by L. Jaye Bell
Coastal Journal contributor
Mary Barnes has been creating intuitively for as long as she can remember, letting her imagination go wild to create works inspired by outdoor discoveries on long walks near her home in midcoast Maine.
Barnes contemplates the presence and placement of things; she herself Alice in Wonderland style into the tiniest of spaces, and asks, "What would it be like to be inside the reindeer antler moss?" Mary begins her work with such essential questions, yet without a plan or end vision in sight, she imagines herself in the leaves, moss and tiny spaces of the natural world.
An exhibition of her work, "Four in Maine" is on display at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
Her works are large, abstract, and intriguing landscapes. The representative style of her art invites exploration, leaving the door to the imagination open for the viewer to engage and play in the quirky, oversized worlds she creates. The abstraction comes from the immensity of scale; the voluminous size and scope of her pieces are as interesting when viewed from a distance as they are up close. Abstracting the landscape helps give the viewer a feeling of being there.
Mary Barnes; Moss; graphite, ink, oil paint, pastel on mylar; 42 x 30 in.; courtesy of Ten High Street GalleryEach piece unfolds differently as Mary creates. She has learned to respect the nebulous and subjective nature of creating, letting the intuitive inklings that present themselves guide the work. The result gives the viewer a feeling of being inside the landscape, rather than an outside observer of it.
Mary loves color. She uses colors in relationship to each other, without favoring a specific palette and to provide her works with greater emotional impact. She allows the tension of colors as they relate to one another to influence the overall work.
The resulting relationship between two or more colors offers a certain amount of tension and intensity, such as a red dot in an entire field of green. Yellow or orange would create a much different effect and feel.
Barnes received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980's for a poem-based art project. The stanzas of the poem hung in space, so observers could read it while walking through the room in which it was displayed. The grant further spawned her creativity to use unconventional grounds for her works.
Barnes' favorite medium is translucent, matte finished Mylar, more commonly used for architectural drawings than for vast works of art. The toothy surface allows differing media to coexist on a two dimensional space, media that would not otherwise work well on canvas or traditional art papers. Made from plastic, it's durable and perfect for combining media. It is also easier to remove and wipe off errors, making it most forgiving in terms of erasing.
Mylar also allows for drawing on both sides of the paper, combining the elements of each surface into the whole. Its membrane surface provides for unlikely media combinations that most art surfaces cannot. Combining wet and dry media further breaks the boundaries of the paper. Thus, the artist becomes the conductor of a seemingly inharmonious mixture of inks, pastels, oils and graphite, orchestrating them in a surprisingly melodic symphony of materials, textures and colors in each piece.
Barnes enjoys the combinations and their differing effects: the translucency of inks versus the opacity of oil paints and the dry pastels compared with the smoothness of pencil.
Mary likes surprises. If she knows what she's doing, she's bored. If there is a sense of the unknown, that mystery has its own energy that comes through in the work.
Experimenting with various media on Mylar is a way of letting her inner kid leads the way, gently guiding her to stay open minded through the process of letting the drawing speak to her. Barnes looks for ways to break out of conventional drawing, using the immediacy of the drawn mark to engage the viewer.
"Moss" (42" x 30") is an abstract rendition using pastels, pencil, and ink. Barnes works on one piece at a time. Then she hangs the finished work in her studio for a long time as she begins a new piece, letting it rest to see if more needs to be added. Bringing the work to completion, she asks herself where its strengths and weaknesses lie. Years of teaching art classes has allowed her to objectively view her own work as if it belonged to a student in a class critique.
"Edge" (26" x 72") is a long, horizontal view of a pond while swimming. Visually representing the surface of the water below and above at the same time, it evokes the feeling of being both in the water and above it. In creating the work, Barnes began with the grasses, got two thirds of the way across and realized it felt too predictable, so she left a gap. As she worked on the rest of the piece, she filled the gap with a radical change of scale, filling the space with an image of the pond in the distance. The foreground grasses are vividly textured, masking the small space of the distant view.
What inspires her? Her level of comfort in making things with her hands allows her the freedom to make her own world. Nature continues to inspire both in the present and past; memories of a childhood growing up near Acadia; sailing, boating and playing in the water; spending time outdoors; camping and winter camping have all been inspirations. When she's stuck, she goes for a walk to spend time outdoors and recharge her creative batteries.
With 30 years of her life lived as an artist, Barnes is still interested in the singular beauty of the drawn mark, with its negative and positive space, organic line and the way the complexity of drawing pulls the viewer in.
What does she recommend for artists getting started?
"It's tough for new artists to have that critical eye, but it's crucial to hear what others see in your work that a beginner may not notice," she advises. "Trust your ideas and have the courage to implement them regardless of the result. It's easy to listen to that inner critic. Summoning the courage to get the work out there helps to develop the creative process. Trust that process, and courageously use your imagination no matter how silly it may seem. Don't let the inner critic rule, for it closes us down. Take the mind off results-oriented and let the process develop."
Mary develops her pieces intuitively. The element of risk makes the art more interesting, as it becomes a visual unfolding of the work. She doesn't put it in a strict identity. Even with an M.F.A. from Columbia University and a B.F.A from Colorado College, her west coast style is less academic and more fluid and experimental. She is influenced by American pop artist Jim Dine, abstract expressionists Phillip Guston, John Merrin, and Richard Diebenkorn. Collectors of her works tend to be people she knows, although her work is in a few private collections, the patrons have purchased the art because they wanted to live with it.
Barnes' art is different because of the degree to which she works intuitively. She allows the work a voice, and listens carefully when it reaches completion. When an idea comes to mind, she doesn't question it, but runs with it, allowing the work to grow organically until it feels complete. Allowing the process of creating to unfold without hindering the results with preconceived notions of how the finished work should look adds a level of mystery to the piece; even the artist has no idea how it will turn out. And that's just how it should be.
Her work "Four in Maine" is up in the Farnesworth Museum through September 11. To contact her directly, visit her website at www.marybarnesart.com.