Wednesday, August 20, 2008

September Artist: Flower Power

Anyone who thinks a flower’s just a flower hasn’t seen Mary Kay Neumann’s art—or heard her philosophy on painting works of nature.

“Flowers have feelings too,” she says. “Sunflowers, poppies and all of the other flowers in my paintings emerge as friends that you would want to invite to dinner.”

Neumann, who is a psychotherapist as well as an artist, believes flowers have distinct personalities and sees them as a reflection of the human experience.

Talk to Me: The Emotional Life of Flowers is a solo exhibition of Neumann’s watercolors running through October 31 (hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) at the office of Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton at the State Capitol.

Neumann recently took time to talk about her background, approach to art and special subject matter.

You are a licensed psychotherapist. How and why did you also become an artist?

I have been making art and studying art history most of my life. I find great joy in the act of painting. Fifteen years ago, I was drawn to the intensely colorful watercolors of the German Expressionists. Their emotionally charged paintings led to my focus on watercolor. I began exhibiting my paintings in 2005, and the responses I have received have been very gratifying.

Why do you choose flowers and landscapes as your subject matter?

I paint what inspires me. As an avid gardener, I adore flowers. I am fascinated with the structures, colors and personalities of sunflowers, poppies and tidepools. An annual trip to northern California’s rugged coast has given birth to a passionate curiosity about tidepool environments and seascapes. I am also drawn to the strange, arid landscapes of the Badlands and Utah’s canyons and moonscapes. The connection between these subjects is intense color and unusual texture, which allows me to convey drama and emotion.

How do psychology and art intersect?

Creativity and emotional openness are the common threads between my work as a psychotherapist and as an artist. When I do my best work in either role, it is when my heart is open to the creative flow. It all comes from the same place inside … of love, curiosity and compassion. In my work with survivors of trauma and abuse, I am inspired by the great courage I witness. The resilience and tenacity of the human spirit to push through horrid experiences is truly amazing.

Finding my own voice through art led to the realization that self-expression is a powerful tool in healing. As a therapist, I encourage my clients to seek their own truth and uncover their own unique way of expressing themselves. Discovering what is meaningful to each of us is the key to a rich life, good mental health and is the basis for most art.

Why do you use watercolor as your medium?

I love the process and visual results of working with wet-into-wet watercolor. This style of painting is highly interactive; a true partnership where I start with ideas, and the water, saturated paper and liquid paint make their own claims on where the painting is headed. One must trust the process of giving in to being both in and out of control when working with such a dynamic medium. I enjoy exploiting the boundaries of what watercolor can do. I push for vibrant color and delicacy, while developing interesting textures. This unique method lends itself to emotional expressiveness.

Why did you decide to showcase your work at Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton’s office?

As a feminist, it is a great honor to have an exhibition at the office of the first woman elected to the state’s second highest constitutional office. Lt. Governor Lawton is a strong and progressive advocate for all of the things I feel most deeply about: women’s rights, social justice, access to mental health and the arts. Our state capitol building is a beautiful and inspiring asset to Wisconsin, and I am proud to have my paintings displayed in this magnificent setting.

What are your goals for the show?

I want to expose a new audience to my work that may never have seen it. I intend my paintings to communicate joyfulness, and possibly inspire others to make their own art, in whatever form that may be. Make a garden, teach your child, raise a puppy, demonstrate for peace … being artful means bringing your soul to bear on whatever you are doing. It brings meaning and joy to life.

I hold the vision in my heart of Glen Hansard (from the movie once) accepting this year’s Academy Award for best song. Full of gratitude, he shook his statue at the audience and said, “Make art, make art!”

What’s next for you?

I plan to continue with the themes of gardens and tidepools. I have had several solo shows in the past three years and look forward to a stretch of time in my studio that is solely focused on developing my next body of work.

Photos top to bottom are Double Fantasy, Every Breath You Take, Naked Truth and Moondance, courtesy of Mary Kay Neumann.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The September issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:

• An Overtones profile on Andy Moore, host of Wisconsin Public Television’s 30-Minute Music Hour.
• A poem on a fall garden by Andrea Musher. (And listen to a podcast of the poem online.)
• A House of the Month home filled with contemporary artwork.
• The monthly Overtones events calendar with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts, exhibitions and festivals taking place in September. (Check the full calendar online.) 

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