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The Essence of the Art – Mary Shand

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Mary was granted her first one-person show, in October and November 1961 in the ABA International Gallery of Modern Art in Georgetown, DC, her paintings were wholly abstract: a bright stew of dots and lines and splashes, though still worked entirely with a brush.

It was not until after her study at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington in 1964-65 that Mary began to experiment with pouring paint directly onto the canvas, using weights to direct the flow of paint and cutting holes in the canvas to release it. The holes, for Mary, were always a symbol, her “Ultimate Enigma” she wrote, as well as a method, were cut in the very center of the canvas as if in the center of her being.

By the seventies, she was experimenting with shaping the canvases themselves, first into circles, then into more complex, even amoeba-like shapes. At the same time she was carrying out complicated experiments with pigments and with the mixing of other chemicals which would lead to the veining effect to which she was more and more drawn.

In the course of the 1980s Mary largely abandoned her major carpentry, her cutting and shaping her canvases, and returned to the traditional rectangular shape, putting more of her energy into the mastering of more complex and varying forms of veining, layer on layer, each layer glinting through in spots; in others building up a highly textured surface.

As one of the lovable and universally noticed characteristics of Mary personally was her noticing and searching for, her awe of, her calling attention to, and her collecting examples of, the veining patterns of nature, seen in the patterns the ocean leaves on sand, in the rhythmic lines of seashells, in the grains of wood and in the bare tree limbs of winter.

She writes, “painting is the way I worship Life.” She calls her style “a combination of the effect of an operatic performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, an attempt to express the essence of a profound friendship, extensive experimentation . . . with the “veining” and a yieldingness to Nature. In moments of most meaning life seems to me to be a flowingness – a letting-go-ness.” Or:

Perhaps I paint the way I do because
I would be water –
necessary, transparent, fluid
reflecting the near in sparkliness
dissolving the tight to looseness
flowing, tumbling, spilling
in torrents too bountiful.
I would seep to roots
and spring to ether.

It was the nineties, though, including the productive three years until her death in 2003, that were undoubtedly the years when Mary’s painting reached its zenith.

In addition to art research and her own painting, long stretches of Mary’s time and energy were given to her other love, opera, in the particular form of the Opera Guild of Northern Virginia, so much so that the company now gives a yearly prize in Mary’s name.

Mary devoted what time she had to her artwork, not pursuing causes beyond the arts. But there was one surprising exception that revealed where her heart lay. Mary petitioned to save a small plot of wooded land from being destroyed to build a local highway. She managed to save the woods. At her death, she donated the woods to the Arlington Land Conservancy to preserve the land from future construction: the area now is on the Arlington map, known as the Shand-Rule tract.

At the very end of her life, Mary spoke of what she was attempting in her painting: she would leave the drama behind; she would focus rather on the uttermost acceptance. Thus, in her striving to achieve this, she was employing closely related tonal values in her pigments, no longer the startling contrasts. She intended simply to meld her spirit with the natural course of things, an intention which would lead, in her mind to peace. And that is what, in her last and her most deeply meditated painting, she achieved.

Mary never believed in titling, she wanted the viewer to be allowed the freedom to see in an unguided way.

-Written by Rosa Shand

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