Mary Sexton: Small Works, Small Wonders.
Updated: May 7, 2021
How often have we heard that good things come in small packages? The next question is "How small is small?" In the case of the painting here, Sapowet Trees, we have a painting of a beautiful, full landscape done in a 2.5" x 3.5" space. The scene itself is simple and of the type one might see while out for a drive. Like much of what passes by our car windows as scenery, it leaves a pleasant feeling and a vague general memory. However, when considering this tiny painting, something else happens. The viewer gets drawn into the detail that takes this condensation of a grand landscape and translates it into such a small space. Beyond the first glance, which shows the basic elements of grasses, three trees, and distant mountains, comes a focus on the textured surface of the painting. The grainy quality of it adds more life to this piece than if it were painted upon a smooth surface. The foreground has the feeling of tiny pebbles. The grasses made of spots and short strokes of color are more accurately rough and bushy. The pine trees bristle with needles. The pale violet mountains have clumps of blue mist floating before them. The texture in that blue helps make the clouds distinct from the hills behind them. The patch of vacant land in front of the trees carries a touch of the violet of the mountains but is largely the same color as the sky. The unity created by this repetition of color draws the whole composition together. This unity is reinforced by the continuation of the textured surface right into the sky. All this magic exists in just a 2.5" x 3.5" space that draws you in to take a good look, because it is so tiny.
"I have painted a lot of pastels in the 2.5x3.5 size range, really small! I enjoy painting small, and there is also something very charming about small paintings. You have to get up close to really see them, so the viewer tends to be a bit more involved." Mary Sexton
Ah ha! We begin to see the artist's plan here: take what is large and make it small to make us look at it carefully. Yet within that Alice-in-Wonderland dislocation of perception and size, we still find all of the elements needed for a good landscape composition. The trees and grasses flow in a pleasing line across the page and curve down to the right corner. The mountains in the distance start small on the right and show more of themselves as they flow to the left. It is an opposite movement to that of the land in the foreground which goes from small to large moving from left to right. This harmonious balance is enhanced by the trees, the height of which draws heaven and earth together.
"I am particularly drawn to landscape." Mary Sexton
Though Sexton also paints still lifes, human figures, and animal portraits, it seems that landscape holds a special place in her heart. The painting above, which is in oils rather than pastels, takes full advantage of the smooth surface of the canvas just as the previous painting made full use of the textured surface. This one has more the feeling of an abstract. Though the different areas of color are made into recognizable landscape shapes, the smoothness of the handling and lack of fine detail allow the eye to move over the painting and flow from field of color to field of color. Yes, there are hills and a few trees, water, areas of grass, and a pale violet sky. However, the lack of detail lets the eye enjoy roaming up and down the painting from one soft color combination to another. Everything flows in harmony without any super specific detail to jar the eye and disturb the peaceful mood.
"I was drawing before I could read or write. I have always been an artist, always thought of myself as an artist, and never really thought about what it meant to be an artist." Mary Sexton
Sexton grew up traveling. Her father was in the Army, so the family got to experience France, Hawaii, and Japan before settling in Maryland. She has vivid memories of the vineyards of France, the hills of Oahu, and the colorful kimonos of Japan. With a mother who was an artist, it was quite natural for Sexton to experience the museums in Baltimore and in Washington, D.C., where she especially loved the Corcoran Collection. She says, "I was so impressed by the breath of what can be considered art." As a young woman, she graduated from art school and moved to New York where she continued her studies at the Art Students League, School of Visual Arts, Pratt, and the American Museum of Natural History. Her career was in the field of graphic design, and she has been a graphic designer/art director since 1978. However in 2005 she took up oil painting again and added pastels to that repertoire in 2010.
"I learned that everything is art. Creativity and art are everywhere." Mary Sexton
One can certainly see that attitude in the painting above, Outstanding in the Field. The subject matter is the most common of common, a cow and a wayward looking tree in a field of grass with a strip of water, a hint of distant flat land, and a sky. The grasses are a scrumble of colors with hints of texture. The greenest of them run near the water's edge. That flat land in the distance is just a suggestion that comes after a strip of blue water. Beyond the water and land rises a hazy white fading to pale blue sky. Again the areas of color are fields of color with only subtle distinctions. It could easily be turned into an abstract color field painting. However, the cow is very distinct, and it is looking at the viewer. The tree leans toward the cow like an old friend eager for a conversation. This 6" x 12" pastel replicates in a small space the vastness of the field in which the cow and tree are appropriately much smaller than the space they are in; however, being as distinctly rendered as they are, they draw us into the picture. Finally, of course, is the chuckle we have when reading the play on words that is the title.
While living in New York City, Sexton used to go after hours to sketch the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History. She honed her abilities to capture the essence of wild creatures and arrange them in a plausible natural habitat. In this piece in pastel, the turn of the bird's head leaves him looking at the viewer. His bright yellow and sharp black and white colors render him distinct from his surroundings of beige, and off-white weeds. The touches of green of the remaining grasses indicate that this is a field to which autumn has come.
"I’ve also learned that making art is a journey, one that never ends. There’s always something else to see, to paint, to practice. I’m always trying to improve, striving to achieve what I see in my head." Mary Sexton
Sexton constantly experiments, even working with a limited palette to see if she can recreate a scene. The Zorn Palette of ivory black, yellow ochre, cadmium red light (or medium) and titantium white provides her with the basics to create this road through a landscape of field, forest, and mountains. Though the palette is limited, Sexton uses the contrasts contained within it to present the viewer with the needed variety to represent this varied landscape. In particular the handling of the forest, with some of the trees sporting autumn colors while others retain their evergreen, tells the story of seasonal change. The various grays of the mountains behind speak of permanence into which man's highway is just a recent incursion. Once again, the scene is a simple, everyday one, but the handling of the paint and the use of those limited colors capture the feeling of a stretch of road leading to some adventure in "them thar hills."
It takes quite an eye to capture the personality of an animal, but capturing that personality is exactly what must happen when doing a pet portrait. The owners of the pet know what certain looks mean, and the artist has to replicate something intimately knowable about the pet. Keiko is quite elegant all in black, though the look in her eye seems as though she may have done something that she wants to be forgiven for. ("Pretty please. I didn't really mean to do it.") Widget looks happy to greet the viewer with eyes looking eagerly for a treat. Once again the palette is simple, most black and white, but the creatures are distinctly animated.
"A world without art would be dull, colorless, boring. I think it makes us, as a society, who we are or who we could be." Mary Sexton
Sexton speaks of the power of art as something that is universally human. No human society has existed without it, for creativity is as fundamental to human nature as are our bodily and emotional needs. Sexton says, "[v]iewing, listening, tasting, touching all take us out of ourselves, gives us another’s view of the world, shares with us unexpected beauty, introduces us to new things, or has us reconsidering things in a new way." That is a point of view that is hard to argue with, especially when it is the source of these lovely little painted gems.
Here is the artist at work on a small plein air piece done on the site of Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs.
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© Marjorie Vernelle 2021