In-Sync with… Mary Ellen Croteau (interview)

Sergio Gomez and Mary Ellen Croteau at Chicago’s Twelve. Garfield Park Conservatory. 2012

Today I start a series of short interview posts that I call “In-Sync with…”  They take a closer look at a variety of exciting contemporary artists and art professionals from Chicago and abroad. Read it, share it, enjoy it and get in-sync with Chicago artist Mary Ellen Croteau.  Do not miss her personal recommendations at the end of the interview.

I first met Mary Ellen a couple years ago during an event we were both invited to be panelists at the Chicago Cultural Center. I was fascinated by her Art On Armitage curatorial project. I have followed her work and have invited her to participate in projects I have curated for the Zhou B Art Center and the Garfield Park Conservatory.  She describes herself as an agitator but behind the scenes, she is a calmed, warm and forward thinking individual. Once you get to know her work, that’s it, you are in-synch with Mary Elen Croteau.


SG: What is your website?

SG: Where did you go to school  and what degree you received?
I received a BFA from University of Illinois at Chicago, an MFA from Rutgers University/Mason Gross.  I also attended SAIC for two years before transferring to UIC.

SG: Do you feel art school prepared you for the art career you have now?
UIC had a rigorous critique element, and that was important to learn how to defend my work, but the best training I got was as a member of the cooperative Artemisia Gallery.

SG: What are you working on and what inspires you right now?
Environmental destruction is what drives my work, which has always dealt with issues critical to our culture.  I am working with plastics waste, bags and bottle caps which are not recycled because it is not cost-effective.  I hope to make people think about how much trash they are adding to the environment, and maybe get them to use less and buy smarter.

SG: Describe your creative process.
I usually conceive of the project as a fully fleshed idea, working out logistics etc, in my head first.  I rarely sketch.  It’s all done in my head, and generally comes out looking exactly how I conceived it.

SG: What type of mental/practical activities do you do when facing a creative block?
I work on other things, not art.

SG: Do you find social media to be a distraction or an asset for you as an artist and how do you deal with it?
Both. It takes up an enormous amount of time, and demands more and more as time goes on.  How to balance this is my biggest problem.

SG: What is your biggest challenge as a contemporary artist?
Doing the business end of it, answering emails, dealing with image requests of a particular size or format drives me nuts.  Trying to find time to actually make art.

SG: How much does the art market influences your art production/output?
Not at all.  I do what I want and people can like it or not.

SG: What’s next for you?
I am taking artists who have shown in my window gallery to Supermarket, an artist-run art fair in Stockholm Sweden in February.  I have two upcoming exhibits at Illinois State Museum in Lockport and at Northwestern U,  and I am hoping to be awarded a residency in Kerry, Ireland.

self-portrait (titled CLOSE) made entirely of bottle caps. The piece measures 8 feet by 7 feet. No paint is used, except to delineate a few shadows where white board was showing through. In a few cases, the caps are trimmed in order to fit a tight space.


SG: What excites you about the local art scene?
I believe Chicago is one of the best places in the US to be an artist.  The opportunities to build your own career here are unparalleled. To get press, to show your work, to make connections.

SG: What is your take on the current emphasis on contemporary art fairs?
They are mostly a waste of time and money for the artists.  Most fairs exist to sell booths to artists.  The grand exception is Supermarket Art Fair in Stockholm, which is about the creativity and building connections across countries, not about sales (though I have sold more in Stockholm than in US for-profit fairs!) The cost is minimal because the Swedish government subsidizes it.

SG: Do you believe gallery representation today is as important as it has been in the past?
I’m sure it works for some artists, but not for most.  So it is up to us individually to find ways to present and market our art.  Cooperatives are a great alternative.


Book…  The Temple of Air by Chicago author Patricia Ann McNair.

Art movie or documentary… Women. Art. Revolution. (W.A.R.)

Art museum…  Detroit Institute of Art (DIA)

Contemporary artist (other than yourself)… Nationally: Sue Coe.   Locally: Alfonso Nieves Ruiz

Place to be inspired by…  Garfield Park Conservatory

One sentence advice for an art student…  Find community, or build it.

Chicago cafe/restaurant…  Manee Thai

YouTube video…

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