Mary Hrbacek is an artist and art critic who lives in New York City. I love the fact that she creates art, writes about it and supports other artists. In my book, this makes her a “complete art person.” LOL.  Also, I find her work absolutely stunning  She actually gives “new life” to trees, it that’s possible.  Take a look and you’ll see what I mean.  Here’s our cool chat …

“…Painting is a roller coaster ride of the emotions that appeals to adventurous people who like a challenge that involves heavy-duty risk taking … One must be tough to be a painter. Giving up is not an option ...” 

MICHAEL: Hello Mary, You clearly currently have a fascination with trees. Believe me, I understand.  I love trees too and I'm drawn to your work. First off, what's up with all of these trees I'm seeing?

MARY: I had been doing mixed media abstract work with sticks, stones and kitty litter before I began to explore and observe tree forms in Riverside Park (Upper Westside of New York City). I knew abstract art wasn’t my gift. When I discovered a correlation between human body parts and tree shapes while drawing outdoors, also taking drawing classes with live models my vision changed; the human physique and tree limbs merged in my psyche as I realized the similarities between human anatomical features and the bio-forms and limbs of trees that mirror them. This realization spurred me to explore more trees with a human presence that are evocative rather than realistic. I continue to be engaged by anthropomorphic trees that I discover while traveling, and here in New York City as well.

MICHAEL: I strongly relate to your work because I love trees. I've planted them, adopted them, said goodbye to them and written about them. Trees are beautiful and beautiful metaphors. They continue to stand no matter what you throw at them and even if they're uprooted, they're still something major to be reckoned with.  Do you also see trees this way ... Or another way?

MARY: I see trees in all the ways you mention and in many ways you didn’t mention. I learned a lot when I first did research on mythology associated with trees for my first exhibition, “Metamorphoses,” which was inspired by imagery I found in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In the “Daphne” myth, a woman is converted by the gods, into a tree. Evidently the Egyptians believed that the souls of the dead resided in Sycamore trees before their long journey through the desert to the next world. I find this belief very fascinating.

MICHAEL: Definitely fascinating.

MARY: On a number of occasions, I have sensed that there is a spirit within a particular tree, especially if it is an old growth tree that is evocative of a human presence.  Once when walking in Riverside Park I felt a message I could not interpret.  When I looked up, I noticed that a branch of the tree I was standing beneath, was broken. Sap had seeped out of the wounded branch. I felt the tree was in pain. These messages are very subtle unspoken forms of communication. One comes in tune with trees if one spends the time to observe them, which is what happens when one is drawing.  I cannot say if trees are actually sentient beings, but I do believe they are alive and conscious in ways we haven’t yet come to appreciate.

MICHAEL: Absolutely. I totally agree. Your personification of trees really says to me that we need to treat nature in general with far more respect than we do.  But what can you expect from a consumerist, throw away society like ours? The personification of trees and nature in general should wake us up to some extent, but we don't even respect other people anymore these days.  Why would trees be any different?

MARY:  Do we not respect other people?  NYC has long been defined by the quality of its rudeness, but this attitude has changed; at least people are generally polite on the subways. That is something.  Our society has been known for its crass consumerism for decades if not for centuries.  It is a society of businessmen; they dominate advertising, which is capable through the use of psychology of more or less brainwashing consumers, but there is more to America than this.  

MICHAEL: One would hope.

MARY: There are still people living here who care for life’s more intrinsic values. Americans and tourists visit the National Parks in droves. NYC Residents love Central Park and Prospect Park. These positive values could be promoted the same way car culture is promoted, through advertising. It’s true, some people don’t care to do much beyond visiting shopping malls, which are very easily accessible in the suburbs and in cities, but there are those who still care for nature.  We need to build on these groups, make them more visible.  I am no expert on our culture, which is now dominated by the use of social media, but people are up in arms against fracking and other practices that destroy our planet.

MICHAEL: Hmm, that's interesting.  You're right.  Things aren't ALL bad. Back to your work ... how do you decide whether something you'll do will be a painting on canvas as opposed to a drawing on paper?

MARY: It isn’t a big decision since I begin by taking digital photographs of the evocative motifs that attract my attention here in NYC and during my summer journeys.  I print the photos and work with them to explore the tree forms in charcoal on paper drawings.  

I devised a unique way to work with charcoal, by establishing dark impenetrable layers that I carve into with line, to establish the forms.  The drawing procedure is a very delicate method that allows very little alteration. Once a line is drawn, it is hard to change it without traces. Charcoal is one of the oldest, if not the oldest material used by humans to make drawings.  I believe it is the media used in the Lascaux cave drawings in France and at Altamira in Spain. Unfortunately, the caves can no longer be visited, but I believe there are now cave replicas that are open to the public. After the drawing shapes and forms are established, I remove all traces of the charcoal powder; charcoal is after all compressed powder made from tree bark.  In this way, my tree drawings are in reality made of trees. This procedure provides a work of art with a sharp contrast between light and dark that I find appealing. 

