Interview by Rick J. Delanty
A new feature for CAC and Orange County Chapter members is the “Member of the Month” profile with talented and dedicated artists who live and work in Orange County. Artists interviewed by Rick J. Delanty, artist and CAC member, will be featured bi-monthly on the CAC Facebook and will have their profiles emailed to all Orange County Chapter members. Artists will benefit from this closer look into the artist’s thought process, working methods, and perspective on art, as will collectors. Please enjoy our fifth interview in this series with “Member of the Month” MARY ASLIN!
A unique sensitivity and appreciation for life, people, and all manner of growing things is the inspiration for Mary Aslin’s pastels and oil paintings. Her professionalism as a career artist is matched by her commitment to creating artworks of illumination that evoke deep feelings of romance, nostalgia, and wonder. www.maryaslin.com . –RJD
One must ask, “Am I an artist by virtue of the externals, or am I truly an artist?”
BIO BRIEF: Mary is a native of the Northwest, having lived in Oregon and Washington, then Wyoming growing up. As an adult, she moved to Minnesota for two years, returned to the northwest for a time, then moved to California seven years ago. Her grandmother was her first painting teacher, and her uncle was a plein air painter in watercolor before “plein air” was a popular term. Even though Mary didn’t realize one could make a career in the arts, she still pursued her desire to practice her art at University of Washington, but was disillusioned by the art instruction within the department. So she opted for a degree in Geography with a specialization in cartography, to be able to have an income-producing job in graphic art.
After her marriage, and with a growing family, Mary decided to pick up her fine art direction again with an oil painting class, and then moved on to watercolor. Others noticed her developing skills, and she was asked to do a few portrait and pet commissions, as well as invited to be the resident artist at a local gallery. In Minnesota, she had the opportunity to complete a large trompe l’oeil mural, and an 18 by 40-foot theater backdrop. She continued to attend life drawing sessions whenever possible, and moved to working in pastel. Reading continually, and painting en plein air and still lifes as time allowed, she dreamed of moving into a career as a professional artist.
A job opportunity for her husband provided that opportunity. Laguna Beach would be their new home when they moved to California, and Mary in 2006 committed herself to be a full time artist. Workshops with Meadow Gist at the Watts Atelier, Mark Kang O'Higgins at the Gage Academy, Ned Mueller, Kenn Backhaus, Alex Powers, Gil Dellinger, Jerry Stitt, and Teresa Saia provided her with professional background and a storehouse of technique. Being “passionate, driven, and emotive,” as Mary describes herself, impelled her to personal growth as a professional.
She opened with participation for two years in the Art-A-Fair starting in the summer after moving to Laguna Beach, and then at Sawdust Festival for two years. An array of awards describe Mary’s arc into the world of the professional, conferred by the the Northwest Pastel Society, the International Association of Pastel Societies, the “Pastel Journal,” Richeson Pastels Online, Fine Art Studio online, and many other shows and competitions. In 2009, Mary was juried into the Festival of Arts, and is now opening her fifth year at the Festival, with life-size figures and florals in pastel.
Chemers Gallery represents her work locally, and she teaches workshops during the year, one in the fall and another in the spring, with mentored day-long classes in between. Mary is a Signature member of the Pastel Society of America and the Northwest Pastel Society. The International Association of Pastel Societies has honored Mary as a Master Circle member, and she is an Associate artist member of the California Art Club. She resides with her husband in Laguna Beach, and is expanding her studio space there.
Leeward Shores, Windward Dreams, Pastel, 56 x 44
RJD : Here are excerpts from my interview conducted at Mary Aslin’s studio in Laguna Beach last month.
RJD: What does “being an artist” mean to you?
MA: Irving Shapiro said, “Don’t call yourself an artist. Let others name you that. ‘Artist’ is a title of great weight.” That being said, practically every breath I take after looking after my family is devoted to the study of art and painting. Being an artist for me is the point where craft ends—or is a given—and imagination and expressing emotion with that craft begins. And that takes practice and training: I’ve heard it said that an artist is a person with a sketchbook attached.
RJD: What is the difference between “art” and “craft?”
