For decades I have been creating art in circles surrounded by squared edges. When I first made this type of work it was in the mid-1970’s. The circle was most often represented by an apple inside a square or cube. At that time it represented to me the yin and yang, female and male complements to our lives and our characters. The apple was an Eve figure, soft, female, curious, playful and seductive. The boxes were the rules, the male, the limitations, the protection and the containment of her attributes.
Apples in Boxes – A pointillist drawing in ink on paper. c1970’s
I have recently returned to this theme but using flowers from my garden as the subjects rather than apples. It feels so calming to me when I create these voluptuous rounded floral paintings. This peony was the first in a series of exploring again the circle in a square imagery so I named it “Centering” because that is how I feel towards these works. I find my centering in two places, in my studio and in my garden. They completely complement each other, one provided by nature and one in interpreting that vision.
There is a difference between the imagery of then and now. These flowers, though they are encompassed in a square format canvas, they are not contained. They are bursting through the limitations of frame, of edges, of inhibition. They are positive and empowered by their form and by their explosive color. They are neither shy nor retiring. They declare themselves as having established their own space. They are declaring themselves as individuals.
The flowers I create in my studio with brush and canvas speak to me beyond their intricacy of form, color, ruffles and swirls. LIke everyone else they initially attract me with the way the color changes as the light graces their outer curves and when it delicately enters their inner recesses, their intimacy. The edges of petals dance like ballerina skirts bouncing in the breeze. Their edges are fluted, scalloped, curved and splayed defining their differences and embracing their similarities of purpose.
I love the architecture of flowers, not just how they grow on their stems, their height, their leaves and their unique outward appearance. I concentrate on the inner architecture of their center parts, the configurations of their pistils and stamens, their anthers laden with pollen. Quite frankly, these flowers are built to seduce their pollinators. The birds and the bees but also the billions of bugs who help by rolling in their pollen to feast and to share and to help create the next generation to grace the earth.
Flowers speak to me of our universe. Our purpose. Our endurance. Each flower is an individual with its own color, shape and form. It’s own choices of community, culture and companionship. It’s own needs for climate, food and water for sustenance. But we all share our need to survive, another season, another year, another generation.
Whether I am among the flowers in my garden or the flowers in my studio, I embrace our diversity and our commonalities. All these flowers in soil or on canvas speak beyond themselves, they’re ideas and thoughts beyond just the visual. They speak to the interior of our purpose and our minds. They are us.
Not until I studied botany and viewed flower structures under magnifying glasses and microscopes did I really appreciate their magnificence. As a life-long gardener I looked at and created landscapes, matching groups of plants to be seen from a distance, blending distant views of overall colors and shapes. Matching seasons and cultivation needs, heights and spreads contributing to the designs I created in gardens and on canvas in my landscape paintings.
A rainbow of colors in a friend’s May garden. Photo by Mary Ahern.
But that aha moment of peering dramatically close to the parts of a flower opened a whole new world of vision and contemplation for me.
By painting my flowers overly large and entirely out of scale from the real world, I try to bring that same sense of awe to my viewers. Show them something of what I see. I try to create for them their own aha moment of joy and wonder to take on their journey.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Professor Louis Finkelstein, the Art Department Chairman abruptly walked out on me at my senior thesis show when I mentioned that I was about to be a single mom declaring it to be impossible that I could also be an Artist. He previously had offered to sponsor me to the notable, Robert Pincus-Witten for a Whitney Museum Graduate Fellowship program but suddenly I was anathema. That event took my breath away for quite some time until I began to gather the pieces of me that felt flayed and strewn to the wind.
So what did I do to salvage my heart and soul? Since 4 years of art school didn’t train me for anything remotely connected with making a living, I knew I needed more education. I also found out that if you worked at a college your tuition was free. So I made a list of colleges I wanted to attend & found a job in the career services office at Barnard College. During my lunch hours, I attended computer programming classes at Columbia School of Engineering. Going from such intense right brain to left brain work was so difficult it often physically hurt.
Barnard at the time was a bastion of feminism and my boss, Martha Green guided me and untold numbers of other women into successful and rewarding careers based upon skills which, I for one did not know I had. She recognized in me untapped horizons and restored my confidence.
Mary Ahern demonstrating the Chyron Chameleon electronic paint system 1986 at the Cablevision television studio in Woodbury New York
From the support and direction I received from the women surrounding me at Barnard, I launched my career into sales, because that’s where the money was, and computers, because that’s where the future was. I zig-zagged my career in computers over the years to capitalize on my Fine Arts degree by selling computer graphics equipment to the creative departments in the television broadcast and industries. My art helped me sell those systems.
So here I am, still painting, still an Artist, proud of having supported and raised my sons on my own. Now I work every day in my studio surrounded by the gardens I created that inspire my Art.
