Rosalux artist Jim Hittinger talks with fellow Rosalux artist Mary Gibney about her artistic influences, a deep love of baseball, and the forbidden intrigue of the voyeur.
Did you want to be an artist your entire life or was it something that you came to later in your education? How did you envision your life as a working artist from the point of view of your younger self?
My younger self always wanted to “make things”. I had my first artistic frustration in kindergarten when my yarn hair portrait kept sticking to my fingers. I remember staying late to finish my picture, the kindergarten teacher hovering. And finally just gluing the yarn in an ugly way, just to be done. And feeling that I made something unbeautiful, but that was okay, because I had this strong feeling that it was important to just finish it, beauty be damned.
I also had encouragement from teachers who made a creative environment in their classes and made me feel like I could be an “artist”.
Was being an artist something that your family supported or understood? How did you define your path in reaction to their feelings?
My family had no artistic path, although my dad was a good draftsman and sketched in great detail the trains he saw growing up across from the railyard. He died young, but my mom was fine with my “career path”, as it was. I got a BFA from the U of MN, and quickly decided that I’d make a living by working at a day job that wasn’t connected to the art world and keep doing art as something I had to do for myself.
Who were the artists that inspired you as a young person? Were there particular works which you identified with or was it more of a general sense that you had about being creative?
I’m not sure I knew much about particular artists as a child, except big names like Picasso. I knew religious art from my Catholic childhood in the form of stained glass and paintings of The Saints in books. I liked the more interesting ones who were tortured in creative ways (St. Lawrence, toasted on an iron rack over a fire). Children’s book illustrations had an impact on me, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House & Katy and the Big Snow, Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, and Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats were some favorites.
Did you go to art school? Were there individuals who had an impact on your point of view as an artist during your education that you still think about, apply lessons from? Where do you feel your point of view occurred: school/ streets?
I got a BFA at the U of MN. David Feinberg taught color class and introduced me to Georgio Morandi, who I still love. It seemed radical that he could paint those chunky, almost detailess vases and pots, clustered together, in monotone colors, and make such a huge emotional impact. I also still think about what my painting teacher Hank Rowan would tell the class, “Know why you paint”. I am still working on that.
How did you go about the start of your career? Were you showing right away or did it take you a while to get that going? Did you establish a studio practice right off the bat, go to grad school, spend time in another career; what were the early days of your career all about?
I graduated from the U and thought I’d join the Women’s art collection WARM, but was rejected because perhaps my paintings at the time, which were landscapes mostly focused on color and shape, didn’t really show my feminist inclinations. So I started asking galleries for shows, or trying to get into group shows. A lot of here and there, this and that. I always had some sort of home studio situation wherever I lived, because I liked the handiness of being able to work whenever I felt like it. This was especially important after I had kids, to be able to fit art in around home life.
Did you meet other artists who helped along the way with your career? Did you find your way into a scene right away? What were the galleries/studios/shows that had the biggest influence on you and your career?
There was a big art/gallery scene around the Minneapolis warehouse district and the Wyman building. Thom Berry, Jon Oulman, Bockley were regular spots. Also Glen Hanson’s gallery next to the New French Bar, which was also a great artist hangout. Artist studios and art openings were the path to sports bars and nightclubs of the future.
When did you have the big moment that defined your point of view as an artist? Was it a flash of lightning or more of an organic evolution over time? When did you first become conscious of what made you unique as an artist and how did you react to that? Did you nurture and explore or run away from it?
For me it’s mostly the idea of persistence, sort of a stubbornness of I can do whatever I want. I have never felt comfortable with the idea of trying to impart a point of view or a message. I don’t really feel I have anything to tell a viewer with my art. Which is maybe why I’m attracted to “outsider” artists such as Noah Purifoy and Bill Traylor, who could make art of anything.
How would you describe your mature work to an outsider? Do you think about your audience much when you create your work?
I try not to think of an audience at all, because I’m really trying to get out a feeling or emotion and if I think about an audience reaction (is it “good”? Do they like it?) then what I make is going to be altered by self-judgement. I guess I’d tell someone who asked that I’m trying to convey emotion through paint or collage or watercolors or assembling objects.
What have been the biggest achievements for you both creatively and professionally? What drives you more, the creative ambitions in the studio or your professional goals?
I haven’t had a lot of professional achievements, in the form of grants or shows. There was a point where I wanted more control, so I started putting together my own shows at my friends’ bike shop/gallery. Then I could orchestrate the entire event, invite other artists to share the space (Noah Harmon, Jesse Draxler, Curtiss A’s amazing collages), have a big party and sell a bunch of work. Creative persistence drives me. In a weird way it’s the same feeling I had as a kindergartner; not wanting to give up on making something.
What are you working on right now? Is it a continuation of styles and themes that you have worked with in the past or are you trying out anything new? Do you place more value on taking risks or refining your work over time?
The longer I work the more interested I am in freshness, a gesture, taking what comes without overthinking. Following my instincts with less self-judgement. I’m working on a bunch of oddball stuff - some paintings of heads on cut-out canvas, small paintings on chunks of wood, paintings of vintage bodybuilders because I love to paint bodies. Some little paintings on metal sheeting, cut out in shapes of small plaques. And I’m experimenting with making little busts out of clay - more heads!
Who are artists that you look to for inspiration at this point in your career? Do you spend a lot of time checking out the work of your peers or are you more of a solitary artist? Where do you go to look at new work?
