Mary Coss working with the Cleveland High girls on the Layers of the Hijab hand sculptures.

Local sculptor Mary Coss's creations have ranged from 100 paper-cast molds of babies cast with barcodes across their foreheads to nine-foot-tall seashells, but her most impactful work might be her collaborations with Seattle students. Her latest effort has produced a new show at Columbia City Gallery, entitled Layers of the Hijab, which runs through April 21. Coss teamed with the East African Muslim teens at Cleveland High School in Beacon Hill to create artwork that explores cultural differences in a post-9/11 world— namely, sculptures of hands painted with multicolored interpretations of henna. The exhibit also features poetry by the students and Coss’s 3D portraits of the girls. And tonight, Columbia City Gallery hosts an artist's panel discussion at 7pm.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation we talked to Coss about the impetus of Layers of the Hijab, Seattle’s water, and poetry.

How did Layer of the Hijab come about?

I’ve been working with youth in southeast Seattle for a number of years, and a lot of the community in the afterschool programs in middle schools have been East African youth. I was actually doing this a lot around the time of 9/11, so this is where the kernel got started. After 9/11, the kids were treating the [East African] kids in the classroom differently. There was this immediate reaction, which was really meanspirited, toward the East African girls because they were so visible in their hijabs.

A lot of my artwork is about women’s issues. I have been working with these girls a long time, so I came up with the idea to actually pull that group of girls aside, by themselves, and have conversations about the cultural differences they deal with. Because they’re really kind of involved with three cultures: their religious culture as Muslims, their social culture (most of the girls that I work with are Somali), and then their national culture as Americans, dealing with urban high school life. The idea was that, if I pull these girls aside and have conversations and explore artwork at the same time, will there be some way of having the conversations inspire their work and give them a place to empower them to have a voice through art making?

When did you realize their work might make for a gallery show?

Columbia City Gallery's guest gallery is there to engage this local community and to celebrate the diversity of the 98118 zip code. I live near there, so I have a relationship with them. And I was doing this work and it just seemed like a perfect fit. If I’m going to give these girls a voice, let’s do it publicly, because one thing I wanted to do was have them show in a space where the larger population could see their works—to give other people a chance to have a window into these girls. I feel like this is a very diverse community, but it’s also segregated in a lot of ways, and so this just offers an opportunity, by showing at the gallery, to bring this community into the larger community while giving them the opportunity to actually speak their own words.

If you weren’t an artist, what other line of work might you have pursued?

I think I’d be a writer. I’m really compelled by people’s stories. Stories inspire the work that I do, to the point that I’ve kind of interwoven text into a lot of my work, either visually or through sound. Lately I’ve been writing poetry and I feel a little bit like it’s working on a sculpture but the word are the medium. I feel like when I’m writing it clarifies my thinking. It’s kind of enlightening in a way.

How has living in Seattle had an impact on your art?

I live in a very diverse part of town. It’s an urban community that’s nestled between the water and the trees. I think it’s nurtured my interest in several things: in working outside traditional art venues, in showing in nontraditional venues, and also I think being near the water is such a part of my environment. I think it’s part of the reason I’m actually here, and it’s worked its way into a lot of my art. In my public art projects, I often try to push my work toward incorporating the water in some way. This past summer I did a large project where I built a nine-foot-tall seashell, which I actually ended up floating on a lake.

I think there’s something about both living in the part of town I live in and working with youth in the community that parallels my interest in social justice. That underlying sense of social justice works both throughout my community work and teaching, but it also wiggles my way into my artwork. It’s part of the stew that I live in that drives the work.

Layers of the Hijab
Thru Apr 21, Columbia City Gallery

One of Coss's wire portraits of the girls.