I kept my eyes and ears open and when one mentor slammed the door another mentor opened it for me so I could charge through. Success is the sweetest revenge. Thank you Martha!
Pincus-Witten, the art critic, curator, historian, author and individual who in 1971 coined the term, “Postminimalism” has died. It reminded me of a brush with greatness that never happened for me. Let me explain.
During my college years in the 1970’s in the Queens College art department program in New York, I was expressing myself with the same underlying emotional & intellectual content in a variety of mediums. It was a time of the emergence of feminism for me and the search for self. An awakening of the world I lived in, was raised in and thought I understood.
I entered this program as an older student at the age of 27, married with two young children. Needless to say, I didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the much younger student body. Most of my creative work, rather than using the studios on campus, was done at home in my own studio/dining room after I put my sons to bed in the evening. This actually freed me to create more independently than I might otherwise have done.
I followed my own muse. I created sculptures and assemblages using acrylic boxes, clear fishing line, minimalism inspired grids, feminine but painful masses of pink fiberglass insulation. I used distorting mirrors, bindings, weavings of ropes/cords/threads in numerical sequencing. I painted windows where the panes of glass protected or imprisoned using the gridded mullions in defined mathematical ratios. I used graphite, pastel, cut paper & photography to explore my own body landscape and journey of discovery.
All my work at that time explored the balance of male/female, pain/protection, enclosure/exclusion, geometry/biomorphism, math/chaos. One side of me embraced the rigidity, consistency and comfort I found in minimalism but the other part of me was rebelling against those very same norms.
At my senior thesis show, all my work was on display, my sculpture, my drawings, paintings, assemblage, photography and my written papers. Years of independent thought, exploration and interpretation.
Louis Finkelstein was my advisor, a professor I had never met before nor taken a class with but a very prominent and influential person in the NYC art community of which I longed to be a part. He spent a great deal of time viewing my work, reading my papers and asking me questions of motivations & process.
He was impressed by my work. He told me that he said he was going to introduce me to Pincus-Witten and propose me for an independent studio fellowship offered by the Whitney Museum of Art. I was itching all over with the prickles of joy.
And then the ax fell. I mentioned to Prof. Finkelstein that I was in the process of a divorce and just straightening out the details because I had two small children.
Without one further question put to me, without one opportunity for me to elaborate, Finkelstein stood up from his stool (and here is where my memory is a little bit muddy) said either, “A divorced woman can’t be an artist” or “A divorced mother can’t be an artist”. And he walked out of my life taking with him my dreams of ever meeting Robert Pincus-Witten.
My muse, is my garden. Other gardens as well, but my garden in particular. I move in it, feel it, and hear the breezes whisper through it. I watch the lighting during the day as it slides over and around the textured surfaces.
These Fire Flame Peonies bloom in my garden each year in May at the same time as the color matching azalea.
Lighting so different on days with sun and with clouds. Lighting in the spring with the bright yellow greens of optimistic new growth and lighting by the fall with ambers & tans of a lived life. Morning light offers tender ambiance while afternoon colors not only light the scene from a different direction, the colors are deeper and warmer.
My garden brings consciousness and meaning to me. It keeps me grounded. The ephemeral beauty of an unfertilized blossom studied up close with magnifiers and macro lenses is a representation of a miracle. The world of possibility. The beginning of a story I represent in my Art. I walk through my garden gathering ideas. Stories I want to tell. Suggested ideas I want to convey.
In my garden I spend time designing the landscape or I spend time closely and intimately with a singular specimen at a particular stage of growth. In my studio I may paint a vignette or a full landscape view of a part of the garden I’ve designed, or I may choose to paint a small portion of one flower that has moved me. The minute miracle. This is my work. Outdoors and indoors. These are the stories I tell. This is my Art.
I was asked to do an informational interview by Misty Swan who is working on her college Art degree. Here are her questions and my responses. This interview was done via email.
Please state your name, the name of your business, city and state you live in, and your profession.
Name: Mary Ahern
Business names: Mary Ahern Artist, Reimagined Memories, Fine Art for the Garden and ondesign.com, a website design business.
Place: Northport NY.
Profession: Professional Artist
How long have you been pursuing photography and painting?
I began painting & photography in the mid-1970’s.
What excites you the most about photography and painting?
Creating something out of thin air that no one else had ever seen in the same way that I had.
How much training and education have you received in your field?
I graduated with a BA in Fine Arts from Queens College in NY in 1980. During the 70’s, Feminist Art work was on the rise as was Photo-Realism along with many other avant-garde styles. Most of my professors had studios in SOHO, which at the time was the center of the NY art scene. We were encouraged to frequent the galleries, set up interviews with artists and critics and generally be involved in some way with the art scene.
