Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Mary Weymark Goss – A Biography

Born in Belleville, Ontario in 1950, I was surrounded by art and artists, and encouraged from an early age to draw, paint and write. Both my mother and grandmother were artists and diarists, and an uncle was a published author. I was taught to read and write before I went to school, and given free access to abundant art supplies and the books that filled our house.

At school, I was always recognized for my art and writing, and by the time I was fifteen, I was selling paintings and doing some freelance commercial work, such as illustrations, posters and invitations. After graduating from high school, I rented a downtown studio space with some colleagues, worked part time and spent the rest of my time painting and writing. Several of my colleagues went on to art college, but I was not interested in the courses being offered. I was developing my own style and ideas for my art, and I had already produced a theme-based series of paintings and shown my work. I was eager to pursue my stylized portraits and scenery, and travel along the North shore of Lake Superior, in the footsteps of the Group of Seven.

In 1971 I moved to North Bay, and continued to hike and paint outdoors. I had a part-time job as an art instructor for the city, and exhibited regularly at a local gallery. It was in North Bay that I met my husband, David, and when he graduated from university, we moved to Kapuskasing, where he had been hired as a forester. We had two children, and eventually bought a large old home on a lake in the country.

Kapuskasing inspired me with its flat remoteness and clean white winters. At that time, I was interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, and produced a series of romanticized portraits. These were starkly contrasted by my ink work, which featured the crisp clean lines of the northern landscape. John Flood, of Penumbra Press, lived down the road, and he commissioned many ink drawings for his magazine and poetry books. Writer’s Quarterly also used many of my ink drawings. In 1984 Penumbra Press published a small book of my drawings and poems, and a series of serigraphs.

Although I enjoyed publishing, I felt I was moving away from my original ideals. I wanted to keep changing, exploring new styles and techniques, and I did not want to be tied to my ‘popular’ work. It is very difficult to break away from the expectations of publishers, critics and fans. In 1985 I broke completely away from my very popular oil and ink works, and began a new series, Sgraffito. I covered my canvases with oil, scribbled and scratched into it, then painted on top. The results were indeed completely different. I lost my fan club, and felt liberated. And I discovered that there was a different fan club out there, and my paintings still sold.

In 1986, I began the longest series of paintings I had ever done, the Raven Series. At the time I was working on my first novel, Raven, which was never published. The writing and painting were deeply intertwined, and large excerpts from the novel were displayed with the paintings at exhibits. The Raven Series had over 100 pieces, and gave me a connection to the public I had never had. People stayed a long time at the exhibit, reading the excerpts and discussing the paintings; I received letters with raven paraphernalia, stories and personal experiences; I received phone calls from strangers who felt connected to certain paintings. There was even a small scandal, when a group of well-meaning elderly ladies tried to have the exhibit closed, on the grounds that it was ‘the work of the devil’. All that red and black upset them, and it is surprising how many people think ravens are evil.

Once again, I found it difficult to break away from a popular series. I was well into my next series, Sanctuary, which featured ghostly white birds and convoluted northern vegetation, but everyone was still looking for ravens. Galleries wanted the Raven Series, which almost sold out overnight, and patrons insisted my white birds were ravens. The Sanctuary Series became popular eventually, and I knew it was time for another change.

This time the change happened in the middle of a painting. A group of us were painting together in a studio downtown. I was painting the usual leafy stuff and starting on yet another white bird, when the inner child rebelled. I was tired of the same colours and subjects. I looked at my paint box and spied a tube of Cadmium orange that had hardly been used. With great glee I began to paint the first thing I saw, a large overstuffed (actually brown) chair. I covered half of my meticulously-painted leaves and flowers with an orange chair, then turned the white bird into rather ominous draperies. My colleagues shrieked with horror as I added a hideous vase to hold the one leaf I had not painted out, and a figure floating incongruously over the chair. The Orange Chair series was born.

The Orange Chair series became, in its own way, even more popular and difficult to shake than the Raven Series. This time, it was my fellow artists who were obsessed. They began tucking little orange chairs into their paintings and dedicating them to me. They painted chairs orange and brought them to the studio. They insisted I must have orange chairs at home (wrong). The orange chair became another icon, another character that followed me around long after I was done with it.

The Anomaly Series, which is ongoing, has had several sub-sequences, such as the Paleozoic Series. When I was diagnosed with Lupus in 2000, I was looking for a way to express the changes it made in my life, the pain and disability. My fossilized people, sometimes with holes in them, reached yet another strata of society; people with chronic illnesses and pain. I received many letters commenting on the strength and hopefulness of the images. I began work on ‘A Book of Complaints’, the first ‘ink’ work I had done in years. Because of the arthritis associated with Lupus, I was unable to use pen and ink, but instead turned to a tablet and stylus on the computer. The poem and images are typical of the rather humorous way I view life and its problems.

When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, I found myself separated from my art, or unable to do it, for weeks at a time, as I went through surgeries and chemotherapy. It was difficult for me to get back to my large studio pieces, so I began painting in printed books, very casually and roughly, and writing thoughts in them. I worked on small canvases and allowed my mind to roam. I lay in hospital beds, thinking about a new series.

In 2009, during chemo and further surgery, I concentrated on smaller works. I began painting in books and manuals, first priming the pages, then working in various mediums, including oils, acrylics and coloured pencils. Soon I had several painted books in progress; 'Growth', 'What is This?', 'A Vision of Being' and 'PageScapes'.

My longtime collaborator and friend, desean, suggested we resurrect our book-making project, flutterbook press. We published my 'Book of Complaints' and a portfolio of the Paleozoic Series, as well as several of desean's books. At present I am working on the Raven Series Porfolio and a volume of my journals.

My latest series of paintings, Four Horizons, is well under way.

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