“Looking Out Towards Ragged Mountain,” Mary Bourke, 24 x 24

Mary Bourke has always had a complicated relationship with nature. Although she enjoys hiking and camping, the wildness of wilderness often disquiets her. You wouldn’t guess this from her vivid paintings, which imbue the great outdoors with a dreamlike wistfulness, a place of simple pleasures and shared memories. Through these calming images, Bourke, 66, is working through some of her own anxieties, struggling to better understand her position in the natural world.

As the coronavirus traversed the world, creating a profound collective anxiety, Bourke began to examine her issues in a different light. Her artistic subjects and their treatment, however, remain the same. Bourke hopes that the paintings in her new solo show, which opens at Portland’s Greenhut Galleries on June 18, will bring some comfort and connection to our virus-isolated community.

Mary Bourke in front of a new painting she made for her home, “Waiting at The Yellow House.” Photo by Michael Margolis

Q: How have you been doing these past few months?

A: I’ve reflected a lot since this pandemic started. When it first began, my family and I felt a lot of anxiety and fear of what it all means. Then quickly I found that going into my studio and painting was a real gift. I was able to get really immersed in my work in a way that I’d never experienced before.

Q: Because of being forced to stay at home?

A: Well, it’s really the first time in my life I have ever been uninterrupted. I’m a mother. I’m a grandmother. I’ve been working my whole life. Life is extremely busy. So it’s felt quite different. I would go into my studio, and rather than thinking, “OK, I can paint until two o’clock, and then I have to go pick up my grandson,” I found that I had absolutely no demands on my time and was able to just keep painting and keep working.

It was incredibly therapeutic and soothing to be able to get lost in the creative process and focus on my work. It helped calm me down and lessen the anxiety.

Q: You’ve been preparing for this exhibit for over two years. What, if anything, changed for you in the past few months as you were preparing for the show?

A: My work has always been about the natural world around me and how I fit into that. The subject matter did not change at all, but how I felt about it seemed to shift a little. I’m kind of an anxious person. So while I want to be in nature, and I love to go hiking, and my family loves to camp and do all of those things, I’ve always been terrified that we might run into a bear. For me, it sometimes takes a lot of bravery to get out into the wilderness. But at the same time, I have this awe of being in nature.

When I was beginning to paint my show, I was thinking about all the things I was afraid of in nature and how I still love to be a part of the wilderness and find my place in it. But when this pandemic started, all those thoughts dissolved because I was faced with a brand new fear that’s very real. I felt a much deeper anxiety for the world, for the planet, for all the people who are suffering in ways far greater than I was suffering up here in Lincolnville. It made me reflect more deeply about nature and our place in the world. It’s only human nature to think that we’re the center of the universe, and I think this pandemic was a stark reminder that that is just not so. Thinking about my place in nature suddenly felt much more important. I became much more connected to what I was painting, and a lot more emotional as I was painting.

Q: Your work has taken some inspiration from Milton Avery, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley, and I see all of them in your work. What initially drew you to these artists?

A: What drew me to them is the simplicity of form in their work and their strong use of color. My work has evolved a lot over the years, but I think those main components have stayed the same. When I start a painting, rather than picking the subject matter, I’m more interested in the simple forms and designs and the color and how it all fits together in a composition. Then as I am working on the painting, that’s when the emotional attachment starts building. It’s almost like a puzzle. As I work, the forms take on more meaning.

Q: Recently you started making larger work. Tell me about that.

A: It was exhilarating in a new way. Painting larger is a very different physical experience from painting smaller. Sometimes when I paint a small painting, I’m sitting down at my table, and the painting is flat on the table. When I’m painting large, my canvas is upright, and I’m standing. I’m moving around.

Q: What caused you change the scale of your work?

A: I have a dear friend who has a house full of wonderful art. A few years ago, I was spending more time with her in her home surrounded by these large paintings. I became so attached. The paintings became such an integral part of her home. So I went home and decided to start painting large.

So I did and a funny thing happened: I started hanging the paintings in my house. I’d never done that before. I’ve always painted my work, and then I would send it down to Greenhut. This year I had a lot more time, so I decided to put them in my house. Then I became so attached to the work. I experienced the same thing I felt in my friend’s house. I just couldn’t take them down off of my wall.

I took a couple down and took them to Greenhut. But the last painting I just finished, I did for myself. I had to fill that space with art because it became part of our home. It really hit me how important the artwork becomes. The longer I hung the piece, the harder it was to take it down. There was one, a picture of a fox I had done for the show, and I hung it in the bedroom over our bed. I couldn’t put it in the show. So I had to do another one for Greenhut. That was a first.

“Fox on High Street,” Mary Bourke, 30 x 30 Photo by Michael Margolis

Q: Were you concerned that, after all your work, the show might be postponed or canceled?

A: While I was painting, I kept wondering, will anybody ever even see these paintings? I didn’t know whether we would open. I don’t care whether there’s an opening; I know we can’t have them now. But I’m happy that they’re going to be hanging because I’m excited that people would get to see the work. I hope people will find my paintings soothing. I’m not as interested in the sales as I am in just getting the paintings out there for people to see and experience because seeing art is one of those things that’s very healing.

Art is what makes us human and keeps us connected to the world. Right now, what people really are missing is connection with other people. The art world is a way that they can start to feel connected again.

Stacey Kors is a longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.

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