Encountering Mary Donlan’s art happened through serendipity. I was checking out the bulletin board at an art supply store in Nanaimo, BC when her bright art business cards grabbed my eye.
Mary is an artist who is greatly drawn to abstract art and to gardening. Born in Ontario, she spent eight wonderful years on Vancouver Island before returning to Ontario.
Her wildly colourful gestural paintings suffuse me with a sense of satisfaction, as if I’ve just eaten the most incredible dinner. And her words and thoughts about art-making in this interview, they’ve given me all sorts of ideas.
I hope you will get as much from her too.
What does it mean to be an artist? And when did you know you were an artist (aka intensely creative person)?
To me, being an artist means that I have the freedom to explore issues that are of interest to me.
To identify as an artist is to give yourself a freedom. The freedom to follow scents rather than paths, to follow the ‘the sweet fragrance that comes from the garden’ (Rumi). I feel that in my life, instead of being concerned exclusively with the concrete world, I can instead pursue an inner voice, and concern myself with paint and colour, and the concerns and issues of a visual artist.
The earliest memory I have of being an artist happened when I was 4 or 5 years old. My kindergarten teacher gave us pieces of paper that fitted together to make a flatbed truck. After we pasted the truck together we could put on the back of it whatever we wanted. So we drew, coloured and cut out our stuff – I think I made bunnies. Then we laid out our creations on the floor and walked around looking at each others work.
I remember climbing up onto a table and having possibly my first altered consciousness experience. I was transfixed, mesmerized, gob smacked, and I thought ‘Wow! Isn’t art terrific!’ So certainly art making had a very strong effect on me at an early age.
When you consider the words luscious and soulful, what comes to mind? Is there anyone you know who embodies these traits? When do you feel luscious and soulful?
The painting I like best is luscious painting – Monet, Twombly, Mitchell – artists who work with the painterly qualities of paint. There are young abstract painters today who are not afraid to use sparkles and iridescent paint. I admire that. There is a school of thought in the art world that paintings shouldn’t be pretty or ‘retinal’. But I don’t buy that. I think there is lots of room in the art world for painting that is luscious, thick and beautiful.
As for the soul, I have always thought that art came from a spiritual place. One of my favourite books when I was a student was Kandinsky’s ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’.
In the last few years I have been trying to get a conscious awareness of my soul. I was raised in the Catholic faith and even though I don’t subscribe to organized religion, I have to say that I buy into the idea of the soul. I feel that art goes well when in soul. Bringing my soul into consciousness is something I work on.
Again from Rumi: ‘When you do things from your soul, a river moves though you. Freshness and a deep joy are the signs.’
What do you love most about your body? And why?
I use my body a lot when I paint. My painting is very physical.
I like to scribble wildly, scrape my canvasses, slather on the paint. I love that my body still has a lot of strength and stamina. I am also grateful for manual dexterity which I need a lot of with my current work.
I think of my body as being my car and my mind and soul are in the car driving around and looking at the world.
What brings you pleasure? What senses are involved?
I would say that I seek pleasure from all my senses.
Music brings me immense pleasure. I think music is one of our greatest achievements. I love all kinds of music – Mozart, Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, lute, flute, piano, harp music. What would we do without good music?
I also like laughing with friends and family.
Good food and coffee can’t be beat.
I love the smell of lavender and walking in gardens.
Good books – I always have a good read on the go. Good movies and cozy TV mystery series.
A walk in the forest on a Sunday morning. Walking in a deep fog and smelling the forest and the ocean! And the sun! I love the sun!
If you had to throw a dinner and dance party how would you do it?
I’d throw a party in the summer when we could spill out into the garden. I’d email and call everyone I knew well and I’d invite them. I’d buy the snack food and refreshments at cool, local shops. I’d let my husband take care of the music as he’s really good at selecting lively music.
Then I’d let it all unfold and join in the dance!
Where/how do you find your inspiration?