MA: “Art” is more about the creator of the work; “craft” is more about the artwork itself. I believe that “craft” is something that can be “perfected” and replicated in an objective sense. “Art” has a craft element to it, for sure, but is a one-time expression, never to be repeated. I would like each creative experience to be self-contained, dealing with my own sensitivity in each piece, and attempting to heighten that sensitivity in the next. In its truest sense, an artist has to be alert to everything that is happening around her, not just to the making of an object. In crafting a piece, the result is measurable, there is a specific, repeatable process, and the result is quantifiable. With art, every creation, creative process and result yields a brand new experience.
RJD: Do you “draw” or “paint” with pastels, and is there any reason for making a distinction?
MA: I agree with Thea Burns, author of The Invention of Pastel Painting: pastels are paintings when the artist uses the technique of blending—physically or optically--in a fundamental way as part of the technical process. Well, I should clarify. Thea Burns isn't that specific with respect to blending, per se. That is my “take-away” after speaking with Nancy Yocco, curator of works on paper at the Getty Museum, with reference to this book. Here is what author Thea Burns says: “The difference between chalk drawing and pastel painting is an aesthetic not a formal one, with the aesthetic understood as grounded in social function and technical response”. I think she means that the development of pastels in the later 17th century gave rise to more “painterly” effects...whether blended or not. The white and red and black chalks—common mediums at the time--yielded a more “linear” look to a drawing, The development of pastel pigments and a fuller range of colors gave rise to a the idea of pastels works as paintings. Nancy Yocco said that it is the way that pastels are used that give a result that could be called painting, and she implied that blending—physical or optical—is part of that. (Edgar Degas and Sally Strand use optical blending; Quentin de la Tour and I employ physical blending). Pastels, the way I use them, are paintings. I blend the pigments physically—a lot-- on the surface. The result is not unlike blended oil, watercolor, or acrylic paint. A more linear approach would possible be considered “ drawing,” but one could “draw” with dry brush in the fluid mediums as well, and they would look more like drawings. The distinction is not in the medium itself, but the way in which it is used.
RJD: Could you share a bit about your particular process of creating a pastel painting?
MA: I never had a class in pastel, even though I had classes in watercolor and oil. I developed my own process through experimentation. How many colors?—the more the better! I don’t do much with hard pastels, except for scumbling in the later stages, over soft pastel. Even in the initial blocking in and under-layers, I use soft pastels, wiping off unwanted or excess pastel with a brush. I do start with an under-painting of a thin layer of pigment for the large shapes, and then build up successive layers toward the small shapes. That process is identical to the use of other media, which respects the “fat-over-lean” principle. However, I will break rules in the favor of making a stronger design. If you’re being dogmatic about “the rules,” inspiration will not be the dominant voice in your head during the creative process.
RJD: What makes a strong design for you? For example, as a juror what criteria to you consider in identifying “successful” artworks?
I use three criteria for judging art that I have managed, in my way, to systematize. I evaluate each artist’s Application (the technique and craft demonstrated in the work); the Analytical (design elements present in the composition, balance, rhythm, symmetry, movement, etc.); and the Aesthetic, the emotional-provoking quality of the work—this is very subjective. But when an artwork truly possesses excellence in all three of these, it’s a great piece. Also, I ask myself, “Has the artist said something about themselves, an idea, or what they are observing?”
RJD: What advice would you give to artists who have had their artworks rejected in juried shows?
Sharing one’s art is significant to sustaining the soul of an artist. The reason for creating art—or entering juried shows, for that matter—is the passion to create. And entering shows isn’t the only way to share your art, or “test” its quality. One can give children lessons, donate to favorite charities, and contribute skills in a volunteer effort. If you do enter a show, remember why you entered—because you had a passion to create something special, and share it. At the very least, entering that show will probably help you to learn more about yourself and your art. Irwin Greenberg, artist and art educator once said, “Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with yourself.” Know that you are an artist not by virtue of the externals, but because you have a powerful and overwhelming need to create.
RJD: What inspired you to make the decision to begin selling your work eight years ago?
MA: When I was teaching ESL (English as a second language) in Seattle, and doing house and pet commissions, I was fitting my artwork in around creating income and raising out triplets. When I sold my first painting for $150, I was absolutely shocked! I had been thinking that that was hardly possible! When we moved to Laguna Beach, and our three children were off to college, I realized that I had this providential opportunity to attempt to become a full-time working artist. I knew I would never have a better chance, so I jumped in and began giving it my all.
