Given the 10,000 pounds of dirt piled into buckets on Margaret Boozer’s studio floor, you might think the artist is in the midst of a construction project. In fact, the clay-rich soil packed into those 140 five-gallon containers will serve as the raw material for the most monumental commission in the Alabama native’s twenty-three-year career. Her patrons, the developers of Maryland’s new MGM National Harbor resort casino near Washington, D.C., gave her the excavation tailings from their construction site, and Boozer will spend the rest of the year transforming that raw material into an indoor mural as big as a billboard.
Art made from dirt might seem an odd choice for a casino, but Boozer’s work—earthy and complex and beautiful all at once—could be just the thing to ground all the glitz. In her studio, the artist points to a white wall on which she has sketched (smeared, actually, in pale terra-cotta, using a sample from one of the buckets) the design for one of the eight panels that will make up the 24-foot-high-by-34-foot-wide piece. It’s a crude map depicting a section of National Harbor. In the finished work, each steel-framed panel will display unfired dirt held fast by an acrylic binder. As she fills the panels, Boozer will let the surface dry and crack, subtly influencing the fault lines to shape the map’s appearance to create a bird’s-eye view of the natural shoreline with raw earth mined from the actual place. “I make indoor pieces about the outdoors,” she says simply.
For the temporary installation Line Drawing, which Boozer created in 2011 as crews excavated the foundation for Washington’s CityCenterDC complex, she collected samples from the 64-foot-deep pit and arranged them in a geological time line on the floor of a nearby gallery. Visitors followed a trail from surface asphalt back to chunks of Cretaceous-era wood—“trees the dinosaurs saw,” Boozer says. “All materials have a voice,” she continues. “It depends on how you express that voice.”
Boozer started out as a traditional ceramist, but she didn’t find her own voice as an artist until she began listening to the clay itself. The turning point came nearly a decade into her career. With two art degrees under her belt, she was working in a studio in Mount Rainier, a suburb of Washington, D.C. One day, while staring out her window and waiting for inspiration, she noticed an exposed bank of red dirt below the railroad tracks. The image swept her back to her childhood in Anniston, Alabama, and the summer days she spent wielding a shovel under the supervision of her father, an architect who was constantly tweaking the family home. She’d often end her days covered head to toe in eastern Alabama’s iron-rich dirt.
Back in Mount Rainier, Boozer plunged a shovel into the railroad bank and began filling an old bucket. Instead of asking herself what kind of art she should make, she began a more elemental line of inquiry: What is that red dirt? What are its qualities?
Later, in the studio, she added water and worked up a slurry, or slip, using a mixing paddle attached to a power drill. She poured half into a wooden frame to observe how it dried. The other half she wedged up—potter’s speak for kneading out air bubbles—and began throwing bowls. You can find clay almost everywhere, but good clay is rare, and this was good clay—dense, low in sand, consistently orange, with traces of soluble salts that migrated to the lips of her bowls when fired. That very day, tingling with creative energy, Boozer made what has become a signature piece, Eight Red Bowls, which now hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A variation on her experiments, the work conjures images of an archaeological dig, pots emerging out of the same earth from which they were made.
Fifteen years later, Boozer still finds inspiration in the soil, often removed one shovelful at a time from a patron’s property. Landscape architect Beth Wehrle and her husband, Matt Miller, a civil engineer, invited Boozer to visit their 34-acre riverfront tract on Maryland’s Eastern Shore during the planning phase of a shoreline restoration project. “We commissioned her to do a piece, but I had no idea what to expect,” Wehrle says. The finished work, called Living Shoreline, is a mosaic of white porcelain and Plexiglas mixed with sandy riverfront soil, mounted above the stairs in the couple’s home. “We’ve changed in the years since we bought this property,” Wehrle says. “After learning about the bay, we’re more tuned in to the local ecology. Margaret’s art reminds me of that process.”
Boozer continues to evolve as well. Last fall, after three years of planning and renovations, she opened her 10,000-square-foot Red Dirt Studio in Mount Rainier’s former firehouse. She and two codirectors oversee a co-op of some two dozen artists, who rent studio space and meet every Saturday to offer one another professional support.
“I never let myself dream this big,” says Boozer, who is clearly enjoying her new digs. “I always thought an artist was someone who goes in the studio, makes things, and sells them.” You might say she’s sitting on top of the world—or at least a very good patch of ground.