Inside the Studio

Mary Elizabeth Peterson

What are the major themes you pursue in your work?

I don’t think the larger themes in art really change, but our world is changing and becoming more technological. My art definitely picks up on that reality. My paintings come out of a near death experience (that’s a long story) at a time when painting itself is supposedly grinding to a halt.

But I still think painting is full of possibility. My art questions how we experience nature in our increasingly technological lives. I’m trying to counter the passive intake of images that bombard us everyday by enticing the viewer to engage with one of my painted assimilations of nature.

What was the best advice given to you as an artist?

I’ve probably learned the most from Chuck Close. I keep a copy of a magazine interview he gave, and in it he said: “You have to deal with your fear. The part of you that says, “I can’t do it.” You have to rely on the part of you that says, “well, it doesn’t look that bad.” And you have to keep going even though there are no guarantees. I’ve found a way to work for myself by breaking everything down to the smallest pieces. I just keep working at each little unit of the painting. Today I’ll do what I did yesterday, and tomorrow I’ll do what I did today, the same thing in pieces small enough for me to handle.”

I’ve put that philosophy into practice in my art and my daily life. Another thing I learned from Chuck Close is to purge your mind of references to other people. You have to put yourself into the position to be you on the canvas. That’s vitally important.

Prefer to work with music or in silence?

I’m always listening to music! I like it all: classical, folk, jazz, bluegrass, soul, R&B, rap, punk, blues, ska … I make different stations for myself on Apple Music. That’s some great technology! I learn a lot from listening to music while I work, I really do. Miles Davis said “it takes a long time to sound like yourself” and it’s so true. I come from a realist background but I am an abstract painter by choice. There’s no still life set up in the corner that I can look at and check my work against. I have to make my own, one-of- a-kind art so I need good music and courage!

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?

It has to be Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom at Arles (c.1889 version). The first time I saw it in person was at the Yale Museum. I was 9 years old and beginning oil painting lessons. It was in an ornate gilt frame and I was barely tall enough to look at it fully or properly. I knew next to nothing about art or technique then but I was mesmerised. It literally sent chills up and down my spine. Oh to paint like that, to use color like that, it produced such a reaction like that!

Who are your favorite writers?

E. O. Wilson and William Faulkner are my hands-down favorites. I also love reading anything by social scientist Brene Brown. Her TED Talk is amazing! Every summer I read the same two books: The Art Spirit by Robert Henri and Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.