as this were normalized in Malone’s family. “The ancestors are always present,” he says in his matter-of-fact manner. “They’re not with you every day. They have other things to do. This might be my reality, or this might be reality. By saying that, I realize this is weird to some people.”

    Among tall trees, a man bends over, adjusting one of three bust sculptures upright on the ground.
    Gathering of Creativity in the woods next to Malone’s kiln shed.
    Photo by Steven M. Cummings

    As an artist, Malone has never sought formal training. Once, a high school art teacher, spotting his talent, asked him to fill a sketchbook with drawings conveying cubism, modernism, and neo-classicism. The teacher mailed the sketchbook to a few colleges, and Malone received two offers of admission.

    “It meant nothing to me,” he says, recalling the economic strife of his teenage years. “We were living day to day. Are we going to have enough food? That’s what we were concentrating on. When I got these envelopes, it was like getting something in a foreign language. When I showed it to the teacher, she was happy for me. But, through no fault of her own, she didn’t explain to me what I should do next.”

    Once he began pursuing his craft, Malone found that teaching artists charged exorbitant fees or asked him to travel long distances for classes. “I’m not taking my Black ass anywhere I didn’t feel I was wanted, in the middle of nowhere!”

    Instead, he picked up techniques from the craftspeople around him, such as the contractors completing renovations on his house, and applied them to his work. “You figure it out,” he says. “Yeah, and I figured it out.”

    Whether he’s honoring his beliefs, exploring the past, or devising new ways to use mosaic pieces, finding his way as an artist has required vulnerability and generosity. Malone shares videos of his progress and setbacks on Instagram. He teaches online and studio-based workshops such as “Creating the Modern Doll” and “Mixed Media Character Sculpture Materials,” providing other artists with some of the knowledge that wasn’t readily available to him.

    In 2021, Malone became a member of the Smithsonian’s African American Craft Initiative, launched by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to expand the visibility of African American artists.

    “It will be nice to see what we as a group, and what the Smithsonian as an institution, will do with this,” he says. “We as crafters and artists should be inclusive and nice to each other.”

    With a look of great concentration, a man adjusts the hand position of a terra cotta-red sculpted figure.
    In his studio, Malone works on I Can Only Suggest, the Choices Are Yours.
    Photo by Steven M. Cummings

    Amber Long is a magazine intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an urban planner for the city of Rogers, Arkansas.

    This article was co-produced by the Smithsonian’s African American Craft Initiative and the American Craft Council. A version appears in the fall 2023 print issue of American Craft magazine.

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