July 31, 2017

Spotlight: Mara B.

We talked to visual artist Mara B. about color, collaborations,
and the detachment from traditional style.

Last week, I met with visual artist Mara B. near her new Brooklyn apartment at a coffee shop. She recently moved to the city from Portland, and I had discovered her work just as she was traveling east. It had been raining earlier, but we still sat outside in the damp backyard while we drank our tea. The coffee shop was Mara’s choice, and the backyard was a perfect mess of soggy wooden benches, tables, and tree canopies--a small sanctuary often hard to come by in Brooklyn. When I entered the shop, Mara was already there chatting up the only two other people there, wearing baggy quilted black pants and kelly green Old Skool Vans. She gave off a tremendous first impression: Mara was clearly a small woman with a big personality, just like her work. Colorful, deliberate, and silly. I liked her immediately.

In the backyard, we chatted about her art and moving to the city, and how growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, she wasn’t exposed to art that she felt meaningful connections with. Growing up, she had associated art with a more traditional style, and had never really considered pursuing art professionally. But with the emergence of artists showcasing their work on platforms like Instagram, she had started to feel more connected. Today, Mara’s work has transcended boundaries and traditional techniques, using unique shapes and colors in candid, playful ways. She has found herself collaborating with other artists, creating large paintings on canvas, and designing products for shops.

The Le Sigh: Hey Mara! When I stumbled across your paintings, I became obsessed. So I’m really excited and happy to interview you, and meet you finally. How would you describe your work in one sentence/phrase?

Mara: A deliberate mess of colors representing an average existence.

Ghost Luvers III, Acrylic on canvas, 3x3ft, 2017

TLS: When did you start painting? How has growing up in Minnesota influenced (or lacked influence) on your paintings? 

Mara: I painted as a kid, along with trying every other medium that was accessible. In high school, I took a painting class that my brother was in and I started applying all the other things I had learned: like perspective and lighting from photography, form and shape from ceramics, and shading and lines from drawing day camp classes I had taken when I was like 10. I just was finally able to apply all of these little things I had been collecting.

I painted without imagining what that meant for me in the future--I had already lost the idea of being an artist. I wasn’t exposed to any artists [in Minnesota] or really anyone doing something they were passionate about as an adult. This was before Instagram, and I just didn’t know other people were creating and working and living. I didn’t know that balance existed. I really started painting with direction and goals in 2013.

TLS: So you don’t have any academic background with art or art history. Is that intentional? How does that play itself out?

Mara: I didn’t have an interest in school and wasn’t even aware of the value of art history. So my lack of knowledge about artists was unintentional, and now it’s intentional. If an artist’s life is interesting to me or I really feel connected I might research them a bit, but generally I try and just find inspiration from non-painter resources to stay as authentic as possible in my own creations. I have wished at times I could’ve gone to art school for the resources but ultimately I don’t think I would’ve taken full advantage of school. And being self taught has made my art what it is today.

Illustration for Modest Shape, Gouache on watercolor paper, 8x10in, 2017

TLS: So how does your art break the rules of techniques, or how do you create your own techniques?

Mara: It’s a funny mix: the techniques and rules I learned were minimal and were taught to me as a kid, but once I got them down and realized I was just making art that any other technically skilled artist could make, I wanted to detach completely from them. And then where I lack in technique and understanding rules, I just freestyle until I figured out a method that works for me to get the result I want. Yeah, and sometimes never knowing how to do something to begin with makes for a more interesting result, also sometimes just way more difficult.

TLS: When I went to the Picasso museum in Barcelona, I was really fascinated by how traditional his style was at first, focusing on dark landscapes, and how you can see his style evolve over time, because the museum is chronological. I see that in your work--from your more traditional portraits to your abstract, colorful pieces now. How and what has influenced your style-change over time?

Mara: I made a bunch of fauvist style portraits and had a show of them as my first “I’m an artist” moment. After that show I was like, I’m never painting a portrait like this again, this isn’t me and I need to make authentic art that feels like me. I knew art could be full of emotion and passion and meaning and stories and I had none of that with those pieces.

I love the chronological gallery arrangement. I feel Picasso on that detachment from traditional work and becoming more minimal and childish and free. It’s important to me to try and create with less accuracy and less focus on literal, realistic bits.  I now prefer a free flow of line, odd shapes, and organic movements.

Gouache on watercolor paper, 5x7in, 2017

TLS: The aesthetic of your work seems to fit with your personality and your look as well. I recently saw the Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. It was an interesting exhibit because it was not only about her artwork, but also about her lifestyle and fashion, and how she incorporated notions of the Arts and Crafts movement into her lifestyle, making sure each part of her life was deliberate and curated. Do you have any thoughts on that, or how this might be relevant to your lifestyle?

Mara: I love that and I love her. It makes sense as a visual artist to have your art and life be seamless. I want to feel creative not just when I’m painting. I like things to look and feel intentional and special. I also have that feeling a lot where I like something, but think I could make it more suited to me, or there’s something I’m imagining and can’t find [in stores], so I end up making a lot of things. I don’t identify as a craft maker but I’m definitely crafty.

TLS: You also design consumable products, like recently you posted a t-shirt that you collaborated on with Millie + Lou. What do you like or not like about designing products versus creating tactile, more authentic pieces?

Mara: Collaborating is a real special thing! I’m glad to design something that gets to be printed in different forms. It makes my art more accessible; I think a lot of our generation feels more comfortable investing in consumables and wearables rather than traditional art. Designing one print is just that, one design. [On the other hand,] I like to paint or sew or anything original because that’s where I’m really creating and developing.

Canvas two piece and photograph collaboration with Alexis Paschal, 2017

TLS: Can you talk a little about your most recent Instagram exercise where you had people send you photos of themselves?

Mara: Yeah! Since being in NY I’ve been just taking time to practice. I wanted various poses to play with, color and shape, so I just asked the people of Instagram if they’d send me a photo of them feeling good. I got a lot of responses. We love to see anything revolving ourselves, like I think people were interested in seeing how someone else perceives them or would create them in painting form. I like that it was interactive too, it’s like a lot of little collaborations.

TLS: Who are some of favorite visual artists right now?

Mara: Anne Truitt, Andre Lanskoy, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, Milton Avery, Bob Thompson

TLS: What are you listening to?

Mara: I like to listen to Bad Bad Not Good when I’m painting. I’m always listening to Devendra Banhart, tUnE-yArDs, and Sylvan Esso.

TLS: I recently started painting and I find it really therapeutic. Do you have any advice for people who are new painters? For instance, what are some of your favorite activities to build your painting or drawing skills?

Mara: [Try a] therapeutic exercise, choosing a palette and doing 10 sketches in 10 minutes, just letting your brush move as wildly as you want, intuitively using colors.

To build skills, sketch the same thing multiple times in a variety of detail and style. Sketch things you wouldn’t normally--landscapes, portraits, figures, still lifes... Understanding your own style can come from applying it to a variety of themes.

Acrylic painted paper collage varnished on panel, 8x8in, 2016

You can find more of Mara's work on her website, marabarringer.com, and her Instagram, @mara_________b.

Hayley Cranberry, The Le Sigh's new Arts Editor. Hayley is a chronically ill artist and urban planner who loves crunching on veggies and playing with dachshunds.