Sculptor, photographer, and educator Rory Mahon really got in on the ground floor when he joined the Johnson Atelier in 1976. In fact, he says they were below ground in the early days.
“When I started with the Atelier, they were renting a basement in a building at the corner of Route 1 and Alexander Road, a place which is not even there anymore,” Mahon says. “I had majored in sculpture and photography at Cooper Union and my professor, Reuben Kadish, and I were having a beer together after my graduation, talking about what I might do. He told me about this place in Princeton, which turned out to be the Johnson Atelier. I checked it out and joined them.” This was in the mid-1970s.
Mahon’s lengthy stay with the facility got especially interesting in 1998 when he began to teach sand casting workshops to various Atelier staff members. A shy Japanese sculptor named Ayami Aoyama, who had just joined the Atelier, took a class and caught the instructor’s attention. What he didn’t know was that the young woman would go on to become an internationally known stone carver — as well as his wife.
“The stone people and metal people at the Atelier didn’t mix much, so we didn’t see each other, but I remember being impressed with Ayami; in fact we both impressed each other,” Mahon says. “Pretty soon the sparks started to fly, and it wasn’t from the molten iron.”
The couple married in 2002, at Grounds For Sculpture, and their creative — as well as personal lives — have continued to flourish. They have a home studio together in the Harbourton neighborhood of Hopewell Township, where they are raising two sons, five-year-old Finn and Kaito, who is two.
Their studio is open to the public on Saturday, October 10, as part of the second annual Hopewell Tour Des Arts. The day-long event is an opportunity for art lovers to toddle around Hopewell borough and township and get a close-up look at the studios of more than 30 artists.
Tour maps are available the day of the event at Boro Bean, 33 East Broad Street, and the historic Hopewell Train Station, 2 Railroad Place. In addition, from noon to 3 p.m. the Brothers Moon restaurant and Nomad Pizza will be providing food at the train station.
Mahon and Aoyama have just one regret about the studio tour: that they won’t be able to get out and meet their fellow artists, since they will be hosting guests at their own place. “I feel badly that I won’t be able to see other people’s studios,” Mahon says. “Although, there will be a get-together at the end of the day.”
“Even with everything else in our lives, we do manage to keep our enthusiasm with artwork going with this property and community, and I so appreciate it,” Aoyama says. “Hopewell has so many artists and with this kind of open studio, we can get to know each other better and make the community of artists even better.”
Both point out that their studio is much more than a single, dusty room with lots of tools and works in progress. The property sits on five acres of land, ample space to display Mahon’s works in various metals and Aoyoma’s stone sculpture. “I bought it about 20 years ago and the most important thing was that it would function as an artist’s studio,” Mahon says. “I have a foundry and a studio where I do metal working, welding, and whatnot, plus there’s lots of storage, so it’s really perfect.”
As the senior staff sculptor at the Johnson Digital Stone Project (across from the former Atelier and Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton) Aoyoma prefers to do her sculpting there, creating large works that seem to be increasing in size. She is in the midst of sculpting a piece that stands six feet tall for an upcoming solo show at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. However, the large pieces eventually come home to roost, populating the couple’s property. Both husband and wife put considerable elbow grease into making their place special.
‘We’re making a zen garden, and we also hope to have a Celtic beehive hut made of stone, but these are long-term projects,” Mahon says.
“We design everything that we incorporate into the site, but things don’t happen quickly,” Aoyama says with a smile, as though to say “we all know what happens to long term projects when you’re married, raising kids, and working.”
Mahon was born and raised in Queens. His mother was primarily a homemaker but also worked in retail in some of New York’s signature stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue. “At Christmas I got more shirts, sweaters, and ties than I could use,” he says. His father had planned to be a journalist but turned his interest in people to the food and beverage industry. He was the head bartender, then later, the beverage manager at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, where sports legends Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner, and film stars like Richard Burton were customers.
Mahon, 55, says he has liked working with his hands since his youth, and sculpting seemed a natural fit. “I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a good college that fine-tuned me and set me on a path,” he says.
Mahon took a leave of absence from the Atelier in 1991, when he began to operate his own foundry, casting bronzes for artists such as Julian Schnabel, Kiki Smith, and Joel Shapiro. “I missed the collective atmosphere, though,” Mahon says. “I went back to the Atelier in 1998 and stayed there until it closed.”
He is currently teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and also offers classes at the studio in Hopewell. In addition, Mahon is working on a photography book, sorting through the thousands of images he has taken of Finn since his birth.
Aoyama, 40, was born in Nishio, Aichi, Japan, and she, too, didn’t come from an especially artistic family. Her mother, however, was a genius with a sewing machine, with an ability to craft patterns and sew gorgeous, complicated formal clothes for the family. Her father also had a special talent. A policeman, he apparently had the unusual ability to communicate with prisoners, gleaning all kinds of inside information. “The story goes that he could also read the palms of the dead, and could tell if they had been destined to be criminals,” Mahon says.
Trained first in painting, Aoyama studied at Kawai Art Institute in Nagoya, Japan, and earned a BFA from Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in 1993. After traveling through Italy and becoming interested in sculpture, she moved to New York to launch her art career. She took courses in stone carving, metal-smithing, and bronze casting at the Art Students League, the Craft Students League, and the Sculpture Center School. By 1997 Aoyama had her first solo show in New York.
An apprenticeship at the Johnson Atelier’s Stone Division came soon after, in 1998. As the century was turning, Aoyama had two solo exhibitions at the Atelier’s Extension Gallery, and was hired to be an art instructor and sculptor.
Both Mahon and Aoyama are inspired by nature, and Aoyama speaks movingly about the organic way a sculpture “exists” in its environment. “I really love the elements — water, light, even birds — (interacting) with a piece,” she says. “I like the feeling when the sun comes up and dances on a piece of sculpture, or the way water flows over it. When I’m making a sculpture, I’m imagining more of an environment, what will happen when the environment changes. Isamu Naguchi [the prominent 20th century Japanese-American artist and landscape architect] is really the inspiration for both of us, as well as the history and tradition of Japanese stone carvers,” Aoyama says. “Although I was a seriously trained painter, I got totally hooked on stone carving. Stone is the best thing I have found in my life — except for my husband.”
Second Annual Hopewell Tour des Arts, Hopewell. Saturday, October 10, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tour over 30 artists’ studios in and around Hopewell. Tour maps are available the day of the tour at Boro Bean, 33 East Broad Street in Hopewell and at the historic Hopewell Train Station, 2 Railroad Place. Rain or shine. The studio of sculptors Rory Mahon and Ayami Aoyama, 1423 Trenton-Harbourton Road, Hopewell, will be open to the public as part of the event. On the web: www.rorymahon.com; www.ayamiaoyama.com. 609-333-9393 (the Morpeth Gallery) or www.ruthmorpeth.com.