The Mud Below, Not the Sky Above, Captivates the Boyle Family, Loving Curators of the Earth's Surface

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tell the average artist you think his work is all surface, and you're asking for a fight. Tell the Boyles of Greenwich, England, the same thing, however, and they'll applaud your powers of observation.

For the past 24 years, the Boyle family—Mark, 53, his longtime companion, Joan Hills, who's in her 50s, and their children, Sebastian, 25, and Georgia, 23—has wandered the globe creating painted fiberglass replicas of randomly selected bits of the earth's surface and some of the constructions with which man has covered it. The Boyles have fashioned cross sections of worn tenement floors, slabs of London sidewalks, mud in a Japanese quarry and patches of snow on an island off Norway. "We wanted to see if it's possible to look at the world or a small part of it without being reminded of art from the past," explains Mark. "We wanted to make art that would reject nothing, be totally accepting of the innate fascination of the world." So true-to-life are their facsimiles, says Georgia, that viewers often can't believe they are fiberglass. "They think we just dug them up."

The Boyle family creations—ranging in size from the petite (a few square feet) to the hulking ("We once had to knock down our studio wall to take a sculpture to a museum," says Joan)—didn't bring an avalanche of buyers when Mark and Joan began turning them out in 1964. "There was never any money when we were kids," remembers Georgia. "We didn't have sofas, just these huge bits of the earth's surface hanging on the walls." In recent years, though, the Boyles have achieved artistic success and made money. Their works, praised by New York Times critic John Russell as possessing "a lucidity and an immediacy to which very few abstract paintings can lay claim," have hung in museums from Toledo to Tokyo. Their first major private gallery exhibition in California runs through February at the Turske & Whitney Gallery in Los Angeles. And their works now command a hefty $13,000 to $65,000.

Such sums were beyond Mark and Joan's wildest dreams when they first met at a Leeds cafe in 1957. The son of a Glasgow lawyer, Mark had dropped out of law school to join the army and was casting about for a way to express his creative impulses. Joan, the daughter of a Edinburgh builder, had married and separated. She was mother to a 5-year-old son, Cameron Hills, and was eking out a living running a beauty salon while striving to establish herself as a painter. "We passed our first evening arguing about what we should do together with the rest of our lives," says Mark, adding kiddingly, "I wouldn't call it love at first sight."

Their future encounters were less contentious, and within six weeks Mark and Joan were living together in Leeds. They worked at odd jobs, experimenting in their off hours, says Joan, with "every art form we could think of—painting, writing, sculpture." One of their more successful efforts was a psychedelic light show, which they took on tour with rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Cream. By the mid-'60s, when they began making earth pieces, they were still poor, but increasingly well-known in avant-garde London circles.

Mark and Joan included their children in their work from the time they were toddlers. "We can't remember a time when we weren't working as artists," says Sebastian. Still the elder Boyles were determined not to foist their interests on the younger generation and eventually packed the kids off to school to learn professions of their own—"in the fond hope," jokes Mark, "that it would be the last we'd see of them." By that time, though, the family obsessions proved too ingrained. "Sabo went to college to study politics and philosophy," says Georgia. "After he left the university and I finished studying dress design, we decided what we really wanted to do was work on the pictures, as we always had."

It's not difficult to see the appeal. Since they began their "Journey to the Surface of the Earth" series, the Boyle family has trekked to more than 50 locations, often accompanied by Joan's son Cameron, now a film technician. The actual destinations were determined back in 1967-69, when the family asked friends to fire 1,000 darts at a map of the world. Wherever a dart landed, the Boyles decreed, a work of art would be born. Exact locations are established by tossing additional darts at ever more precise maps, and finally, at the site, by the toss of a carpenter's right angle. Whatever it lands on, the family duplicates. "It's entirely random," explains Mark. "Our object is to ensure that the squares of earth are not chosen for aesthetic reasons." The Boyles have completed about 50 works in this "world" series, as well as several hundred at other sites.

Much of the Boyles' creative process—the mechanics of which they refuse to divulge—takes place outdoors, on site. To keep working, the family has developed a foolproof method for fending off meddlesome passersby. "We tell them we're geologists—that usually stops the questions," says Joan.

When they aren't in transit, Mark, Joan and Georgia reside in a rambling, 17th-century house in Greenwich. Sebastian, who dates a London model, lives in a nearby flat. All that family togetherness, he admits, can sometimes grate on a chap's nerves. "The whole point of our work is to be as truthful as possible," he says. "When we're together the truth comes flying out. We've done everything but tear each other's throats out."

Until there is actual bloodshed, however, the Boyles say they can't imagine any other life. "It's so exciting going off to a foreign country and not having any idea what your location is going to look like," says Georgia. "Very early one morning you turn off a road and know that within a hundred yards, your world site lies waiting. It's completely exhilarating."

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