Meet the Maker: Mary Nelson Sinclair
Lindsay Anyon Brier: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be a professional artist and your journey from Texas to the Hudson Valley.
Mary Nelson Sinclair: I went to boarding school in Millbrook School which is about half an hour from where we live up here. I started painting in high school. I had a great art teacher who pushed me to apply to art school for college. I did not start immediately; I actually then went down to Charleston for my freshman and sophomore year. Then I decided to transfer to Pratt in Brooklyn, NY where I received my BFA in Printmaking and Painting. After that, I worked in interiors, fashion, and the art world through internships and jobs. My last job before I was a full time artist was working for a textile designer who was based in London and she had a textile studio in New York. I ran that studio, working with clients, architects, interior designers and then also having some creative input on the fabric collection. I thought I wanted to get into the design side, but I came back around. I always painted on the side throughout the years and I just decided I wanted to paint full time. I was getting commissions and gallery representation in New York.
I got a studio because it was not sustainable working in a little apartment. My husband and I were also deciding to cohabitate. I got a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and was commuting there so then we decided to move there. I happened to find an apartment that was a block away from the studio. We both lived and worked there. His furniture studio was around the corner. Then we got married and had a baby and we moved here. After a year of being in the city with her, we decided we wanted to move upstate full time.
LAB: I didn't realize how recent a move this was.
MNS: We moved up full time in December. Good timing -- in terms of current events. We’ve had the house for a few years and we would come up on weekends. We always knew we would end up here full time but we didn't have a place to work so we had to build a barn. There was an existing one but we had to start from scratch. We finished that up and moved up here. That’s how we’re here.
LAB: Has it changed your process or your routine?
MNS: I would say so and having a child has changed that. The first year after I had her, for the most part, I took almost the whole year off. I had a few commissions that I was working on and I had a show at my gallery down in North Carolina -- that wasn't until the end of the year. When we moved up here, I had the biggest space I've ever had to work in, because in New York you couldn't get a huge space. So it's given me way more of a routine now than I had in the last couple years. The child thing forces you to have more of a routine, too. Because I know that I only have a certain amount of time to work, so I'm a little more regimented about it. And we’re lucky to have great child care. So, it’s definitely changed the routine, and the process a little bit, for the better.
LAB: Does your inspiration come instinctively? Or how do you seek it out if you’re stuck?
MNS: As far as the painting goes, I’m very much a process painter so I'm inspired by what's happening in front of me and how materials interact with one another. I typically start with a palette in mind, especially for a commission, but there are other colors and shades and hues that are birthed that I didn’t ever plan on. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't and sometimes I have to fix that.
My inspiration comes from the landscape, our garden. I take a lot of photos of the landscape. Back when we could travel, my travels certainly inspired me, whether it’s color palettes or compositions or patterns in fabric that I’m seeing in a house that I’m visiting. Travel used to be a big inspiration. But now I’m having to look around at what surrounds me every day. But I would say one of my biggest inspirations is the process itself.
LAB: Can you speak to the rewarding and also the difficult parts of that creative process?
MNS: The beginning, getting started. I’ve always had a lot of anxiety about starting a piece. But then you have this moment where you’re like, okay, it’s actually working and you’re getting there. Sometimes that means pouring a lot more white on the canvas and you’re kinda starting over. And then something kinda clicks and I know where to go from there and that is obviously rewarding. Finishing a piece is rewarding and knowing it’s done, I’m liking this. And when it’s commissioned, when the client loves it, that's very rewarding.
LAB: Do you know easily when it’s done?
MNS: Sometimes I have to call my husband in and say, “Do you think if I keep going I’m overworking it? Am I getting analysis paralysis?” as he likes to say. But, for the most part, I’ve gotten better about knowing this is it. It’s not a matter of how much time it takes me. There are some paintings that can take me months and there are some that can take a few weeks. It’s just how I'm feeling in the process and I'm definitely affected by what's going on outside of the studio.
LAB: What feelings do you hope your work evokes from people who see it or live with it? I’m sure that varies by piece.
MNS: My work is something I want people to enjoy being around for years to come. I hope it brings them joy or reminds them about something I don't even know about in their life. A sense of peace. I hope it brings people joy.
LAB: I feel like paintings can take on different lives when they move. I love moving art around and seeing how a different color or part of the composition comes up.
MNS: I also love how one painting can have thousands of little paintings inside of it. I actually love cropping in on paintings in certain areas and sometimes using that as a composition for another piece. It’s like finding all these little stories. You might stare at a painting for years and not realize an area you really loved about it.
LAB: We’re so excited to have a few pieces from your collection. Can you tell us about collaborating with your husband?
MNS: The brass pieces are very different from my works on canvas. You wouldn't even know, you would look at the 2 mediums and not even know it was made by the same artist. So the brass pieces...he works with a lot of brass; he’s a welder, makes metal furniture, architectural elements, what have you. He had discovered this chemical that accelerates the patina process. Normally that occurs naturally over time and you get that verdigris finish. This is something that accelerates that process. As I mentioned earlier, I studied printmaking at Pratt and I was really into the intaglio medium which is etching into a copper plate but it's hard to do that without facilities. I had my school’s facility to work with so after graduation I had to kiss that goodbye. When I started working with this chemical that he introduced me to, on brass, it reminded me of that process so I started playing around with it. The shagreen finish is one finish that we work with. I've tried a few others. It's a tricky solution, working with it can be kind of difficult so I'm workshopping other patterns. It just takes time to work with it and figure out what I can achieve.
LAB: Is it temperamental?
MNS: It’s super runny and it changes really fast so I have to finish something quickly. Then we seal it. You might have seen the console we did for a client. That took a lot of time but what's cool about it is that I can’t really control how it's going to react with brass. You see these areas that are a little darker than others but that's what gives it depth. He uses it, as well. He’ll cover an entire brass piece with it so it's solid patina. I don't do that, I do the shagreen finish. He does the solid patina and he's had a lot of trial and error with it, as well. He’s a little more of an expert on it than I am but don’t tell him I said that. He’s using it on bigger pieces and he's covering an entire piece, whereas I’m doing small detail work. We want to do a lot more. It's just a slow process, us working together and it’s time consuming for him to make each piece. We don’t want to mass produce anything and you really can’t -- It’s up to me to paint it and it’s up to him to make it, so that’s what makes each piece special. We look at each piece as a work of art, a functional sort of sculpture.
LAB: It’s sort of like your studios with your hallway where you guys have your own space and there’s this potential to kinda collaborate as you want to.
MNS: Definitely. We want to do more. We’ve piecemealed a collection -- the mirror, a small table and now this console, but with the console we took it to the next level which has inspired us to say, let’s do a cohesive collection. We just have to find that time. We can now that we have a pandemic routine going -- it was kinda volatile there for a second, not having childcare for a while -- we feel like we’re back to normal with our studio practices so we’re going to hunker down and do that.
Shop Mary Nelson Sinclair
Patina on Brass
10" x 10"