I find inspiration in the landscape, the garden and in forests.
However, I mainly get inspiration from other people’s art. When I see art that is created by an artist being true to themselves then I feel inspired to do the same.
I like to meet artists. I like to visit art galleries, look at art magazines and do studio tours as well as troll the Internet. I think it is important to make art if for no other reason than it could inspire someone else to make art as well.
What does your ideal day look like?
My ideal day is a sunny day.
First I feed and cuddle the cat. Over breakfast I give myself time to read for at least an hour. I like to read the Globe and Mail, whatever novel I’ve got on the go or an artist’s interview available from one of the many online resources.
Then I take my coffee and biscottis down into my studio.
I have a daily practice. Even when I was working full time I made it into the studio for an hour each morning and tried to get back for another hour in the evening. I try to not let a day go by without making something or reading about art.
I really like to cook an evening meal and then spend the evening with my husband. Usually an evening walk is on the agenda.
What advice would you give to your younger self? How old is she when she needs this advice?
I don’t usually communicate with my younger self. I’m afraid that that might lead to regret and dissatisfaction – a road I’d rather not go down.
But, if I did communicate with my younger self, I would tell myself not to worry so much. I am a bit of a worrier. I would also tell myself to enjoy myself more – no criticism. And to travel more.
I have met art students and I advise them, although I probably shouldn’t but I do it anyway – I advise them to work in the arts community – art galleries, art schools, arts organizations, cultural groups, publishing houses – to surround themselves with creative people.
There will always be challenges in whatever kind of work you do but creative challenges open you up while dull routine shuts you down.
What is your most treasured possession? Tell a little story about it.
I used to have a little white Mazda Miatta that I drove around the Island but I sold it this summer. I cried. I loved that car. Otherwise, I’m not a real possessive person.
Sure, I have lots of nice stuff but I’m not particularly attached to it. If there was a fire at our place I’d grab my husband, cat, my purse and laptop – so I suppose my laptop is my most treasured possession. I have everything on that thing – pictures, movies, music, art, website, financial papers – everything! I’d be really sorry to lose it.
Inspired resources: please share any heart-moving soul-shaking artistry or experiences that have moved you. What made it so powerful?
I like to attend readings, lectures, etc. given by visiting artists, writers and social activists like Gloria Steinem. I like to see them and listen to them.
I like to read artist’s interviews – there are many online resources – the MOMA oral history program and the Archives of American Art. The interview with William Ronald, one of my favourite Canadian ab ex painters is extremely entertaining and informative.
I like to listen to Bill Bissett’s chants – they come from another world.
After graduating from art school I spent a month in Montreal looking for the legacy of the Automatistes. It was such a great experience. I hope to be able to give myself more self-directed residencies in the future.
Who are your favourite artists? And why?
I have many favourite artists, too many to list.
Cy Twombly has been my absolute favourite of them all for the past decade. I love artists who put themselves physically into their work. I love Leonard Cohen for the same reason. He puts himself heart and soul into his music and concerts – never afraid to be anything but himself.
Emily Carr! I have known about Emily Carr for most of my life. I was introduced to her writings when I was 18 and loved them. When I moved to Vancouver Island and traveled around the back roads then I really fell in love with her. She was so brave and not just artistically but socially and physically, travel wise. I have a picture of her at the entrance of my studio with the words ‘Noli Timerre’ written below.
I hope to steer my art away from safe territory.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you and your art?
For decades I practiced my art with an intellectual program – I developed all sorts of concepts and metaphors. Now I am putting all that to the side, taking these previous thought processes for granted and I am fore-fronting an art for art’s sake aesthetic.
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” Rumi
Thank you for listening to me!
ps – to see more great interviews, check out the Lusciously and Soulfully interview series.
pps – if you know of any amazing artists I can profile in this series, send me an e-mail with their info – I’m always excited to connect with interesting amazing creatives.