Mary Lonergan is a splendid artist who lives in San Francisco.  She’s a painter who creates lovely paintings that are expressive and have bold color.  I also love her outlook on art and life.  Here’s our cool chat…

“The idea that you have to be established to be successful is extinct. Who defines established and successful? A guy who runs a hedge fund? Artists are taking control of their terms of success and defining how they want to run their businesses…”

MICHAEL: Hi Mary, First off, your work is bright and vivid and BIG on color. How would you describe your relationship with color? What does color mean to you?

MARY: Hi Michael! Color has an electrical quality that I love. It's seductive, it demands attention. I like that. Color thrills me and I always associate it with freedom and the larger world. When I was young, my brother received a Peter Max book for his birthday. I confiscated it and secretly looked at it in bed and then wouldn’t be able to sleep. It had a very strong “when I get out of here” influence on me. You know, small town thing. I wanted to be ‘out there.’

At the time, I still had no idea you could become an artist. I thought you either were like Peter Max or you were not, but his art made me dream of making my own life, even if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted it to be. Color lets me express on canvas what I might not otherwise be able to articulate. It knows where to go, what to do. I just try to get it right. When I do, it works.

MICHAEL: Lots of artists talk about getting color "right," but paint comes pre-packaged in many readymade colors and is ready to go ... Isn't it?

MARY: Ha Ha! I wish that were the case. I do have many that I use straight out of the tube (Payne's Gray is my current favorite), but often I end up mixing color to get a different shade. I really like doing that; it's a lovely repetitive motion and working it ‘til it just comes up to a shade of green you haven't seen before, you know?

I'm learning as I go. I used to make new colors, use them in a piece and then run out of it only to need more the next day and forgotten which colors I mixed to get there. Frustrating. Then I would gather them in a small area and keep them together until I was done with the paint and of course writing the formulas down helps (duh!).

This probably sounds absurd, but I don't know color theory. I haven't had or done any formal training or education in art so the learning curve is rather steep, but I'm finding satisfaction in figuring it out as I go along. Primary, secondary colors and additive, subtractive - I don't know these and I looked up 'color theory' to talk about them here.

MICHAEL: I still get mixed reviews from artists about the value of art school although it's clearly valuable. I would imagine that figuring things out as you go is a lot like trying to drive through fog, no?

MARY: I can't see how going to art school wouldn't be valuable. The only complaint I ever heard from anyone who did was that they weren't taught how to manage a business and you have to know how to do that. Figuring it out as you go along is a bit like driving in the fog. You can't really see ahead to know where you're going, but when you end up with a painting you love, it's a very kind of cool surprise. Like hey, who knew that would work or that this image would show up.

My own process in the studio is very much about not trying to figure out the end game. When I do that, I run into trouble. If I have a set image in my head and try to execute it, if it doesn't work out, there's a level of disappointment. It correlates exactly to life. Holding on to a specific result can be a real joy killer because you haven't made room for the endless, unexpected possibilities.

If I went to art school and I had more technical skill and theoretical knowledge, would it be easier to bring about a specific result? Yes, absolutely. But I'm finding that the standing in front of the canvas is a great way to build trust in myself and be present and inside of something I am unsure of, but thrilled by.

MICHAEL: What I've seen of your work has a slight folk art vibe, but I'm very hesitant to call it, "Folk Art." Your thoughts?

MARY: Folk Art? Hmm. I can see how you might get that vibe and I’m glad you bring it up. It’s the dreaded question: “What kind of art do you do?” or “What do you call your art?” I never know how to answer that. There are so many labels. I find them confusing.

My work is simple and I am self-taught. Beyond that, I don’t feel like I’m specifically drawing on my cultural influences or that my work is traditional, but, there is a simplicity that I value and can see in my work which does lend itself to the ‘folk art’ label. I found this in a definition of Folk Art online: “Folk Art makes its appeal directly and intimately, even to people quite uninitiated into the mysteries of art." That, in a nutshell is the result I'm hoping for in my work…I want a direct shot.

MICHAEL: When you're actually painting, what does that process involve? Is it intellectual, emotional or spiritual? Are you meditating or thinking about what to have for dinner? Do you listen to music or watch TV while painting?

MARY: It switches between. Mostly it’s emotional, looking for hits of feeling or interaction, then kicks over when there’s a technical detail to take care of like mixing color or drawing out a profile. When I’m painting, it’s like lucid dreaming. I’m in it, but watching it too. I don’t stop until I come to a place where I can take a break. Then, I think about food or water or stepping outside for a bit away from the canvas.

