Briefly describe the work you do.
I’m a painter, working mostly in oil on panel and gouache on paper. I make representational paintings that are based (at least initially) on found images from the internet. My work has a strong sociological bent: each series is focused on a particular American subculture or experience. Most recently, I’ve been dealing with themes of class and leisure, focusing on everyday experiences that raise questions about privilege and satisfaction. The last series is about the recreational activities of well-to-do urbanites, depicting the weekend pastimes of the professional, gentrifying class. I like to think of myself as making contemporary genre paintings.
I paint in a fairly time-consuming and tightly resolved style, in part, as a response to the ephemeral nature of my source images, most of which are jpeg snapshots that I find on photo-sharing sites. Psychological studies have found that taking snapshots impairs our memories of the events that we are recording. The democratization of digital photography has made producing an image easy and nearly costless, creating a flood of visual documentation in which individual moments are quickly lost or forgotten. Painting, meanwhile, is a completely different sort of medium – one that is based on memory and repetition, focus and intentionality. The tension between those two kinds of image-making is part of what I’m interested in exploring in the work. What makes a moment worth looking at, thinking about, remembering?
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I live in the Northeast but I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. We were a blue-/pink-collar family, more or less straight-up-the-middle class, but through scrimping and scholarships I was able to go to very expensive schools from a fairly early age. The details of my life were very different from those of my peers’ lives. I think most people who find themselves in those kinds of fish-out-of-water environments become pretty careful social observers. I’m sure that experience has a lot to do with the content of my work.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio is in the house where I live with my family, so it’s not necessarily a private oasis. A lot of my studio time happens during the work week, which is fairly solitary but also includes a lot of interruptions for household stuff. I also need to get some work in while family is around, especially when I have looming deadlines. That has been a difficult adjustment for me, since I’m terrible at multi-tasking and hate showing or talking about work in progress – even if it’s just with little kids. But I think I’m getting better. (My family might disagree).
I have a somewhat different studio set-up than a traditional painting studio. I do most of my preparatory work on the computer and often paint directly from studies on the screen, so it’s sort of a hybrid digital/painting space. I spend a lot of time looking at monitors. I usually have one screen opened to Photoshop and one running a podcast or TV show. It’s a pretty awful setup, ergonomically speaking, but it’s the most efficient way for me to work.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
All the non-solitary aspects of an artist’s life, going to openings and talks and making connections, are still a little unnatural for me. I’ve been out of school and showing my work for quite a while, but these are still things that I have to remind myself to do. It’s not a unique role, exactly, but it’s an uneasy one.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
Before I had kids, my peak hours were from 8pm-1am. That would still be my preference if I could manage it, but I need more sleep than that that would allow. So I work primarily during school hours on my non-teaching days, and in the evening after the kids go to bed when I can manage it.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Because I work in series, change happens in periodic episodes of upheaval. Five years isn’t very long for someone who paints as slowly as I do. It’s basically one series back. But I just finished a body of work and am getting ready to start a new one, so I’m about to make some big changes – I just don’t quite know what they are yet.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
My work is driven more by narrative issues than formal ones, so people and events around me have a huge impact on the stories that come into the images. Obviously, all painters are engaged in a dialog with art history and with other painters, which is part of the appeal of the medium. But I also spend a lot of time thinking about the look on the face of person in front of me in the Trader Joe’s line, and how I might be able to make a painting about it. That’s at least as important to the work I make as what I see when I go to the Barnes Collection.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
My fantasy job is to be a professional pop-culture blogger.
Mary Henderson lives and works in Philadelphia, PA. She received her BA in Fine Arts from Amherst College in Amherst, MA, and her MFA in Painting from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. Recent exhibitions include “Sunday Paintings,” (Lyons Wier Gallery, New York, NY), “We Could Be Heroes: The Mythology of Monsters and Heroes in Contemporary Art, The Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT), and “As Others See Us” (Brattleboro Museum, Brattleboro, VT). Her work has been featured in Harper’s Magazine, New American Paintings and Art in America, among other publications. She teaches painting at St. Joseph’s University (Philadelphia, PA) and is represented by Lyons Wier Gallery (New York, NY).
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.