Mary Courtney

Artist of the Month January 2015

To kick off the new year, we've got a brand new Artist of the Month. This time, it's Mary Courtney. Here, we've asked her a few questions about her work. 

When and how did your interest in art develop?

Like most children, I loved to draw and make stories, but this stopped when the self-consciousness of puberty stepped in. It didn’t surface again until I was in my mid-forties after illness laid me low and I became beyond being bothered about thoughts of, “Is it any good?” or “Am I any good?”. I had the time then and the absolute desire and need to write poems and to draw, and that has stayed with me. 

What influences your art?

Words, people, images, feelings, memories, ideas; all colliding with dreams and half-awake states.

What process do you go through when you are creating a piece (starting with the initial idea)?

For what I’m working on at the moment I’ll fact-find about a particular element by googling and reading. Then I’ll wait for the personality of the element to take shape and for a word combination that suits its traits to form (say “Hydrogen Hooligan”, or “Chlorine the Killer Clean” or “Argon Can’t be Arsed”). This usually happens when I wake up in the morning. Then the name of the character will suggest what it looks like - and when I have a rough idea of this I’ll get the pen out and start drawing. For Argon that involved looking at images of fortresses and castles and airbags and people lying down, as well as remembering quotes from Marlene Dietrich, like “I want to be alone”. 

Which artists, if any, have you drawn inspiration from?

Children’s drawings on fridge doors held up with blue tac is my favourite kind of art. I like line drawings without tone, such as cartoons, cave paintings, the line drawings on vases from Ancient Greece, diagrams of machines, old anatomy masters such as Vesalius, and medieval imagery such as the beasts from the Bestiary. The Surrealist’s idea of automatic drawing as a way of tapping into the unconscious and bringing accidents into the creative process is appealing. And I love the colour and shapes and happiness making of Matisse and the strangeness and clutter of images in Hieronymus Bosch and Picasso’s Guernica.

Do you have a favourite piece? If so, which one and why?

Picasso’s Guernica has to be the one for me. It feels utterly emotionally true and compelling. The lack of actual realism gives it such edge. No horse exists like the one in this. And what a composition! The horror of war is beheld as a truth – and the simple lines give it the clarity of a child’s eyes, the clarity of a diagram and the clarity of a dissection. Amazing!

What do you hope the viewer gets from your work?

I don’t think of a viewer when I am writing a poem or making some art. I think it would be very inhibiting to be thinking about what other people think or might think. But when it is done there are two people I like to share the buzz of it with and I really enjoy that. People have their own particular tastes and ideas about what they like and don’t like and so I don’t have any hopes for what people might or might not get from art; mine or anyone else’s.  There is a freedom in that. Though of course it is a bonus if it brings a smile or an “I know that feeling”. 

What has been the highlight of your artistic career?

Whatever I happen to be making at the moment is the highlight! It is always whatever it is I’m doing at the moment. And what has captivated me over this past year and is likely to keep me going for at least another year or so, is a large drawing called “The Characters of the Elements”.

It is based on the elements in the known universe, the ones catalogued in the Periodic Table, and I’m imagining each as a personality based on its properties; inventing names and stories for each. Thus far I’ve drawn 22metresx1.5 metres and am on my third roll of paper.

Has being a part of Outside In been beneficial for you? If so, how?

I’ve had the chance to exhibit with Outside In and have been very glad about that. It has been a real boost and an unexpected delight. And it makes me feel like a real artist (whatever that is!) “Drop of Make up” was shown at Compton Verney and my “Dinner Book” at Tate Modern. There’s no way in the world that would have happened without Outside In. Thank you!

What is next for you as an artist?

More drawing! I’ve loads more to do. I guess also finding somewhere to exhibit my “Characters of the Elements”

Making some video clips of the characters with audios is another next step and probably that will mean hooking up with someone who has the knack and the know-how. I’ve been having a go myself and loving doing it but I’d be fascinated to see the characters animated and the whole cast brought to life on a screen. 

Click here to see more of Mary's work