21 questions

Mary Mattingly Wants to Live in a Brooklyn Navy Yard Shipping Crane

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Greg Lindquist

Artist Mary Mattingly creates pieces about consumption and ecology by doing things like tying up all her belongings into five-foot-wide bundles, planting a floating vegetable garden, and conducting a yearlong public research project on New York’s drinking-water systems. Her latest obsession is the pickerelweed, a tall, salt-tolerant edible plant with broad green leaves and lavender flowers that is found throughout the city’s waterways. “It’s a good option for thinking through what can grow in New York in a future where we’re contending with more sea-level rise,” she says, adding that the spinachlike leaves and stalks have medicinal purposes. It’s also the subject of her Biosphere installation in “Food in New York: Bigger Than the Plate,” a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York open through September 2023.

Name: Mary Mattingly
Age: 44
Neighborhood: Bed-Stuy
Occupation: Artist

What’s hanging above your couch?
A built-in shelf. There’s no art on it, but there are books — one about symbols; one on the artist Betsy Damon; and Poetics of Relation, by Édouard Glissant — and two carved-wood bookends of Carthusian monks in brown robes that I got at a thrift store in Montana.

What’s the first job you had in New York? 
I worked at Foto Care training fashion photographers on digital-camera equipment in 2003. I also happened to learn that very few of the photographers had good relationships with their assistants, and they all seemed very mean.

What color are you always drawn to? 
Cobalt blue. It’s deep and watery and has been used in design for so long. I loved learning about its history: At first it was smelted since cobalt is the by-product of other extraction processes. Now it’s made with chemicals to get an even brighter hue.

What work of art or artifact are you most surprised you own?
A good friend had a study group in the 1970s where they tried to crack the code of ancient cuneiform texts. They kept handwritten notebooks with blue covers that are beautiful to look at. For an exhibit in 2013, I bundled together almost all of my possessions to create an artwork about my own consumption. But these were too precious, so I didn’t include them.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?
Ornette Coleman. When I listen to The Shape of Jazz to Come, I sense a life force that I want to know.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?
Every day I tie up a bundle of random objects — coins, rocks, pictures, socks, pieces of fabric, toys, medals — because strangers started mailing me their things.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?
I have three hourglasses, and I’d like to own more.

Which New York City museum do you always go back to? 
The Met, because there are lots of options. You can go to the contemporary galleries and then go through the history of the collection, stolen antiquities aside. I never get bored, and I’m always learning something.

What do you always have next to your computer? 
I prefer to have my desk clean, but it’s always a big mess and my laptop just goes right on top of it.

Where is the best view of the city?
On Governors Island, you’re pretty much at sea level, and it’s a great way to see the water, the Manhattan skyline, and the Statue of Liberty. From the west side, you can see all the way to New Jersey, Staten Island, and Ellis Island.

Which building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
We have a huge combined-sewer-overflow problem, especially in Brooklyn, where I live. It feels really dangerous, and it’s getting worse with the amount of high-rises going up. I just moved from the basement floor to the attic of my building because it was flooding so much.

What’s one thing you would change about your field? 
The endowment system for public institutions. Museums are preaching about climate change and haven’t divested from fossil fuels. Reinvesting that in infrastructure like schools, parks, and libraries, instead of increasing the wealth of private companies, would go a long way in terms of trust in our public institutions.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
In 2009, I built out a project in the GMD Shipyard in Brooklyn and got to go up in the old cranes they have there. It felt like a dream world, and I would make one of those cranes into an apartment.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?
I already hoard coffee. I have a Nespresso that I feel really guilty about, then drip coffee as a backup, and instant coffee as a backup to that.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut? 
I keep making these bundles. I think about things for a long time and just have to make myself start working at something I’m afraid to tackle.

Where was your first NYC apartment, and how much was the rent? 
I shared a garden apartment in Bed-Stuy with a roommate, and we each paid $550.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
Outdoors it’s the riverfront, and indoors it’s the Bowery Hotel lounge. It’s always quiet and transports you to feeling like you’re not in New York.

Worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten? 
It’s always exes who tell me I need a stable job. I tend to get bored and restless and end up doing a terrible job if I have a nine-to-five.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back? 
Explaining would take up the whole piece and would just be a rant, so let’s just say nothing.

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order? 
I have celiac, so I can’t eat anything out. I go to restaurants more for the company. I like Bubby’s. It’s a fun place.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?
I never swear, so I think “tenacious witch” would get pretty close to what I would want.

More From This Series

See All
Mary Mattingly Wants to Live in a Navy Yard Shipping Crane