S&H editor Ben Nussbaum talked with Portland-based artist Mary Alayne Thomas about Santa Fe, moodiness, querencia, and more.
Ben Nussbaum: Your parents were both professional artists. So when you were young, the idea of making a living doing art wasn’t far-fetched.
Mary Alayne Thomas: For me, art is the central unifying feature of my entire
life. Growing up, my family traveled across the U.S. participating in arts and crafts shows. I spent days at a time wandering the isles of the fair. Each booth seemed like a magical doorway into another world.
I was very lucky to be exposed to so many varieties of personal expression through creating as a child, and those experiences taught me how to use art as a way of seeing and understanding the world. There was never a time in my life when I thought I would do something other than art as a living.
Ben: You grew up in Santa Fe and now you live in Portland. That’s interesting to me because I think of Santa Fe as a place where artists move to.
Mary: Santa Fe was so very different from the impressions I got of the rest of the world through books, television, and the like. I wanted to see what brick houses and wooden buildings and skyscrapers looked like, and to play drums in a punk band (something that probably wasn’t going to happen for me in Santa Fe).
Of course, looking back, I am so glad I had the unique childhood that I did, roaming the mesas and asequias, and chasing lizards through the high desert landscape. I return to Santa Fe several times a year—it is very much a part of me. There is a word used often there—querencia, which means that you are one with the soil and earth of a place, of your home.
Ben: Who are the women in the paintings? Models, friends?
Mary: It’s funny, every time I meet someone new, I end up asking them to pose for me. In addition to self-portraits, a lot of the women in my paintings are friends or acquaintances, and I’ve also used models from a drawing class I attend here in Portland.
I have a stack of clippings that I’ve amassed over the last 10 years that must be three feet high of faces that call out to me. I look for a stillness on the outside and an inner radiance—you know it when you see it.
Ben: Why no men?
Despite all the different faces in my paintings, they are all ultimately reflections of me. They often even end up looking like me. These paintings are representations of my own thoughts, feelings, and dreams. So naturally they are more feminine.
Ben: They’re beautiful women, but to my eyes they’re not objects of beauty to be admired, as women are often depicted.
Mary: Yes, I’m so glad that comes across.
So much of my work is dedicated to enriching the standard, or traditional, images of womanhood. Women are so interesting, just layer upon layer of depth, but they’re often portrayed in a way that is so flat and simple.
Ben: I might describe your paintings as moody, in the sense of having a mood or being unified by an emotional tenor.
Mary: I work hard to cultivate that moodiness, so I’m glad you can see it.
My process isn’t always intellectual or aesthetic. Sometimes it just involves a deep dive into my own thoughts and feelings. Often I get started on a piece with some details in mind, but it’s really more of a dreamy vision … much more vivid in its emotional tone than in technicalities.
I hope to capture the essence of that feeling with my drawing, but I think it’s the play of color and use of encaustic that really gives my paintings a dreamy quality.
Thomas paints in watercolor and then applies encaustic, a type of wax that has been used by artists for thousands of years.
“Although I sometimes describe the watercolor painting as the embodiment of the vision, and the encaustic as the window one looks through into the vision, I don’t really see encaustic and watercolor as separate entities in my paintings. They are specifically chosen elements that come together to create a final unified piece.”