Mary Iverson, Artist
Whether it’s an oil painting, mixed-media collage, or public art mural, Mary Iverson’s artwork is intriguing, evolving, and beautifully executed. Her most recent oil paintings are a complex intersection of the past and a possible future. These natural landscapes speak of a more innocent time, while the imposition of shipping containers portend a dark fate. Perspective lines etched into the canvases give the paintings a post-apocalyptic feel, as if a scientist from the future is examining the paintings as artifacts for research. The more you look at her paintings, the more the worlds portrayed expand in your imagination.
An award-winning artist, Mary’s work is exhibited in galleries around the world and included in many public and private collections. She teaches painting and drawing at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington, where she is a tenured faculty member. Mary has a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts and an MFA from the University of Washington. In Seattle, her work is represented by G. Gibson Gallery. To see more images of Mary’s work, visit her website at MaryIverson.com.
From her spacious, light-filled studio in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Mary talked with Constellation617 about her path to become an artist, the progression of her work, her environmental concerns, and her new projects. The interview took place on March 1, 2014.
C617: When did you get on a path to become an artist?
Mary Iverson: I always painted and drew. I blossomed in the arts in high school. There was a really good art program in my high school, Mercer Island High. We had Ron Adams and Laurie Hall. They were mentors for me. I loved it. My father’s side of the family encouraged me. My aunt was an artist, an art historian and professor at Northwestern. My dad had experience with professional artists. It was a viable career path in his mind. But my mom discouraged it and pushed me in other directions, just from concerns about how I would make a living. So I had those two sides.
Although I always did art, for a while I tried to do another vocation. I came to my senses in my late twenties. I said to myself: “What am I doing? I’m an artist. Why don’t I follow that and give it everything I’ve got? Why am I so afraid? Why am I going this other direction?” It’s like I woke up one day and decided, I’m doing it. So I went back to school. I had already gotten my undergrad in science, and I went back to school and turned it around. I got a BFA and then an MFA.
I don’t want to speak badly of my mom, because she was just concerned that I would have a vocation and be able to eat. She turned right around and backed me when I decided to be an artist. She supported me the best she could, but she’s always had her doubts. I think she still has her doubts. It’s interesting how powerful the parental influence is on where you go with your life. I still wonder why I chose her view initially and not my father’s, and what would have happened if I went straight into the arts with no detour. I wouldn’t be the artist I am today, so I guess it all worked out.
C617: Could you talk a little about the progression of your art?
Mary Iverson: After I got my BFA, I got on this kick of plein air painting. I would drive around the city and set my easel outside and paint. I was really dedicated to learning that particular skill, responding to light and color, and composing on the fly. I started being drawn to areas in south Seattle, in SODO—the colorful warehouses down there and the big shapes.
Then I got closer and closer to the port, not really knowing what I was doing. When you’re down in that area, you can see the cranes behind the buildings, so my landscape paintings started having cranes pop up in them. Then, I ended up right at the fence of the port, painting through the fence, looking right at the cranes, and being drawn to them very powerfully.
I had a show of my paintings of those cranes that I painted through the fence, and a stevedore saw my work and said, “Why don’t you do a project for us? And in return, I’ll give you a permit to go on the container terminals and paint, whenever and wherever you want.” This was 1999. I got an unlimited access permit, night or day, to go to any container terminal in Seattle. I developed a routine and found where the quieter areas were, and got to know each terminal. Every day I saw what the port looked like and witnessed activity firsthand. It was amazing. I made a lot of friends and got a lot of tours up and down the cranes. It was really fun.
Eventually that ended because of 9/11. I lost the access, but I’d already gotten so much rich material and inspiration. I’d drawn so many cranes, I could draw one from memory. I started exploring that avenue from memory toward abstraction. I followed that abstract, precisionist direction to what I felt was the end of the line. My work had become pretty much non-objective, and I asked myself if I wanted to keep going or do something else. I can’t just keep doing the same thing. There’s a story. I’m curious. I can’t just keep repeating myself, so I’m always looking. The questions keep changing.
At the end of what I felt was the trajectory for the abstract painting, I asked myself: “What’s next, and how can I make this feel more whole?” Although I loved my totally abstract paintings, they weren’t fulfilling because they were so far from my roots as a landscape painter, as a plein air painter, as an experiential viewer of the world. It just didn’t feel right. I tried to figure out how to incorporate other aspects of myself—the observer, the nature-lover, the organic side. What I came up with were these collages of beautiful places with the cranes inserted in them, some kind of combination.