Favorite local galleries are SooVac, Hair and Nails, Bockley. Often the Walker or Mia just to wander around. I visit NYC regularly to see friends and look at art. Some amazing shows were The Keeper at the New Museum about obsessive collectors, Ragnar Kjeartansson’s sound and video installation The Visitors, Stanley Whitney at Harlem Studio Museum, Portuguese artist twin brothers OSGEMEOS street art and installations. Photographers too, especially William Eggleston and Alec Soth. Painters Nicole Eisenmann, Mamma Andersson and Jockum Nordstrom. Street artist/train painter Deuce 7. Esther Pearl Watson, who does descriptive paintings of childhood memories, including the flying saucer her father built in their backyard. Instagram has also been a fun way to look at artists I would never have known about otherwise.
What are your goals for the near future and long term? What have you found to be the most important lesson you have learned in your career in maintaining your studio practice? If you were financially independent, what would your next project be?
My goals are pretty much just to keep making things. If I had unlimited money I would get a bigger work space to try out larger projects and new materials. I would travel to see more gallery and street art all over the world. And maybe host some bike tours riding through alleys and edge neighborhoods in search of street art.
You've done a series of work about baseball, specifically Negro League baseball. As someone who is myself obsessed with baseball (a Detroit Tigers fan, unfortunately for me), I'm interested to know more about this. Have you always been a baseball fan? Is it safe to assume you're a Twins fan? Beyond your interest in the history of the game, do you still regularly watch and follow baseball?
I started painting the Negro League baseball players for a couple of reasons. First, I love baseball and the Negro League is interesting to me since so many of the players could have been stars in the major leagues had they been allowed to play. Yet they existed in a separate, vibrant world of their own. And second, I was always looking for high quality photographs to use for inspiration for portraits, and when I came across Ernest Withers's photos of the Memphis' Negro League team the Red Sox and their opponents I knew I hit the jackpot. Full body shots of players, on the field, posed catching, throwing, swinging the bat. And the ballpark itself, Martin's Stadium, with it's eye-catching ads of the times and scattered light poles and water tower in the distance seemed made to be used as a backdrop.
Ernest Withers took photos of the Memphis music scene too, published in another great book, Memphis Blues Again. I also recommend "They Played for the Love of the Game", by Frank M. White, about black baseball in Minnesota - town leagues, bar teams, park and school teams.
And yes, I am a Twins fan! I’ve loved baseball since about age 11. Other girls wanted to own a horse or to marry Paul McCartney, I had a baseball obsession. I memorized all the players numbers and cut out each day’s Twins game recaps and American League standings from the Minneapolis Star and glued them into an olive green school notebook. My favorite Twins were Rod Carew and a low-hitting fast-running good-fielding shortstop named, Jackie Hernandez, Number 24.
I still follow baseball, and listen to the games on the radio, where it isn’t as obvious that there are no fans in the stands. If I had a collection of voices from the past, Twins announcers Herb Carneal and especially cigar-smoking Halsey Hall would be in my top 10. Tough to be a Tigers fan but they were brutal against the Twins when Denny McLain was pitching.
I'm also drawn to your series called "Staged," which are images of people performing illusions and magic tricks. You're taking inspiration from these staged spectacles, then amplifying that in a way by painting them - it's a sort of re-staging of these already staged events, and adds another layer to the illusion by being painted - you're offering us your own illusion of what's happening. Could you talk a little bit about this body of work?
I came across an old book of Magic Patents for Stage Illusions, which intrigued me. Because there were so many of them, and classified into areas such as “Mirror Illusions”, “Levitation”, etc. “Illusion Device, Sawing a Woman”, 1923, “Illusion Apparatus, “Haunted Swing” 1893, and “Detached Head” 1921. Who knew how important these were for vaudeville and theater of the late 19th and early 20th century that there was an entire book of nothing but patent numbers?
I was and am fascinated by the idea of stage illusions and the act of presenting them to an audience. I’m attracted to historical photos from freak and carnival shows, where people with “abnormal” bodies could make a living by being looked at. The little people at the bottom in the stage scenes I painted are of the lookers, participating in the spectacle. In my mind was the idea of being looked at, presented to the crowd, in a voyeuristic and sort of forbidden way.
In the same sense I like body parts, heads, medical dissections. Seeing a human being as a collection of parts.
You tend to work in series - you pick a subject, or a theme, then do dozens of paintings of that subject or theme, then move on to another. What is it about these various series that fascinate you, that makes you obsess over a given topic?
I’m attracted to multiples of all kinds, one of something is just a thing, but a bunch of things is a collection. My paintings are a way of collecting images and manipulating them by giving them a feeling. I get an idea (mugshot portraits, painting of household objects, doll heads) and then want to make as many of them as possible before I feel “done”.
There is a lot of formal, aesthetic variety in your work. Some of your paintings are very traditionally representational, while others are loose and abstract. What informs your approach to making these different bodies work? Does the subject inform your formal approach to creating an image, or the other way around?
When I’m painting a portrait of a face of some person who I found in a book of Weegee street scenes or a mugshot photo or patrons of the Terminal bar in NYC, I want to paint them more formally. Maybe not exactly, but trying to capture something of their humanity and give them a life force. I often feel I know these strangers after painting them, and that my paintings are also kind of a self-portrait. Which is why I don’t want to paint people I know, because I would feel a pressure to make them look “correct”. I’m going for a feeling more than a representation.
Lately however I’ve been wanting to be as loose as possible, to just accept what comes out, even if it’s not what I thought it would look like when I had the original idea. Often I get to a place in a painting, where it’s almost good/finished, and then realize it has to be fucked up to give it life. Turn it upside down, paint over portions, go in another direction. My biggest fear is not a bad painting, but a mediocre one.
Mary Gibney is an artist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She works with collage, painting, monoprints, mixed media, and is currently experimenting with new materials, assembling objects, painting shaped canvases and playing with watercolors. Recurrent themes in her work are portraits, heads, faces, and body parts. Mary received her BFA from the University of Minnesota and is a member of Rosalux Gallery, an artist collective based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.