It is unusual to simply take a walk down a city street and be able to step inside and watch an artist at work. One can do this on City Island Avenue in the Bronx. Enter Mary Colby’s Studio Gallery and first note the monocromatic tones of wall and pillars, the many sized canvases, oil and gouache paintings, framed and unframed, hanging on the walls or resting three and four deep against them as if expecting to be noticed any minute now. Empty frames leaning too, antique, and starkly modern, waiting to be filled. Jazz often playing in the background.
Mary is never without paint-spotted fingers, a dab more on chin or ear, and a tee shirt mimicking Jackson Pollack. She is always aglow with energy, brush or rag or scissors in hand, her two easels with paintings waiting. One time while spinning out her strokes and measured dabs, red dots, flowers, a single leaf, a floating leg, wild and wily semi-faces, she suddenly stepped back and laughing like a child said: “Oh, I love this. I love making myself laugh!”
During this very long and exciting interview, Mary presented distinct theories and experiences as to how and why she paints, as paint she must. There is seldom a day when one does not see her in her studio, moving from easel to drawing table to wall to easel again, and morning and evening she is often there. Dare I say it: her life is her art.
Listen to her tell you of her ‘natural’ evolution as an artist: “My mother was a painter and my father an amateur but skilled photographer with a unique eye in composition. As I ate my macaroni, my mother was recreating Goya’s Maja on the Balcony on her easel. My father taught me how to see, my mother, the skill of painting.” (See one of her mother Anita’s paintings here.)
Mary was always supported in her artistic pursuit and always maintained a basement or apartment studio. Her appreciation of her artistic pursuit is academic as well as uniquely personal.
“Painting is magic. It’s the spirit of adventure, of discovery, of plumbing the unknown; exposing your demons, as in fear, through making images. Wading into the jumping off point and making the first mark. In the leap there is freedom.I begin with a weak image and sometimes, none at all. I give my subconscious free range. After so many years of technical practice, I’m confident that what’s inside me will express itself, and it will be filled with emotion. And without emotion the work would be dull and void.
“As I’m painting I’m thinking of making a beautiful surface, and then the image will win out and I will be surprised at the mystery of it. And the entertainment and hopefully, I’ll even be confounded. I like to be confounded, and then I detach myself from what I see so that it’s no longer attached to me. I can let go of it and I can leave it because if you leave it, you can empty whatever’s in you onto the canvas in a very free way. In a very trusting way, because you know it’s all inside of you. All you have to do is let it go and make the mark. I want to see things I have never seen before.”
As Mary speaks, around her studio hang or stand, spacious horizontal and vertical canvases with generous but never over-thick surfaces of paint – gray abstracts like clouds or mysterious sky-writing; faces with splintered, asymmetrical stares; girls with wild things in their hair – some in stark modern or ornate frames, others simply running frameless off the edge.
Another question urges Mary on. “The layers of history, layers and layers of different styles – as an artist you cannot ignore all the art that’s come before you. At least for me. Sometimes, when you see a painting by Rauschenberg or Goya, it acts as the springboard for a painting – for me. I get very excited seeing a painting that’s absolutely astounding, so it influences me to cull something from it. It becomes a collaboration.
“After a day of painting my canvas is maybe complete or it needs to be rebuilt in surface, in form or color. Making the painting fat is important, because you want it to be beautiful and all of these things – the emotion, the ambiguity – have to work in concert. And then, while building the painting, new images may appear, destroying the old, so it’s through addition or subtraction the painting is made.”
Sometimes Mary paints over or ‘rubs’ out her paintings. She addresses this.
“Well yes, because it has to transmute; it’s alchemy. Sometimes it just doesn’t work on one of those levels be it form, color, the emotions, the content – any one of those things that does not work – so you have to go back in to perfect it and sometimes you lose it. Otherwise, how the hell will you learn!”
She then recalls an Installation she staged (mixed media, paintings, poetry, photography) in the nineties, The Soul’s Progress, and she eagerly goes on to one of her core beliefs.
“So yes, we can talk about alchemy, the process of transmutation, of magic. But let’s talk first about the mythology of primitive cultures: they have beliefs that are universal and one of them is the vegetative process– plants blooming, growing, dying – so the process of death and rebirth coincides. This interests me, to die and to be reborn, and sometimes it relates to the subconscious, and you see something that relates to you deeply.”
Is she defining art as a form of psychotherapy?
“Well, it would be if I were someone like Louis Bourgeois. Now she paints her own personal mythology, her psychology, what happened to her as a child, like she’s really ‘in session,’ because she’s so interconnected to these threads in her life and aware of what happened to her and what it means to her. It’s a personal mythology that connects to the collective unconscious, which is universal, and then it’s anybody’s game.
“When a person can achieve emotion in her work and it’s the truth, it’s the truth that wins out and that’s what makes it great. Like when you look at a Velazquez and you see the person looking right at you, there’s the feeling that his soul is in the painting.”
Mary looks thoughtfully around the studio, then talks about her need for greater continuity and her choosing of a select number of subject themes to delve into. She admits she gets bored very easily, possibly why she also can be seen writing and sketching in dozens of notebooks on her desk and in her bag. She says that when something crops up as a distraction she notes it down, draws some quick sketches but tries to rely on her three or four themes. She says she does go back to them eventually and sometimes she blows up a sketch and turns it into a painting, but her notes, she says, are mainly “fodder for her soul.”
Mary’s first theme is dismemberment. Presently human figures and abstractions are her subject. She begins with why her headless bodies relate to the vegetative process and how this choice takes “the mind out of the scenario of living, when you’re all in your head, when you’re not in your gut. Dismembering yourself is the beginning of alchemy and the vegetative process. You can then be born again.”
Her next theme is legs. “Legs for mobility, strength, solidity, standing erect, giving support and carrying out many tasks.” Many of her legs exist without upper bodies, sometimes without feet.
Then there is landscape. “A landscape can be mysterious. I make my marks within it, because I’m striving for ambiguity. I’m thinking visually and I don’t think beforehand, rather I make the mark and then the recognition comes after. ”
And the question one wonders about so many artists is when they ‘complete’ a work: how do they know it’s done?
“Oh, then you have to trust yourself and sometimes say, ‘It’s good.Stop.’ And this happens after you let it lie around for a while, to be sure. And then, after having said all this, it’s hit or miss, when you really let go.”
How exciting and enlightening to have travelled into the creative world of a uniquely talented and fertile artist for one afternoon!
The above article was written for the Bronx Art Documentary Project by City Island writer / author Carmen Mason. The City Island Chamber of Commerce is gratefully for its use. Mary also offers painting classes; you can reach her via phone (917-804-4509) or by email (email@example.com).
Since this interview Mary Colby Studio Gallery celebrated 30 years on City Island, a joyous celebration for Mary and her family (Mary with daughter Anita, son-in-law Adam and grandson Dean; Mary with husband Mitch), and for all in the City Island Community. The City Island Chamber of Commerce offers her congratulations and wishes for many more years to come!