Grace Under Pressure, Pastel, 19 x 25
RJD: What are the greatest challenges you face in marketing your work?
MA: It’s managing social media. I really dislike self-promotion. I love to learn about the accomplishments of my fellow artists, but I am reluctant to announce my own. The alternative, though, is to remain anonymous—one has to get the word out somehow. And it is different to “cast the net,” so to speak, to potential collectors who are outside the circle of traditional followers of your art-making. I’ve decided that the most effective way I can do that is through the use of an email newsletter: I send one out every four to six weeks; I have a business Facebook page and have a profile on “Linked In”; and I have a blog on my website. The newsletter keeps my client list abreast of new work and upcoming events, and provides me with client inquiries; Facebook and Linked In both provide a way for collectors, students and artists to contact me; and the blog keeps me in the eyes and minds of my audience. I also print books and postcards to provide more information to anyone interested in my work.
RJD: What benefits have you experienced—both professionally and personally—from exhibiting during the last five years at the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts?
MA: They’re too numerous to list! The most significant practical benefit is financial: I have been able to sell a lot of my work there, which is still actually rather pleasantly shocking to me. I was raised to be pragmatic and practical, and I never dreamed that I could realize some financial gain in selling my work. The most personal and deeply gratifying benefit is the people I have been privileged to meet, in buyers, appreciators, and fellow artists. I continue to be in awe of it all.
RJD: Describe the process of publishing a book about your artworks.
MA: I publish a book for every year, which represents my current body of work, and which is ready at the outset of the Festival of Arts each summer. I use an online design and publishing company called Blurb.com. I enjoy using this design site because each page is editable and a creative and enjoyable process. The benefits of doing this yearly is that it helps me to remember to document what I am doing, keeps my digital files organized, and helps me to think of my work in a step-by-step process, that clarifies my own art-making for myself, and helps me to better teach what I am doing in workshops. Most of all, summarizing my body of work each year helps me to more clearly define who I am and where I am going. Writing is incredibly hard work (like painting!), but I enjoy it in preparation for my book , newsletter, and blog. Having to come up with words to describe what I do and why is educational for me, too!
RJD: What do you read to keep yourself informed and inspired?
MA: I read anything and everything about art, artists, and art history. Right now I’m reading Memory Drawing—Perceptual Training and Recall, by Darren Rousar, about sharpening the mind through exercises to remember fleeting impressions as one draws from life. This was a subject familiar to Da Vinci, Corot, Degas, Whistler and Inness. Biographies about Impressionists of the 1800’s, and artists of the 1600’s and 1700’s who were first using pastels for portraits are favorite reading subjects from history. My influences, Joaquin Sorolla, Amelie Saurel, and Maurice Quentin de la Tour make great research subjects. I also enjoy reading about contemporary artists such as Daniel Gerhartz, Rose Frantzen, and Harley Brown. For periodicals, I read the “Pastel Journal,”, “Artist’s Magazine,” and “Plein Air Magazine” to see learn about different artists’ processes and how they interpret subject matter. I also read “Fine Art Connoisseur” and “Art and Architecture” magazines. Also, I read Robert Genn’s Twice-weekly Newsletters, the “Gurney Journey,” and “Fine Art Views” online. I just finished reading Man with a Blue Scarf, on Sitting for a Portrait with Lucian Freud, by Martin Gayford.
RJD: Any advice for young or emerging artists?
MA: Draw and paint all subjects from life in all kinds of light. Read about all kinds of art-making and the lives of artists. Keep a journal of ideas that relate to what you want to say as an artist. Be prepared to spend lots of time alone, so you can hear your own voice. Understand that you will have to work harder than you can possibly imagine, but that your passion will be your source of energy. Stay current on technology. Join art groups that offer opportunities and challenges to paint. Cultivate a mailing list of those who are interested in your work. Finally, show gratitude to those who have helped you along the way.
During my visit to Mary’s studio, light flooded the well-organized drawing and painting room located in Laguna Canyon. It occurred to me that the mood in the studio was like the genteel, soft and pleasantly warm mood of Mary’s pastel paintings, and that the studio had the same open, well-lit and positive vibe that are hallmarks of the artist’s own personality. To experience a Mary Aslin artwork is to experience an affirmation of light and life. --RJD
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