Mary Porterfield is an artist whose work can be describes in an abundance of words for which, “simple,” is not among them. Her work seeks answers to what many of us wonder about regarding the trials when attempting to live a compassionate life and what makes an act heroic in the face of conditions that are under nature’s control.
She has her MFA from Arizona State but also has her MS in Occupational Therapy and a BS in Biology. Seriously, look out world. Her educational background and philosophical thinking that are embedded into her paintings and drawings are a prominent reason why they are ever so magnetizing.
She currently has a solo exhibition at Packer-Schopf Gallery titled “Dual Nature” featuring what I personally, consider to be some of her most exquisite work. The complexities in her work are incredibly detailed and evocative so I know that you will appreciate her words as well as her work once you see them.
Mahjabeen Syed: Your artwork is very in tune with nature and nowadays, almost everything in nature has been touched by human hands. How do you come up with the multi-figured narratives that are in many of your pieces?
Mary Porterfield: My paintings reference landscapes and acts of nature to represent situations that are both literally and figuratively beyond my control. Many of these situations are influenced by my work as an occupational therapist, as I struggle to accept what I cannot change. The multi-figured narratives within the scenes reflect my struggle whether to accept or to deny futility, when encountering the uncontrollable.
The idea came as a grad student at Arizona State University. During a critique, one of my teachers said, “A good painting tells two stories, one from a distance and one from up-close.” That single quote has influenced my work for the last 15 years. I convey two sensibilities through the dichotomy between the apparent normality from a distance and the darker narratives that emerge as the viewer draws closer. So many times in life, and especially in healthcare, all is not what it seems. Painting in this manner allows me to represent the deceptive appearance of situations, while describing some of the many layers that can underlie our actions.
MS: Women Made Gallery recently released a study on the gender disparities within the commercial art world. As a woman in this industry, what has your experience been like since you began exhibiting in galleries? Are men given more opportunities than women?
MP: I know, historically, gender disparities in the commercial art world have both existed and been prevalent. Fortunately, I have not experienced that disparity. When Aron Packer first exhibited one of my drawings in 2003, he welcomed me to a community of female artists, from whom I have learned a great deal. Some of these include: Eleanor Speiss-Ferris, Renee McGinnis, Louise Lebourgeois, and many others. Prior to showing with Aron, I had not, yet, been familiar with these amazing artists. It was the commercial art world that exposed me to their work and allowed me to learn from their example.
MS: Inspiration comes in various forms for writers, artists, photographers, etc. Just the same, sometimes inspiration doesn’t exactly hit you at all for a while and you get things like “writer’s block.” What do you do to get your creativity flowing again?
MP: When I have artist’s block, I think about my experiences in healthcare and the questions that continually haunt me. Some of these include: Is it better to deny futility or accept what cannot be changed? Does it take more courage to be selfless or self-nurturing? If need is warranted, but not wanted, should it be abandoned? In thinking about each question, I ask myself what metaphors and imagery might signify my search for resolution. In doing so, I often portray the saving of others in dire situations and the uncertain consequences that can result. For example, in the painting, “The Foresters,” young girls or caregivers hoist elderly figures upward, away from the dangerous crocodiles, below. However, the elderly are lifted to a different type of peril, as birds of prey encircle them amidst the treetops. Did the seemingly heroic act bring about a better result? Would it have been better had the caregivers accepted what they could not change? The lack of an answer inspires other passages that give rise to more questions that lead to other paintings. This cycle and the continual search for answers triggers my creativity and the desire to make new work.
MS: What is one thing you have always wanted to do but never done? Why?
MP: My number one wish is to take a trip to Alaska. Two years ago, I took Amtrak to Montana. That trip was one of the best artistic decisions I have ever made, inspiring my recent body of work entitled, “Dual Natures.” I can only imagine how powerful and influential Alaska’s landscape might be.
Like a lot of artists, I have several day jobs to support my passion for painting. I work three days a week at a hospital and teach two days a week at Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago. Having limited vacation time, I have to plan my trips carefully, to ensure I can both create art and study other artistic perspectives. Over time, I’ve come to realize the importance of the latter. For me, this doesn’t just include going to museums or shows, but exposing myself to other views, including topography that might inspire my painting. Next year, I plan to make Alaska a reality, knowing the imagery will be invaluable to my future work.
MS: We often have triggers as children or young adults that set off the path to our careers. For me, it was a Ray Bradbury story called, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” that made me want to become a writer. And because of that one decision, I went to the college I did which in turn caused me to meet the people I did etc… What was that one thing or moment in your life that you feel set everything else in motion?
MP: My trigger actually came much later in life, in 2008, when I watched the documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal,” by director Jessica Yu. The film tells the story of Chicago artist Henry Darger, who worked as a janitor by day but labored as a self-taught artist by night. After decades of isolated work, Henry completed a 15,000 page fantasy novel, along with illustrations that included some 300 watercolor and collage drawings. The work was discovered in 1972, when Henry was transferred to a nursing home. The discovery was made by his landlord, Nathan Lerner, and his neighbor, David Berglund, who cleared out Henry’s small apartment. In the documentary, David describes the moment he visited Henry in the nursing home and complimented him on his drawings. Henry, who died shortly thereafter, simply responded, “Too late now.” Was he expressing some level of remorse for the years of inattention to his work? The answer will never be known. Yet, the lack of an audience may have been the reason his drawings included such unfiltered imagery, while upholding such an idiosyncratic and intimate vision.
In 2008, I received an especially high number of rejections in art, so many that I wondered if my work would ever be seen again. One Saturday morning, after receiving two additional rejection letters, I realized that not having an audience might become a reality. I then thought about Henry Darger who, without a viewer, had created the most intriguing works I had ever witnessed. I made a vow to myself, that day, to try and create paintings as though they would never be seen. If it was true that my work would not be publically displayed, I wanted to produce the best paintings I could, to please myself. Ironically, since developing that attitude, many opportunities have presented themselves, that only seemed liked dreams in 2008. I can honestly say that it was Jessica Yu’s beautiful documentary that set everything in motion, changing how I see and think about my work.
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