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An Artist You Should Know : Ma Li

Updated: Jan 20, 2016 12:52
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Things Are Happening At Asian Art Museum Thursday Nights all summer.
Ma Li performs May 28th, $5 after 5pm


The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights local artists before they exhibit their work somewhere awesome, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place.  Meet sculptor and mixed media artist,

I arrive at Ma Li’s studio somewhere outside Visitation Valley. Across from the railroad tracks and hidden between large, grey industrial warehouses there is a small, white door. When you open that small, white door you are greeted by an explosion of color, a visual treat of living sculpture, the studio is filled to the ceiling with handmade art. This is the oasis fostered by the Artist in Residennce Program at Recology SF, they’ve been sponsoring artists for over 25 years.

Artist Ma Li smiles and hops down from a ladder to greet me, she asks me if it is alright if she keeps working during our interview, her interactive sculpture is three months and hundreds of work hours in the making, currently in her hand is a discarded plastic water bottle that she is meticulously crafting into a flower.  The artists at Recology make all their art from trash.  I find out that Ma Li is originally from Fuzhou China and has a BS in chemical engineering, but when she moved to San Francisco in 2008, she changed her path, she was inspired to make art. She began taking art classes at SFCC and working odd jobs like doing sales at a furniture store or cleaning houses. She was a young immigrant, living in the mission, with a dream to make her way in San Francisco, by making art the rest of her life.

Fast forward to today, she’s an award winning artist, a graduate from San Francisco Art Institute (MFA) and a resident artist at SF Recology. Her interactive sculptures are dream-like and inviting, in this period of her career she takes what San Francisco throws away and creates beautiful interactive pieces, dubbed ‘living sculptures’. She throws on what looks like a hazmat suit, and strolls through the city dump, collecting and handwashing materials that will one day stand in a museum.  In this case the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco May 28th, and the week before, at SF Recology when the artists in residence open their studios for exhibitions, performances and talks.

Recology artists hunt for their art supplies, in the recycling center

Ma Li’s exhibit at her studio is called “Meet You at the Bird Bridge in the Milky Way”, a living installation that attempts to connect her sculpture to the community, providing space for people to build relationship with materials, the environment, and each other. The project was inspired by an interaction the artist had with a customer who, while dumping off materials, gave her a box. When she opened it, she found beautiful faux birds and flowers, and was reminded of the Chinese phrase, niăo yŭ huā xiāng (birds singing, flowers blooming), used to describe an auspicious spring day. With this gift, along with foam, plastic water bottles, window blinds, cardboard tubes, and other materials, Ma Li has created a magical version of an idyllic spring. Her work also connects to the Chinese story of the Cow Herder and the Weaver Maid, lovers separated by a river of stars created by the maid’s mother, the queen of the heavens. Small birds, so moved by the couple’s love, flew together forming a bridge over the celestial river, enabling the lovers to be reunited. Ma Li hopes participants in her project, like the birds, serve as agents of greater social and environmental connectivity.

Fuzhou China

Ma Li is from Fuzhou China, a province with a rich history of craftsmanship and woodcarving, now it is an industrial city known for it’s large textile industries. Ma Li’s art in a way reflects this transition from handmade goods to industrialized machine driven manufacturing. She uses the products of these factories, the discarded plastics, foams, papers, to build art in the form of interactive sculpture.

“Working with these materials by hand, changes our relationship with them…we produce and consume so much and don’t take the time to think about what we are throwing away, and where it goes…when these bottles were made by machines they were all exactly alike, now they have been remade by human hands, and they are all different…individuals that form a community, (in this case) a community of flowers.”

Wishing Tree by Ma LI. 2013 – Fabric scraps, hula hoops, lamp shade and wire

She also expresses concerns about the environmental destruction in her native China, explaining that in many ways China takes the brunt of the world’s over-consumption. “They manufacture the goods we consume, which is very hard on its natural environment, and in many cases when they (western world) is finished with them, the trash is shipped back to China to be buried.” Touching, repurposing, and interacting with the evidence of our over consumption spreads awareness, but in a very positive, non judgmental way.  Next I ask her about the SFAI professor of sculpture Richard Berger, who I heard may have inspired her, and who has recently passed away:

Art by Richard Berger. Photo:

“Richard Berger was always very generous toward me, he would visit my studio, let me come to his office hours, he led me to work with plastic/glass materials. And not just hands on help, but teaching me the way of being an artist…He had an incredible memory, he could remember the art work of all his students…he was one of the most respected artists I’ve encountered. I was really lucky to have known him.”

633 Hours to Intergalatica! by Ma Li, 2014, the Old Mint

The evening of Friday May 22nd, Ma Li will be opening her studio and performing at SF Recology.  There will be food, drinks and of course the new interactive sculpture. When you come Ma Li may give you a piece of art with a message contained within it. As Ma Li explains, “it’s like a fortune cookie, a surprise, something special, it fosters creativity, and community.”  The 2nd part of the project will be presented in the Asian Art Museum on May 28th.  “I am really excited to have the opportunity to present my work at Asian Art Museum. I think of it as a nexus where past and future, East and West, and institutions and individuals all meet. I am interested in creating bridges through my work across cultures, materials and time.”

Exhibitions at SF Recology
Friday, May 22  5-9pm with performance at 7:30
Saturday, May 23 1-3pm
Tuesday, May 26 5-7pm with artist talk at 6:30
503 Tunnel Ave, SF CA 94134

Exhibit at SF Asian Art Museum
Thursday, May 28th 630-9pm
Samsung Hall, 200 Larkin St. SF, CA

Thanks to Micah Gibson and Ma Li for providing great pictures.  For more great picture of Ma Li’s work, visit her site:


Details of Sunrise over Xanadu, Elsewhere Museum, North Carolina



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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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