Mary Iselin

My subject matter nearly always relates to my life here on our farm, or on the geography and culture within the Monadnock Area. I have very deep roots, and am very connected to place. 

Q&A with Mary Iselin

How would you describe your background?

Drawing and painting was always my main go-to activity in life. I had very supportive parents–My Dad got me my first oil paints when I was six!–and a high school program far more intense than most college programs. Planning a college career in art, I switched schools at the last moment to study creative writing. This turned out to be direct intervention by some guardian angel, since the school where I was slated to attend turned out to be switching its focus to nothing but abstraction. I had several students later in life who told me it had taken them literally decades to dare pick up a brush again, after that school. But I painted all through the college years, took time off when my kids were small, and then returned to art, with the help of an immensely supportive husband. (He even built me a studio!). 

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Though I have painted through out my life, I had a pretty hard time accepting that it was okay to be an “artist”: I didn’t deserve to, I should be out saving the world, etc, etc, etc. Most artists know this drill! It is part of our growth, to admit that an artist is what we are. I only accepted the fact when I realized that, if I didn’t, I would die a bitter, bitter old woman.

What would surprise people to learn about you?

I don’t know. I have such a big mouth, probably nothing would be much of a surprise!  

How would you describe your art to someone who has never seen it?

I think of myself as a colorist. When painting outside, I tend very much towards impressionism, though my studio work tends to be tighter. My subject matter nearly always relates to my life here on our farm, or on the geography and culture within the Monadnock Area. I have very deep roots, and am very connected to place. I also allow myself to do “fantasy” work every few years. I love doing this, and have a hard time stopping once I get going!  Farm animals–draft horses, sheep, cows–often form the “still life” motifs for my paintings. That is, the painting IS about the horses or sheep, but the motif also allows me to explore light, color, atmosphere, texture, etc, just as a bowl of apples allows a still life painter to explore these things.

What achievements in the area of art are you proudest of?

I really love it when I win People’s Choice awards, such as at various shows or in the local papers, because it means I am connecting with the average viewer. I also feel pretty strongly about the triannual agricultural-based exhibits a small group of us have been putting on, usually at the Jaffrey Civic Center, for the last twenty years, because these exhibits highlight the parts of the Monadnock area–farms, forests, gardens–that are so important to me. This is not another Nashua! We need to protect this area’s rural culture and its heritage.  That is why so many artists have historically gravitated here.

How would you describe your art process?

If I am working plein air, I just go out there and paint. Working outside, you have to just do it. There is little time to over-think anything.

In the studio, I tend to work in a series. I will do underpaintings of several (five to seven-ish) paintings of a certain motif or idea that I want to explore. This helps me overcome the terror that arises when  faced with a pristine canvas with only one shot at getting it “right.” This way, I have five to seven tries! Also, once those underpaintings are fixed, it is less scary to start every day. It makes it easier to overcome the knowledge that the floor needs washing, the laundry needs doing, etc. All artists, I think, can relate to this. It is the first strokes in a long-gestating idea that are the hardest.

What is your usual studio/working day like?

It differs so much, depending what is going on with the farm, grandkids, etc. In theory, I work up here in the studio every day. It helps to have a goal–an upcoming show–to keep me focused and on track. The housework, of course, is the sacrifice. I always say that I look forward to a chance to clean the way most women look forward to a cruise!

What is the most delightful part of your life outside of work?

My grandkids! Also my sheep and my horses. And the garden. I have had to rein back on these outdoor pursuits a bit lately, but I still love them. And I absolutely love to read. (If it’s a novel, though, I have to read the end first, to make sure it won’t be sad!)