That’s how the trajectory I’m on now—the nature/industry clash—started and it keeps changing as well. I came full circle. Things keep looping back and that’s really interesting. I was cleaning out a room at my mom’s and found a portfolio from high school, and it was the same stuff. I started with nature and abstracted it all the way to these geometric, colorful planes, and I had forgotten that. When I opened that work, I said, “Wow!” I confirmed I was being true to myself. This is an interest that I’d always had. I think in high school you’re pretty pure. I wasn’t worried about galleries, making money, or doing things people like. I was just making art for kicks. To find those interests were already there, it was pretty interesting and satisfying.
C617: Could you talk about the combination of tragedy and beauty in your recent work, how you paint physical situations you would not want to happen in reality, but you render them with such beauty?
Mary Iverson: This was an organic progression, too. I didn’t intend to have a statement, at first. My first attraction to the cranes was the colors and the shapes, the massive still life that you can walk into. It’s aesthetically wonderful. But as I started painting more and being at the port, I learned things, like the cranes were getting bigger and the ships were getting bigger. They would have these old cranes that wouldn’t accommodate the big ships, so they cut the legs of the cranes off and insert a segment to make them taller to fit over the new ships. And then, pretty soon, you see new cranes coming into the ports. I started reading about that and about how big everything was getting.
As I studied, I would read port statistics of how many containers were coming in per year, and their growth potential. That started being not as beautiful to me. I was adding information to the aesthetics. A purely aesthetic painting wasn’t saying everything about the port and the growth. It’s not just about the container and the ships, it’s the goods and the trade, and that starts being about economies and populations. You can’t talk about that kind of growth without thinking about the aftermath or the impact to the environment and resources. I couldn’t help but think about all that. That’s when my paintings became not just records of the visual information in front of me but a hypothetical portrayal of how much was going on.
I started doing paintings that showed an impossibly infinite number of containers receding into space and creating surreal scenarios of cranes and containers that went on and on forever. Because it seems that this industry will grow forever with no end in sight. So, my work really keeps in touch with that, with all aspects of the industry and its impact on nature.
The industry fascinates me, with what it stands for and what it’s doing and the beauty of it versus the impact of it. I will never stop thinking it’s beautiful—the ships, the ports, the containers are gorgeous. But there’s a price.
C617: Your last show had oil paintings, watercolors, and acrylic collage. You also do murals. How do you decide which medium to work in?
Mary Iverson: The closest to my heart are the big oil paintings because I have a rule that I travel to the place that’s represented. Right now I’m painting national parks, iconic spaces everyone knows. Even if you haven’t been there, there’s a place in every American’s heart for these images of Yosemite, Yellowstone Falls, and Mount Rainier. They’re striking places and we’ve been exposed to the visual aspects of them enough through the media that most people understand their value.
I’m trying to travel to a lot of them and do sketches, take photographs, and experience the beauty of the place. Then, I bring that back to the studio and create the larger oil paintings, which I wreck with the imposition of the containers. The paintings are very special to me because I have my memories of being there, which makes the process deeply gratifying. It brings both of my ways of working together, the old me who was the landscape painter who struck out and painted on site and my studio work.
The comfort of being in my studio exploring is a different process than working plein air. There are very different head spaces for those two processes. The oil paintings really bring that all together for me.
With the collages, it’s easier to be exploratory and seek out new ideas. They’re more experimental, so it’s more play. There’s less risk. They’re smaller. I can try out new things and think about new places to visit.
C617: What kind of art are you drawn to?
Mary Iverson: I really love Vermeer. I have to say, he’s a huge hero. I love Bierstadt, too. The classic oil painters that got that luminous, gorgeous, syrupy light in their works. The magical quality of that and the technical mastery. I love looking at their work. I finally got to see Vermeer’s works in person when I was in Amsterdam. Sometimes you read about a master’s work and when you see it in person, it’s not all it was said to be. Vermeer’s paintings are more than the hype. They are so incredibly gorgeous. It’s like they have a light box behind them, with light coming through them.
You can’t imagine or explain how amazing they are. There’s so much work that can be reproduced and shared online and almost appreciated fully, and that’s good, but there are some works that absolutely have to be seen in person.
Other than that, I really like seeing different ways people are dealing with abstract shapes and geometry. I’m always intrigued. I go through Instagram and the works that seem to get me are geometric abstractions. No surprise there, but here’s a surprise—I’m drawn to hand lettering. I follow a bunch of hand-painted sign craftspeople, and their work is so gorgeous. The care and touch of hand-lettered things in a digital age is really special.
There’s another thing I want to say about Vermeer. Vermeer made thirty-some paintings in his lifetime. That’s what we have on record for him. For whatever reason. You know it took a long time for Vermeer to make the paintings; they are painstakingly created. He had a family and other life circumstances. But to create only thirty-some paintings in your lifetime means each painting is so incredibly special.
