Carroll admits to having felt overwhelmed at first when she was set loose at Kohler. “The factory floor is the size of many football fields. There was such a complete difference in scale between what I can do alone in my studio and here with machines and processes that are all designed to produce large quantities of things with incredible efficiency.” One day, while observing the manufacture of sinks, Carroll discovered that pads made of Styrofoam—a material chosen because it melts away when the porcelain is fired inside the kiln—are used to cushion the product as it is transported on the kiln car. With her inside-out approach to the Sharpstown house, Carroll immediately decided that she wanted to make a kitchen sink using Styrofoam packing material as a mold.
Workers at Kohler were initially dubious, and their trepidation seemed justified when several early prototypes collapsed or otherwise failed to take shape. “I thought it would be simple, but it turned out to be no end of trouble,” Carroll recalls. “The interesting thing about being an artist, though, is you can only learn if you are willing to fail. And what’s incredible is that when the factory workers saw my persistence, they were willing to match my efforts every step of the way.”
This didn’t prevent them, though, from dubbing the amorphously shaped white sink that resulted the “Flintstone” model, as if the television-cartoon housewife Wilma might use it to clean up after a dinner of dinosaur steaks. Ruth Kohler sees the workers’ teasing as an essential part of the process. “Sometimes our factory associates think the visiting artists are dilettantes, simply playing at what they do,” she says. “But someone like Mary Ellen, who is so articulate about her work, has a big impact on their lives. As they began to feel more comfortable with her, they were even able to critique her work, but in a nice way.”
That her creations invite such response was noted, too, by Charles Renfro, the project architect for the newly constructed home of the Institute of Contemporary Art museum, in Boston. While it was still under construction, Carroll cooked one of her “itinerant gastronomy” dinners—including oyster soup with salsify, butternut-squash risotto, and panfried snapper with parsnip purée and balsamic-glazed red onions—on-site for a group of guests that included Renfro, Harvard professor Homi Bhabha, and actor John Malkovich. Watching her in action that evening, Renfro says he was amazed by Carroll’s unique combination of talents. “Mary Ellen’s investigations are fueled by a kind of childish curiosity, but combined with a very sophisticated adult’s resourcefulness. It makes her slightly dangerous. That night at the ICA, for instance, rather than set up a catering zone off-site, in another room, she put all the equipment around the main table, clearly making a point about the process of cooking,” Renfro recalls. “It was about stripping off the sheen of effortlessness and showing that there really is work and love and energy involved in this thing she is doing for you.”
By designing a kitchen sink that’s impossible to ignore, Mary Ellen Carroll has shown herself to be the rare magician who can make a trick more mysterious by revealing how it’s done.