The drawings are highly finished works of art in themselves. They are in no way brief sketches. Most of my drawings are 22 x 30,” which is a size I feel comfortable with. Once I have investigated the tree forms, I convert the drawings into acrylic on linen paintings, the largest of which is usually about 40 x 44 inches.  I have made a series of 8 x 10” paintings and a selection of works in-between these extremes.  I always make paintings from the drawings. That is my complete process.

MICHAEL: What do painting and art in general do for you?  Why art?  When did this all begin for you?

MARY: Painting is a roller coaster ride of the emotions that appeals to adventurous people who like a challenge that involves heavy-duty risk taking. I started painting in pre-school when I was about five years old. I loved it then and I love it now.  I like the painting process; there is never a dull moment when one is applying paint that has been carefully mixed, making the adjustments when that acrylic color doesn’t sit right or sit smoothly on the linen. I took art again in high school and was acknowledged for a sculpture I did.  Encouragement is very potent when one is young. It provides clues that help to form one’s persona.  My mother was artistic, but she didn’t stick to anything.  When she couldn’t paint the fog from a calendar Marie Morisot painting, she gave up.  One must be tough to be a painter.  Giving up is not an option. 

I studied History-Political Science with a view to high school teaching when I was in college. I knew I had to earn a living. I never dreamed of becoming an artist until much later. Post Grad, I had to study Special Education at night school while on the job, as the history positions in high school were fully booked. I had to get a certificate (36 graduate credits) in Virginia to teach.  Finally, making a long story long, I reconnected with painting by doing murals with my students.  

Once I finished the night school certificate, I was finally able to take a sabbatical leave to study art for a year in New York.  I loved it here.  It was a big challenge as the field of art is super sophisticated and I had little background.  I got through three years of full-time art school where I learned especially to draw.  The painting section of the school was not strong.  After I left, I had to go back to teaching to survive. This meant four years of graduate school for Special Ed in NYC, teaching days, as the state would not recognize my credits from University of Virginia Extension. Finally, when I got married, I was able to take up art full time.  That was decades ago.  Since then, I also became an international art critic (AICA/USA). I write for (numerous) publications.

MICHAEL: Very cool.  You know Mary, so many people view art critics as these snobby, uptight and angry people who criticize everything and are just awaiting an opportunity to be crossed so they can blast you in their next article.  LOL! Do you see yourself this way? 

MARY: I started writing because I believe I have something to say; I have a voice. I want to give attention to shows that I think deserve support.  In that sense, I don’t actually criticize, I put my attention into illuminating shows that I admire. Also, I want to have something to offer, to avoid being the one who is on the asking side of the equation. Believe me, galleries want publicity. I have written hundreds of reviews since 1999, supported hundreds of artists in this way. I learned to criticize from my mother, who liked to tear down my self esteem. I had to work to build up my personal sense of value by being especially positive and supportive of myself.  It has worked!  I contribute to four on-line and one print publication. Also, if possible, I like to look for larger issues when I review a show that fit the theme of the art works on view.

MICHAEL: Mary, you have a unique view as both an artist and an art critic. So many people feel intimidated by art and that they must have an advanced degree in art to understand or relate to it.  What do you think about this?

MARY: Personally, I think it is helpful to read up on art history.  H. W. Janson’s "History of Art” is a fascinating and well written text on the subject. Personally, I read five art books (Time-Life and others) a year for five years during the summer, to catch up on my lack of art education. I was allowed to take out art books from the library in Northern Vermont, which was a big help as I read slowly. In NYC, art books cannot be checked out of libraries.  I wanted to do this as I love reading about the lives of artists that I like. This was long before I became an art critic. Before I even moved to NYC, I visited the National Gallery in D.C. every Sunday.  Their collection is magnificent. The Cezannes in the collection are my favorites of his works.  

With the advent of post-modernism, it is important to keep an open mind, not to be intimidated, but to view and investigate work that is unfamiliar.  That is the only way an art critic can be an art critic. One must suspend ones critical analysis for a while in order to experience and apprehend the work.  I find that it is too easy to be threatened by change; one must keep clear and objective, just look, and then decide what one thinks about what is going on or not going on in a work of art.

MICHAEL: Finally Mary, What's the point of all of this?  Art is not curing cancer or ending homelessness and most people walking the earth right now will never visit an art gallery.  Why should people care about art?

MARY:  LOVE. I love art.  It is a sanctuary and a haven because of the tremendous focus it requires.  It has encompassed my mind and saved me from a destructive family background as well as from art world people like my family who were attracted to me due to the universal law of attraction in which “like attracts like.”  I don’t love my paintings. I am in love with them, if that makes it any sense.  Art nurtures my soul, it stimulates my mind and provokes my emotions.  I find it intriguing and fascinating.  I love the Old Masters, especially Rubens.  I am drawn to their mythological themes that give insights into the beliefs, thoughts and feeling of people who lived centuries ago. I do not feel that I must apologize for being an artist.  That is who I am.  I do not believe that people “should” care about art, they just do. They have done so since the cave men, as the cave paintings at Altamira, Spain and Lascaux France attest.

MICHAEL: Nice.  Thanks Mary.  This has been a lovely chat.

MARY: I enjoyed the chat too. It has illuminated a number of issues that I find relevant.  

Check out Mary Hrbacek at