I think about the output that is expected of contemporary artists. It’s massive. Thirty paintings a year is not very much for a contemporary artist. Sometimes when I think about the cranking out of work required to participate in the art world as I am now, I wish more of my paintings could be as special as Vermeer’s. Usually when I put on a show, there are one or two paintings that I am completely satisfied with, completely tickled by.
I was totally happy with my last show at Davidson. It was one of my most satisfying shows yet. I had a vision of what I wanted to do, and I did it. I felt it was an arresting, stunning body of work. And I’m a pretty modest person, so to say that is a lot. I was very, very happy with the show. But even then, there were two pieces that I felt were very special and hitting it one-hundred percent. It’s so hard to get everything right in that many paintings within the timeframe you have to work.
C617: What are you working on now?
Mary Iverson: I am so excited about what I’m doing now. After my Davidson show I was absolutely exhausted. I put so much into that. I killed myself over it. I didn’t go back in the studio for ten weeks. I’ve never not made art for ten weeks. I was so wiped. When I came back to the studio, I said, “Okay, what’s going to happen?” Now I’m doing animations.
In that ten weeks, I was thinking about time, about that idea of Vermeer making thirty-some paintings in his lifetime, and the amount of time embodied in each of those paintings. Then we have photography that embodies a moment in time, and we have film and animation that create a story. So I took this idea of the painting—this precious, untouchable object that you’re supposed to revere and protect—and tried to make it longer.
What I’m doing is making a painting with a container in it, taking a picture, and then moving the container and painting what was behind it, and taking another picture. So on that same painting, I’m creating every frame of the animation. What’s left by the end is a painting that was not the painting it was before. There are the traces of what I did to it. It’s the static object with the record; it has a memory in it of all the positions I’ve put the container in as I move it around. I have that static object and I have the animation of every position of the container. So, it’s tripping me out! And I’m loving it.
For me, it’s confronting notions of what a painting is supposed to be. Every time I move something and paint it over, I realize that I’m the only one who ever saw the painting in its previous state. Then I let that frame go, and I paint it again. What I’m doing is totally for me because I’m the only one who sees the paintings in these intermediate states. It’s so deeply process-oriented and personal that these paintings are becoming a little more like the Vermeers—the specialness of them. It’s not output for people to see it, but a process for me to create this object that embodies time in a different way.
I’m making an animation of a container cruising along the Great Wall of China. I have all these scenes of the Great Wall: the container enters, then it goes along the wall, and then it exits. In the final painting, there’s no container, but the animation shows the container moving through the painting.
C617: Are you taking the pictures with a camera or a video camera?
Mary Iverson: It’s an animated GIF that actually starts with my Android phone. Every time I do a frame, I take a picture of it with my Android, and then at the end of the day I transfer the photos onto my computer and use Photoshop to make each photo a layer and link them together into an animation.
C617: Are there any other projects you’re excited about?
Mary Iverson: I’m also excited to get invitations to paint murals. It seems there’s a revival of mural painting in the contemporary art scene. They have these really rad mural festivals around the world. Previously, I did public art murals. My first one was in 2006, and I didn’t realize at the time that I was positioning myself to be included in this really great new community tradition of the mural festival.
This year, I was invited to Portland to participate in the Forest for the Trees festival taking place in August. I will also be creating a mural on a shipping container for the Anacortes Art Festival, similar to the one I did in Singapore last year. I would really love to go to other festivals like Nuart in Stavanger, Norway, and the Pow! Wow! Hawaii festival. They invite internationally renowned mural artists to participate, and I’m crossing my fingers I’ll either have the chance to visit one of these festivals in the future or that I might actually get invited as a muralist.
These festivals bring together this community of international artists who are participating together, helping each other, and creating murals at the same time in one city. Also, it involves the city and business owners because of permits and getting the walls ready. And then the community sees them, because all the murals are happening at once and you can’t avoid it. It’s public art in the truest sense because it’s involving public structures, artists, and community members in this wonderful celebration. I’m really pleased to be doing the Forest for the Trees in Portland.
C617: Don’t you also have a book coming out?
Mary Iverson: ZERO+ Publishing invited me to do a book. I’m not sure what we’re going to do yet, but I’m sure it will be beautiful.
View more of Mary Iverson's artwork and find out about upcoming shows at her website at MaryIverson.com.
Get a peek at Mary Iverson's studio and works in progress in this article by Arrested Motion.
See more of Mary Iverson's process and work in the slideshow below.