Fine Art Today recently caught up with accomplished artist Mary Pettis for a chat about her inspirations, vision, and much more.
Fine Art Today: Can you share with us a little about your subjects and what draws you to them? How do you react to moments of inspiration?
Mary Pettis: One of my favorite quotes from Emerson is this:
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
I guess this quote came to mind because my inspiration truly feels like it comes in the form of this proverbial gleam of light, flashing across my mind from within — even though it is sparked by the natural world.
I read that quote in a Reader’s Digest when I was a young teenager. I remember thinking over the years every time I saw, in an instant, a finished picture in my head, “Is this it? Is this what he meant?”
I’ve had the good fortune to study with many bards and sages over the years to guide me in the pursuit of technical competency. It wasn’t until I jumped off the cliff on which they stood that I had the courage to trust my inner instincts and vision. I have taught myself to accept, imprint, and then dissect these mind’s-eye paintings.
When I am painting en plein air with an inspiring subject directly in front of me, this process of analysis is much easier. I try to determine which abstract element I am most responding to, strictly in terms of line, shape, value, color, or texture. Only when that process is complete, I know I can tell my story. Then I shelve the intellect, pick up the brush, and paint with passion.

Mary Pettis, “The Blessing,” oil, 30 x 40 in. (c) Mary Pettis 2015

Fine Art Today: “Autumn Poetry” is a breathtaking painting that highlights the exquisite beauty and vibrancy of sumac during fall in Minnesota. How is your process reflected in this work, and what was the experience like creating it?
Mary Pettis: This was first painted 11” x 14” en plein air. The “gleam of light” was a sensory-overload sweep of red textures leading me in a dance up to the left, then down right to the base of the tree, then lifting me, twirling up, arms outstretched into the light.
All-consuming, it felt like a very spiritual experience that haunted me until I could paint it again later. I love to digest and synthesize my plein air experiences in the studio, larger and in different formats.
Fine Art Today: What would you say your mission is, as an admired artist? What do you hope your audiences take away from your paintings?
Mary Pettis: I have just released a catalog of selected works, and the first quote in it is by John Lennon:
“My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel … not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of all of us.”
This humble attitude is also how I feel. There is a perfection that lies beyond what we directly can see, yet deep within we all recognize and respond to it. I get to spend time contemplating this sublime part of life, and I do my best to share my observations with the world.

Mary Pettis, “Time Stands Still,” oil, 48 x 30 in. (c) Mary Pettis 2015

Fine Art Today: What artists have proved to be formative in your art, conceptually and aesthetically?
Mary Pettis: I believe that the work of Zhang Wen Xin has had the most impact on my mature artistic life. He is superb in every technical aspect, yet the technique is completely the servant of the stories he tells. He uses specific color harmonies, shapes, lines, and brushwork that are perfectly sympathetic with the message he wishes to convey. He paints everything that moves him, and his work moves me!
Fine Art Today: Your paintings have such expressiveness, life, vibrancy, and freedom. In what ways is the surface of your work important to you?
Mary Pettis: I am also deeply drawn to the work of Nicolai Fechin. I visited his hometown in Kazan, Russia, a 10-hour train ride east of Moscow. Seeing the early development of his surface and mark-making opened my eyes to the emotional impact that we can impart through the alchemy and handling of the paint itself. When I let go of how I think a painting should look, I use more paint and have less concern about the handling. When I am successful, what I am sensing beyond the surface appearance of things seems to miraculously manifest.
Fine Art Today: Your attention to light and its representation is, without a doubt, one of the strongest elements in your work. You have an uncanny ability to capture luminance, and your paintings radiate. Are there ever narratives or messages that you communicate through light?
Mary Pettis: As I put decades behind me, I realize more than ever that who we are as people comes through in our art. As John Ruskin noted, what good is a great orator if he has nothing to say? I take that to heart. Luminance is within everything, and each of us. It is grace. Everything I see seems like a metaphor these days. Sap runs from roots unseen through trees and blood runs through our veins. Our very breathing is a give-and-take. We are connected to each other and to this magnificent world. 

Light is beautiful indeed; it plays joyously on surfaces in our perception. But, in a larger sense, it creates unseen melodies that comfort and inspire us to look and love more deeply.

Mary Pettis, “North Shore Mantra,” oil, 24 x 48 in. (c) Mary Pettis 2015

Fine Art Today: Where is Mary in five years?
Mary Pettis: As an artist and teacher, it is my hope to simply play my part as best as I am able. I hope that my work will reflect that effort.
Pettis is currently painting on location at the Cinque Terre in Italy and will return for next month’s EnPleinAir Texas October 25 through November 1. She also plans to be in attendance at the Maui Plein Air Invitational next February.
To learn more, visit Mary Pettis.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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