After college, and not wanting to starve, I built a career selling computer graphics platforms to the TV broadcast & production industries. In order to sell this technology I had to learn all the graphics & electronic paint systems . Training was provided on the job but I brought my Art background with me.
Because of my love of gardens and flowers in 2000 I earned an AAS degree in Ornamental Horticulture exactly twenty years after my BA in Fine Art.
To brush up on my drawing skills I returned to school for a 2 year diploma/certification in Botanical Illustration from the New York Botanical Garden graduating in 2004
A week never goes by that I don’t take an online webinar in either painting, software or marketing. I have taken so many webinars & seminars over many, many years that it’s too hard to count. I believe in life-long learning.
In 2015 I took a 1 year mentorship program in portrait painting from an artist like myself who is based in Louisiana. He pushed me out of my comfort zone to paint people. There is always more to learn, to grow, to expand.
How did you choose your field of photography and painting?
I don’t really understand the question. Do you really choose a field of painting style or does it choose you? My work has evolved as I evolved.
How has the field of photography and painting changed since you started?
This question is really answerable in a dissertation, but here is a snippet.
I believe that technology has changed the field of photography the most. With the introduction of digital cameras the access to photography has reached a greater cohort of people. Mobile phone cameras have grown the accumulation of images exponentially but not necessarily artistically. The bar has been lowered to what the general public assumes is Art.
The field of painting has been less affected by the introduction of electronic paint systems since they, up until now at least, are still not in general use. Also, all the same rules of painting apply to digital as to traditional. It is just another medium in which to work.
What are the most important skills to have in order to be successful in this field?
I am a great communicator, a salesperson, a marketing person. If I didn’t have these skills my Art would accumulate in my closets.
What do you dislike about this field?
I dislike that many potential clients undervalue our work since they have the insane belief that we paint for fun and relaxation. Those are the ones that don’t understand the difference between a Professional Artist and a person who paints as a hobby.
What is your most interesting photo shoot or painting?
I am always drawn to my garden for inspiration. The closer I paint the flowers the better. The colors are rich, the forms are voluptuous, the textures challenging.
What are the things that keep you passionate and motivated in your field?
I constantly reach to learn more. A week never goes by that I don’t learn something new or refresh my knowledge base. I read Art books, I take webinars, I read Art blogs, I go to Art Shows & museums. I am always in a learning mode.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone entering this field of work?
One thing I was never taught in Art school was how to make a living from my Art. I used my own mental creativity to zig and zag myself into a career in the visual arts.
It is very rare for painters and photographers to make a really decent living from just the narrow vision of what they view as their Art. I had to step outside of my comfort zone in order to support my family but because I did it creatively, I was able to maintain a career with a tangential relationship to the Arts & also maintain a working studio.
As Artists we are creative people. Living creatively doesn’t mean that one has to be a starving Artist. In fact by thinking creatively and widely, you can have a profitable & emotionally fulfilled career. Enjoy!
I finally bit the bullet and bought a new car to replace my 1996 Nissan Pathfinder with 200,010 miles on it. I called her my gardening car since I could pack so many plants in her. She also carried my Art to many, many Art Festivals over the years. By giving her up I felt almost the same sense of mourning as I did when I lost 4 trees in my woodland garden to Hurricane Sandy. This car had carried my Art and me safely throughout six states worth of Art Festivals
1996 Nissan Pathfinder pulling my trailer filled with Art to one of many Art Festivals
But it was time. The rust, the rattles, the pervading sense of being stranded somewhere if the trusty ‘ole car decided to bite the bullet. It was very hard to find the right replacement vehicle. I took tape measuring to all the dealerships in search of the perfect match. To my dismay I discovered that all the SUV’s have been pumped up on steroids since I was last in the market. Too many rows of seats and driving around in a McMansion didn’t hold appeal for me.
After much searching I finally choose a RAV4 by Toyota. It fit the dimensions of my large paintings but wasn’t too over sized for day to day driving. So I’ve downsized slightly in order to have a fully flat surface for transporting plants & Art. The back seat is a bench style while most of the larger ones have bucket style seats.
Oh, and I was able to get it in green. Not a color offered very frequently anymore. One of the things that was a big pleasant surprise since I hadn’t had a new car in decades, was all the new technology built into cars nowadays. The new toys helped with the sorrowful transition I felt on abandoning my old friend.
My RAV4 holding an entire Art Exhibition of 32 Paintings.
Rocket screaming energy propels me from a watery grave.
Into the Red-Orange Sky.
Personal Writing by Mary Ahern, May 15, 1978
Illustration: Oil painting with digital overlays in Photoshop.
“The Red-Orange Sky” is the first painting I ever made. It was before I went to college to study art. I was taking Wednesday evening art classes at the YMCA near where I was living in Queens Village. Circa 1974.
The Digital additions for illustration purposes were made in Photoshop November 16, 2013.