Lay missioner Mary Mortenson reflects on her time with an artist cooperative in Cochabamba, Bolivia. 

Last year, when I was still stateside, I was exploring and working with clay almost everyday. I rented studio space from the University in Eau Claire and spent 20 to 30 hours there a week. A big part of my identity was that I was creating something that was of ME. My OWN artistic expression. That was a lot of pressure.

Mary Mortenson working in Wisconsin

I struggled to find the balance of learning and growing from the work of those that I admired and yet finding my own voice. Sorry if that’s too much artist lingo.

The big question that was asked of me, was “What are you trying to tell the world through your work?” Once again: A lot of pressure.

I found myself, at times, paralyzed. No creative juices flowing.

Previous to that question, though, I had been able to work and create freely; loving the discipline of it…the work, the time, the care. All of it.

I had been free to explore, risk, and try, try again.

Mary’s ceramic work

Before making our decision to come to Bolivia for a couple of years, I left the studio and clay with a little bit of lingering self-doubt. Hoping that I could offer something new through my work.

Since being down here in Bolivia, I have had the privilege to work with a artistic cooperative just outside of Cochabamba. They are a collective of people that have come together with a common interest in shared work and making things with their hands. Any income they make is shared equally between its members.

I was invited to work with them initially because they were hoping to start working with clay. They make mosaics out of pre-made ceramic tiles and were hoping that they could start making their own so they could get a larger variety of shapes, colors, and designs. After looking at the numbers, though, it was clear that they didn’t currently have the money for some of the expenses (such as a kiln, clay, and glazes). So I just became an extra set of hands in the process of making mosaics.

Mary and Doña Elena working on mosaics
Doña Clemestine working on mosaic

It has really challenged my previous ideas of art only being an individual expression. I love that I am only ONE step in the process of taking product from start to finished work. So many hands and eyes are involved with each one, and I have had to learn to surrender my desire to have “control” over the outcome and allow it to change and evolve as each person offers themselves to each creation.

I find myself so light-hearted in the workshop – full of wonder and excitement as I see all that can come from many hands and hearts at work.

I look forward to taking what I have learned here at co-op art, into my creative expressions in the future. What a weight off my shoulders.

My question is no longer, “What are you trying to tell the world through your work?” but instead “How can I be ONE part of contributing more beauty in the world?”

And that doesn’t scare me because I know I will have so many great partners along the way.