The Black Forest of My Mind
In June the Lark & Key Gallery’s Wandering Landscape exhibition opened featuring new works by Portland-based artist Mary Alayne Thomas. We’ve always been enchanted by the ethereal nature of Mary’s watercolor and encaustic pieces ever since we first saw her work at the Lark & Key. Mary’s work is reminiscent of the Golden Age of illustration, and the artist has spent years working on her technique of layering gold leaf, India ink, pencil, and silkscreen in between watercolor and encaustic that gives the viewer a glimpse into her magical world.
When did your love of art begin?
When I was a child growing up in Santa Fe, I was raised by two working artists. My father was a ceramic artist, and my mother hand-dyed and wove Ikat wall hangings. My family traveled everywhere, showing their work at Arts and Crafts Fairs across the country. I spent my childhood wandering the aisles of the fairs (which always seemed vast and magical) shyly taking in the myriad of art forms, for days at a time. When home, I would sit at my father’s kick wheel watching him knead clay. I tried to use my mother’s loom when she was out and tangled her weaving into a giant knot. Art was a staple in our home, a necessity, and a way of life. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t drawing and covering everything in sight with illustrations. They littered the margins of my homework, and I eventually began to illustrate a children’s magazine at the age of 11. As a teenager, I began to haunt the art sections of the Santa Fe library, sitting in the aisle for hours pouring through the books, staring at the works of the great Masters. My parents treated me to watercolor lessons at 16, and I fell in love immediately, thrilled to find a means of expressing the ideas that had begun to culminate in my imagination. I have experimented with several other mediums over the years. But I always return to watercolor. Its versatility suits any style I attempt, and it feels entirely natural to me.
A Moment’s Rest
Did you go to art school or are you self-taught?
I studied Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico. However, I actually didn’t get any instruction there for the two mediums I most use (watercolor and encaustic), so I really consider myself to be self-taught. I began to paint with watercolor when I was very young (16). When I was in my early 20’s, I moved to Seattle. I came to know a lot of young artists, all in the experimental stages of early careers. Their work was very modern, unrefined, and felt new and exciting. It was at this time I was told about encaustic by a friend, and it sounded so amazing to me. It wasn’t for three more years that I finally gave it a try. The minute I dipped my brush into the honey-scented wax, I was hooked. It absolutely transformed my watercolors, creating a mystery, an instant atmosphere, a three-dimensional painting. I have been refining the technique for the past 10 years, and still find new ways to utilize the two mediums every day.
Do you have a particular color you like to use in your work?
I would never be able to narrow it down to one, or even 5 colors! I love them all.
North Valley Migration
We’ve seen encaustic pieces that have oil or acrylic artwork underneath, but your work is watercolor with encaustic. How does the process of adding encaustic over watercolor differ from other mediums?
When I glaze my finished watercolor with encaustic, the painting seems instantly transformed. The colors become a bit muted, and the waxy finish feels like a window from which you are viewing the painting. The paper is porous, and the wax can burn the delicate surface of the watercolor if it isn’t applied exactly right. Sometimes little bubble emanates throughout the layer of wax, or it pools into the wrong areas. It is a tricky process, but over time, I have come to see the wax as a living thing. By knowing its moods, you can (almost) make it do as you wish.
I love the fairytale nature of your paintings. What would you say is your greatest inspiration for your work?
When I was a child I lived in books and dreamed of other worlds, I ran rampant through the vast desert landscape that surrounded our little adobe house, imagining fantastic adventures that were more real to me than my actual life. My father has a huge garden that amazed me daily, from the growing leaves to the flowers and fruits, to the wildlife that flocked to it. Everything was a story to me, every butterfly was a visitor from another world, I could carry these worlds with me anywhere I was, and I still carry them to this day. I feel like every day holds the mysterious, the beautiful, and the strange deep within it. I take walks every morning, marveling over the changes that take place in nature moment by moment, even over the course of mere hours. Sustaining the environment is often on my mind, and I’ve tried recently to highlight how necessary the natural world is to our daily lives.
You feature animals, birds, insects, etc along with the figures into your pieces. What do you enjoy most about bringing the natural world into your work?
Some animals seem to carry with them a poetry, mythology deep within the collective consciousness. I tend to be drawn towards these animals (foxes, deer, bear, tigers, and owls to name a few) because they come loaded with meaning for hundreds of years. It helps to create a narrative. It is not uncommon to perceive tigers as ferocious and violent, in my paintings, I try to capture the serenity and feline playfulness. Often, the tiger seems charmed by the quietness of a garden or the gentleness of another creature. Playing with our preconceived notions creates a larger story. It is also my way of making peace. As I’ve become more concerned with the fragility of our environment and the precariousness of this moment in history, I try to create images that stress the importance of connection, both with our own wildness, and the wildness of the natural world.
Do you have a particular piece from the Wandering Landscape exhibition that was your favorite to create?
I really enjoyed creating pieces for my show Wandering Landscape. My purpose was to walk through time, recollecting impressions of my travels. I’ve had great luck to have been to many magical places. They are landscapes that hold a place in my heart, and I often turn to them in my daydreams. The paintings for my show were illustrated reflections of my meditations. Not landscapes in the traditional sense, but more “inner-scapes” tracking my thoughts and feelings on recent journeys. I hoped that viewers would be transported with me not necessarily to a specific place, but will wander with me through an inner landscape. The piece “She Held the Glacier to her Heart”, a depiction of my trip to Iceland, was especially fun to create. Iceland’s landscape is like nothing I had ever seen and contained an atmosphere that was otherworldly. I was most awed by my trip to a glacial lagoon. It was a fairly remote area, populated by Arctic fox and lupine. I was able to watch icebergs break free from the glacier, then watch, as they would float out to the arctic sea. I was struck by their dazzling blue. I felt as if each block of ice had its own personality, like people or animals. With every paint stroke I laid down, I was transported back to that solemn place.
She Held the Glacier to her Heart
Website: maryalaynethomas.com // Instagram: @maryalaynethomas // Facebook: Mary Alayne Thomas Art
Note: All of the photos of the artwork in this piece were provided by Mary Alayne Thomas.