In-Sync with… Mary Porterfield (Interview)

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Perceiving the Brink 2010 Oil on wood panel 48″ x 68″

Welcome back to a new season of In-Sync interviews. I took a little break from this activity to focus on a few other things. I am excited to kick off a new season of interviews with no other than Chicago-based artist Mary Porterfield.  Recently, I had an opportunity to spend some time alone with her work during her solo show at the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago. I found it to be touching, introspective and loaded with personal symbolism. The paintings invited me to a process of discovery and revelation. Check out this interview and get In-Sync with Mary Porterfield.

SG: Where did you go to school (college/university) and what degree did you receive?  

MP: After receiving my BS in Biology from Doane College in Crete, NE, I received my MS in Occupational Therapy from Washington University in St. Louis. While working full time as a therapist, I took night and weekend art classes at St. Louis Community College. I was later accepted to Arizona State University, where I received my MFA in 2002.

SG: What is the best advice you ever received? 

MP: Start thinking of the painter you want to be in 10 years and start working that way now.

What is your website?

Pool of Life 2009 Oil on wood panel 54" x 46"
Pool of Life
Oil on wood panel
54″ x 46″

SG: What is your work about? 

MP: For the past 15 years, my painting has questioned what makes an act heroic, in the midst of daunting circumstances. These circumstances are influenced by my work as an occupational therapist, as I struggle to accept what I cannot change. I reference landscapes and acts of nature to represent those situations that are both literally and figuratively beyond my control. Hundreds of multi-figured narratives are amassed within the scene, reflecting my struggle to affect the uncontrollable. The layered allegories are an attempt to ask and resolve: Does it take more courage to be selfless or self-seeking? Is it better to deny futility or accept what cannot be changed? If need is warranted, but not wanted, should it be abandoned? Through the dichotomous nature of the work, my intention is to create a philosophical discussion regarding the struggle to live a compassionate life.

SG: What are the essentials you must have in your studio/creative space (tools, objects, photos, etc.)? My studio includes many folders containing hundreds of photos that with nature, religion, health/injury, danger, struggle and survival. Because of my work in healthcare, I continually search for visual means to question what makes an act heroic. That act often portrays elderly figures being pulled or hoisted to a seemingly safer location. Yet, sometimes, the figures are frozen in place, not wanting to be moved. At other times, the elderly are brought to a location of equal peril. To describe these scenes, I frequently return to photographs I took of my grandmother seated in a wheelchair or lying supine. The images of younger girls hoisting or pulling the elderly are based upon photographs of those struggling to tow, carry or move forward. For this, I’ve used images of swimmers, rock/tree climbers, in addition to photos of friends attempting to pull a rope forward with weight attached. My recent landscapes reference hundreds of photographs I took 2 years ago of Glacier National Park in Montana. I find being surrounded by numerous images triggers my imagination for future paintings and new narratives, while raising other questions that I hope subsequent work can resolve.

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Released and Compelled 2014 Oil on panel 36″ x 50″

SG: What is your biggest challenge as a contemporary artist?

MP: For me, I find it most difficult to find balance between my day jobs and art. I work three days a week at a hospital and teach two days a week at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago. With my paintings often taking several hundred hours to complete, I have to use my time off work carefully, so I can create the images I want to make. Yet, at the same time, I’m so grateful to have two jobs that inform my artwork. My hospital job inspires my painting on many levels, while my work at NEIU enables me to make stronger artistic choices when constructing an image. I’ve found it helpful to think of my day jobs as key elements to live the ultimate profession as an artist.

SG: What’s next for you (use the answer to promote any upcoming exhibits, projects, travels, residencies, etc)?

MP: I’m excited to continue working on my current series, entitled Dual Natures that was recently exhibited at the Packer Schopf Gallery.  Also, next year I plan to visit Alaska. After such a positive experience visiting Glacier National Park, I can only imagine how Alaska’s powerful and beautiful landscape might influence my work.

SG: In your opinion, what does the art world look like in the future?

MP: What I find exciting is that so much work is now available online, allowing me to learn from artists who might not be exhibiting in local venues. Thanks to the internet, I can often find work that’s idiosyncratic, personal or outside the veins of current trends. Yet, at the same time, some galleries have struggled to survive as the accessibility of online art has increased and the strength of economy has decreased. It concerns me that more galleries may close, as technological and fiscal changes continue. My hope is that some venues can withstand these shifts, allowing the public continued opportunities to engage with artists and their work.

SG: PERSONAL RECOMMENDATIONS Book… Movie or documentary…

MP: Without a doubt, my favorite documentary is “In the Realms of the Unreal,” by director Jessica Yu. The film tells the story of the outsider artist Henry Darger, who created a 15,000 page fantasy novel and some 300 watercolor and collage drawings. The work was discovered in 1972, when Henry left his Lincoln Park apartment to spend his remaining days in a nursing home. The documentary beautifully describes the unique and intimate work Henry created without an audience. To me, the idea of creating work for your own eyes is incredibly inspiring, often yielding images that are both idiosyncratic and fearless. In describing his difficult life and the imaginary world he created, the documentary is extremely moving.

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The Foresters 2013 Oil on panel 36″ x 50″
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Fields of Departure 2014 Oil on panel 36″ x 50″
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Between Here and Elsewhere 2014 Oil on panel 44″ x 48″



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