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Student Perspectives: Mary Shea on “Caves, Friezes & Mysteries” Virtual Painting Marathon with Graham Nickson

In 1983 I moved to New York to study at the New York Studio School. I was only able to stay for one semester because I realized quickly that I couldn’t afford New York, but during the brief time that I studied with Mercedes Matter and Ruth Miller, I saw that I wanted to be like them: strong, generous teachers and working artists. I returned to the Midwest to get my MFA in drawing, and finally settled in Seattle where I teach drawing, always with the image of those two powerful women and the goal of being like them.

For decades, the Studio School has continued to influence and interest me, and finally in 2010 I attended one week of Graham Nickson’s Drawing Marathon. I returned the next year, and in the following years I attended two (half) Marathons with Bruce Gagnier. I had always hoped to be able to participate in the full two weeks of a Marathon and the ability to participate online this summer in the Summer 2020 Virtual Marathons made that possible.

When I saw the title, the subject and the scope of Graham Nickson’s Virtual Painting Marathon: Caves, Friezes & Mysteries, it struck me as necessary to attend. I am currently working on paintings that begin with figure drawings I make and have been seeking to build images that are strong and tender. They are small paintings, worked on over many months or years. I knew that Graham’s Painting Marathon would challenge me to work much larger and faster.

Graham Nickson mapped out a way to think about “the entire interconnectedness in the history of painting” as we looked at and transcribed drawings and paintings of cave art, Roman wall murals and friezes. Through these transcriptions of other artists’ work, we sought to claim these images as our own. For example, during one class session, we looked at hands in cave paintings and then many other hands in paintings throughout art history. We then created a transcription of cave hands followed by hands in a Rembrandt painting. In the final painting we added the images of hands we had made to our own “cave painting.”  I found the connections and emotional currents between these drawings of hands across millennia very moving.

When we began working on transcriptions of the friezes in the Villa of the Mysteries, I saw the image I would claim: a woman turning, with her back to us, reaching out her arms in a powerful, simple, resonant gesture. I painted her because I want to be like her – to be her. For me, discovering her was worth the whole two weeks. This was one of many discoveries, and I imagine that it will take time to absorb all that I saw and experienced.

At the end of the Marathon I can say it was awesome and as overwhelming, demanding and inspiring online as it was for me in person. The instructors were supportive and gave thoughtful feedback and encouragement. Graham Nickson’s extensive knowledge of art history and engagement with the material is a joy, as are his wide-ranging presentations and critiques. At the end of one lecture he said, “Looking at great art makes one excited and cheerful. It makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?” Yes.

During the Marathon, I felt transported to other cities, different eras and inside the minds of great artists. In those two weeks I saw so much beautiful art, and made some, too. It was exhilarating.

Applications are open for the Fall 2020 VIRTUAL Drawing Marathon with Graham Nickson & Guests, September 8th – 18th, 2020. Learn more and apply!

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