ART : Sculptor McKay Digs Up the Dirt on Society

Years ago, Yolande McKay used to cook dirt in her Glendora home. Last month a New York show of her sculptures was favorably reviewed in Artforum magazine, the Bible of the contemporary art crowd. Yup, there is a connection here.

McKay, 36, just finished up her master of fine arts degree at Cal State Fullerton last summer. These days, she works with such ingredients as cement, rotting lemons and soap scum to make what appear to be sternly minimalistic constructions with a pseudo-scientific air.

Actually, these pieces demonstrate a sly sense of humor and social satire. The idea of working with soap scum--a dirty residue made from a cleaning agent--is shot through with contradiction and absurdity.

In “Elevated Scumballs: Impervious and Inaccessible,” grungy, irregular balls of dirtied soap are heaped on a cement balcony ornamented with furniture-like spindles and placed high on the wall. One possible inference is that we have managed to elevate some of our own human “scum” into positions of power and adoration.


McKay is a small woman with a piercing stare and a way of talking in an abrupt shorthand that sometimes drops in a word obviously meant for a different context. Murmured references to her eclectic reading--from Carl Jung’s theories to Aleister Crowley’s “Book of Lies"--dart in and out of a conversation that constantly meanders from one topic to another.

Fascinated by medieval tales of alchemy--an early form of chemistry, in which a major goal was to change baser metals into gold--she claims half-jokingly that she would rather be called a pseudo-scientist than an artist.

“The whole alchemy thing is about chemistry and metaphysics and art,” she says. “Once they separated the science and the art, it kinda made art this lesser, frivolous type thing. But the process (of scientific inquiry and making art) is much the same. At least for me.

“I almost feel that when people call me a sculptor they’ll look at the work and be disappointed because of their expectations. So I’d rather be called a pseudo-scientist. . . . People just expect alchemists to be charlatans anyway.”


McKay married her husband, a letter carrier, shortly after graduating from high school. They soon started a family (her children are now 13 and almost 15). Doubtful that art was a viable career, she began fantasizing about working as an architect or a pharmacist. The use of Latin phrases in pharmaceutics especially intrigued her because “they speak of obsolescence. All the information we know to be truths right now in science, tomorrow they may not be.”

She recalls foraging for “gold” in a patch of juniper bushes when she was young. “When you pulled them back there were all these moths lined up.” (McKay pauses to show her interviewer a picture she found of that particular species of moth in an insect book.) “They have that powdery metallic substance on their wings. I’d catch them and have this gold powder on my fingers . . . like gold dust.”

Greedily, she pulled the wings off the moths, saving the powder in a jar. She dug a hole and buried the still-wiggling moths, troubled by the feeling she was “doing something that was not very nice. It was nagging in my mind as I walked around with my little jar.”

Sin and guilt, official beliefs and rules and regulations also figure heavily in McKay’s work.


After a few years of public school, her parents sent her to Catholic school, where she felt like a fish out of water. “I grew up having all these (truths) fed to me. Everybody around me believed, and I pretended like I believed it all. I would never be sacrilegious because what if it is (true). If I’m gonna die, I might just as well.

“I graduated in 1972, and things were starting to open up a little bit, but I was there during the time when (she was taught) ‘You do anything bad and you go to hell!’ And I was definitely going to hell because I had gone to public school and I wasn’t afraid of boys. By the time I left, I was afraid of boys.”

At home, she felt the need to “cook up” stuff, to experiment. Sometimes she cooked food, sometimes she worked in her garden. (“I didn’t really like eating vegetables, but there was something about watching them grow. Getting up in the morning and seeing what grew. The product. I’ve always liked the product.”).

Sometimes she even spread dirt on cookie sheets and cooked it at 450 degrees “for about three hours to kill all the bacteria.” She used the dirt for potting plants but she also liked the reactions friends had to such off-the-wall projects. “Oh, my sister does crafts,” someone would remark politely, totally unable to come to grips with McKay’s activities. “She makes these puppets and ceramic wizards.”


