Mary Iverson’s paintings explore the visual tension between the natural world and modern industry. Largely inspired by her hikes and camping trips around the Pacific Northwest, she uses these natural and unnatural juxtapositions to confront concerns about the precarious state of our planet, including the impact of unbridled consumerism, rising sea levels, and colossal amounts of industrial waste.
In our interview, we discuss national parks, art as activism, and finding beauty where you can.
I know from your own words that your work confronts the global systems that imperil our planet, and that you think we're “on the precipice of an apocalypse.” But how do you feel about people who simply find your paintings to be beautiful?
The beauty is definitely the initial hook, but after looking more closely you might think, "Hey, what’s going on here?" And then start asking a ton of questions like, “Why would she wreck a perfectly good landscape painting by scratching all those lines into it?” Or, “What business does a shipping container have in my national park?” From there, you can get to my entire concept.
Your earlier work (2000s) seemed to me more like a celebration of industrial geometry. With these new works, are you ever proposing that people reevaluate the idea of industrial shapes being 'ugly' or not belonging in nature?
In the past I hoped my paintings would inspire change or raise awareness about our impact on nature. I was like an environmentalist-artist. But now I’m a realist, and I’m just showing you what’s happening, not trying to convince anyone of anything. I just want to express my feelings and find beauty in the story I see unfolding.
Do you always complete your traditional 'nature painting' stage before adding geometric forms? In essence, is there always a bit of nature imagery layered beneath the unnatural forms?
Yes, I have to complete the entire nature scene and make it look perfect before I ruin it. That’s my rule!
This might seem like a bunch of extra work, but it makes my process match the message. When you step into a beautiful meadow, there’s stuff smooshed under your feet. Industry imposes itself onto nature.
Also, I really enjoy the process of figuring out where everything goes. If I knew where the containers were going to sit before I started, then I wouldn’t need all of the searching white perspective lines. It’s fun to let the landscape tell me where the shipwrecks are going to be.
That’s excellent, I love knowing there are ferns and flowers literally under the containers. Do your land- and cityscapes all begin with real places? Or do you ever invent either?
The landscapes in my oil paintings look surreal, especially Lake Valhalla with that super-pointy peak on the left and the infinite layers of blue mountains in the distance. But they’re totally real. The places I hike to are so friggin’ beautiful they don’t look real. And sometimes the lighting is so amazing it feels like I’m dreaming. There is magic out there!
My collage pieces are created on top of photographs of real places, featuring cities that I imagine could be underwater someday. Using photos from media helps me “travel” to other countries and find other points in time.
It seems to me that many painters commit to oil or acrylic, but you seem very comfortable hopping between both mediums. How do you evaluate which path to take for each piece?
Actually, I do a lot of watercolors, too! When I go hiking, I love to sit and sketch along the trail. It’s one of my favorite things to do. This process gives me time to soak in the atmosphere and the colors of these magical places. Watercolors are the easiest paints to carry, and they have the freshest, most immediate feel.
My big landscape paintings are done in oils because that’s the best way to create the glowing layers of glazes and show the soft-edged shapes in nature. Also, one super important quality of oil paint is that I can scratch through it to make my crisp white lines. Acrylic doesn’t let me do that.
I use acrylics for my collages because that works best for the hard-edged shapes. Acrylics dry quickly, so I can add layers right away and draw on top of the colors with a pen.
Your Forest for the Trees mural in Portland is amazing, and in your process photos it looks like you’ve duct-taped an anchor above the mural, which I assume is a one-point perspective tool at a huge scale. Can you tell me about that technique?
You’re right! It’s one big vanishing point!
Perspective is a cool system discovered in the Renaissance that helps us figure out how everything lines up in our visual field. When I’m working on a mural, I like to make sure all the angles are perfect. I duct-tape an old tape roll to the wall and tie a long string to it to create a vanishing point. Then I stretch that string around the mural to help me draw all of the diagonal lines and figure out the scale of the geometric shapes. The vanishing point needs to stay in one place, so I use a lot of tape to secure it to the wall.
How do you most like to enjoy our local National Parks?
I love hiking. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time with my mom at Mount Rainier. She loved to see the wildflowers every summer, and I think of her whenever I am in the mountains. I enjoy finding the perfect spot on the trail to sit for a while and do some watercolor sketching.
When you can’t make it out of town, do you supplement with Seattle parks or small nature walks?
My favorite park for a quick outing with my pup is Discovery Park. It has everything: forest, cliffs, meadows, and a beach. When I’m there it feels like I’m in a nature preserve, but I’m actually two miles from my house. There are so many trails you never have to do the same one twice. My favorite trail in the park is a secret one, and I’m not going to tell you where it is!
Rats! Well, then can you tell me what are you currently listening to in the studio?
I’m listening to Lizzo and Jack Johnson today—they help me stay positive!
Mary Iverson's show, Rise and Fall, opens Sept 3 at Roq La Rue Gallery