But the fruits of official recognition as an artist include recognition by one’s baffled friends. McKay says the people who used to come to the house and ignore her work now ask questions about it and want her to send announcements of her shows. (Represented by Richard/Bennett Gallery in Los Angeles, she also has been in group exhibitions this year at the Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman College, Barnsdall Park Municipal Art Gallery, the Mandeville Gallery at UC San Diego, and Gracie Mansion, a commercial gallery in New York.)

When her children were young, McKay went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Cal Poly Pomona. After graduation, she began working in her home studio, trying to figure out how to work with cement, which no one at Cal Poly knew much about.

“I have these boxes and containers of powdered oxides, colored oxides, mostly black,” she explains. “I mix them into the white cement. I always start with white cement. It’s more expensive, but somehow it’s that alchemy thing to me. I have more control over it.

“If I mix volcanic ash or black oxide with white cement, they both pretty much look the same. But it’s better to use the volcanic ash because it has this tumult, this history” of having erupted from the Earth.


“I saw that movie about (French sculptor) Camille Claudel and I was almost comatose because I related so much to her. It’s like this passionate thing. You would go and steal clay so that you could make your work. That’s the way I was out in my studio.”

But the look of the work is at once restrained and quirky.

McKay says her concrete tubs, which have been likened to sarcophagi, may have been influenced by the catacombs she saw on a teen-age trip to Europe when she got bored looking at art in museums.

The openings of the tubs are sealed under sheets of glass. Inside, cobalt chloride (“You know, the little pink powder mixed with table salt that they put in chemistry sets for little kids”) reacts to changes in humidity and dark blue cupric sulfate lightens and turns to a whitish powder.


“It effloresces,” McKay says. “I love these words. Efflorescence also (means) the high point of your flowering. I’m always thinking of these other--I don’t want to say spiritual--(meanings).”

Each of these pieces bears an engraved warning: “Contents Under Pressure,” “No Open Flames or Other Sources of Ignition,” “Volatile Containment/Do Not Engage.”

But as stern and literally “heavyweight” as the tubs appear to be, they teasingly flout the concept of permanence with their subtly mutable interiors, and they are actually light casts of cement and fiberglass. These pieces also seem to be about the folly of unquestioning obedience to authority, McKay’s old bugaboo.

“I think enigma is what my work operates on,” she says. Recently, when someone asked her what one of her pieces means, “I told him, and he goes, ‘You give me this blow-by-blow account and I don’t like it anymore!’ So I don’t like to (say) this means this and that means that.”


Her “sour ball” pieces feature small, unripe lemons, sealed in wax. In “Immature Sourballs,” one of the lemons is mounted on a cross. “I don’t mean it sacrilegiously,” she says. “I only mean it in the (vernacular) idea of crucifixion"--the whiner’s complaint that he always gets the short end of the stick.

At Cal State Fullerton, McKay was able to pretty much skip going to class and spend her time figuring out how to do casting and mold-making. She had looked forward to being around other artists, but there was only one other graduate student in her department. He became her “mentor,” she says, suggesting that she should read about the alchemists.

Her college exhibit last year was called “Faith in Magnetism.” As she explains it, “I thought, magnetism ! Everybody’s fascinated by magnetism. There’s that whole animal magnetism thing. And (F.A.) Mesmer (the 18th-Century German physician who practiced hypnotism to prove his theory of animal magnetism) and those women sitting around fainting. I’m attracted by weird, eccentric behavior, and my pieces reflect it.”

One of these pieces, “Faith in Magnetism: Votive Cups” consists of thimble-size cups gingerly mounted on a steel band. Each cup is filled with iron filings, which fall at the touch of a finger to a row of magnets below.


McKay refers offhandedly to “the power of attraction, the safety-in-numbers thing"--in other words, the way the filings flock to the magnets the way people flock to religion that promises salvation.

With amusing candor, she adds: “The thing about that piece is that anybody could have done it. A lot of times when I look at (other artists’) art, I think, ‘Oh, one of those,’ and I’m tempted to go home and make one.”

As she says, “People say, ‘You’re so intense,’ but when people talk to me I’m more, like, efflorescent.”