Music has been and continues to be an influence in my work. If I’m starting a new piece, I sometimes use Focus@Will, an online service that uses music to focus your attention or I won’t use any music at all - usually early morning, I like to keep it quiet in the studio. Once I’m into the piece and basically know what I’m doing, the music changes and the volume goes up. I listen mainly to rock: Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, old Rolling Stones, but I also like country music, Dwight Yoakam and Willy Nelson especially and new music by an artist called BANKS (absolutely addictive) and London Grammar. There are too many great artists and genres to name really. Wouldn’t want to have to work without it. TV? I could never paint with the TV on. My brain disintegrates when the TV is on.

MICHAEL: Isn't it interesting that even with technological advances, painting in front of a canvas basically remains the same even from the time of the old masters?

MARY: I love to think of this. I am doing the same thing that Helen Frankenthaler did in her studio. That Diebenkorn did in his. That alone thrills me. And though I go through the incessant cycles of calm, stress and freak out in my own studio, it’s still knowing I only need to stand in front of the canvas and continue working. There’s camaraderie in this. I feel accountable to other artists to hold myself to this.

There’s such a tendency to romanticize what it is to be an artist, a writer, sculptor, dancer, etc., because what we do is create beauty. It’s easy to want to be or create that. If I could only be Cindy Sherman. If I could only write like Hemingway. But underneath that beauty lies truth, and you know how much digging you have to do to get at it. For many, it’s too much to ask, but the commitment is so worth it. Even for the late bloomers. Believe me, I know this.

MICHAEL: Absolutely. What do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today?

MARY: I know very few people in the art world. The ones I do know are lovely. I’ve been working with Carlotta Marzaioli and Vito Abba from Studio Abba in Florence who run OpenArtCode. They’re in it for the love.

Even with my limited experience, one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the online platforms and the acceptance of online art sales. When I started painting, the first time I put anything ‘on the internet’ was in 2006. Eons ago in the online world. A few months later, I was invited to the Florence Biennale and that was my first public showing. It’s also how I connected with Studio Abba.

What’s happening is the democratization of the art world. Like anything else, there are changes in business models and the one happening here is significant. There are so many talented artists in the world and the percentage of them being seen by a larger market has been tiny. That’s being transformed. People like William Etundi and his staff at See Me in New York are doing a great service for artists through their online platform. They have built a huge international community of artists and I love being involved in that.

The idea that you have to be established to be successful is extinct. Who defines established and successful? A guy who runs a hedge fund? Artists are taking control of their terms of success and defining how they want to run their businesses. They’re instituting collaborative partnerships with curators and galleries instead of hoping that someone will accept their work and also take fifty percent of their sales for the privilege. Thankfully too, that whole ‘starving artist’ mentality permeating the world in general is out. The reverence of the very few and the disregard of the rest is also out. Artists, especially (and thankfully) the younger ones, recognize their value individually and culturally. They’re building their own identities and working with other artists together.  Not enough to go around simply isn’t true and the big shift in that perception is extremely beneficial for everyone.

MICHAEL: Absolutely. San Francisco is such a vibrant place and totally cool art city. Does the city itself inspire your work?

MARY: There’s a strong independent and creative vibe to this city. I came the first time when I was 16 and knew instantly this is where I would live. I don’t know that it directly inspires my work, but I love being here, so I think that would translate into the work I do in the studio. San Francisco knows her own beauty. I love that about a place.

MICHAEL: Finally Mary, What is the point of art? I mean most people care far more about sports and movies and music than visual art. Also, shouldn't we be discussing more serious things like homelessness and unemployment?

MARY: I think there are many valid answers to this question and it’s important and worth discussion. To me, art is about sustaining, transforming, healing. I mean this in a very tangible way, on a cellular level. A timely example is Lou Reed’s passing this week. The outpouring of emotion you see online is huge and surely doesn’t come close to recognizing how many lives he actually touched. I didn’t know him personally, yet his work enabled me to hang on during a time where it would have been easy to slip away. I think that’s what all good art does. It takes you outside yourself and shows you a different course. That is the point.

I feel music and film are equally important and have the same transformative qualities. The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” Patti Smith’s “Horses” … game changers for me and no doubt for multitudes of music fans. I couldn’t live without music or film. I couldn’t choose one medium over another. They just make life immeasurably better. How can you live without David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man”? The first time I went to the d’Orsay museum, I was overwhelmed with just how much beauty was in that space. Not to mention the space itself is just gorgeous! About half way through, I came across a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait and I burst into tears standing in front of it. HA! It was such a spontaneous reaction and I felt entirely ridiculous because, you know, I’m in Paris and people are so sophisticated, but there it was. That exchange. It’s worth living for.  It’s worth dying for many would say and I would have to agree.

Sports? I don’t I have the same affinity. Let’s not spend time here talking about the disastrous state of our professional and college-level sports. Barry Bonds? Joe Paterno? Please. And I do know there are plenty of contemptible people in the art world, so don’t slam me because I don’t worship at the All American sports altar. I’d just much rather talk about art and it’s been a real pleasure talking with you Michael. Thank you.

MICHAEL: That’s a great note to end on Mary.  Thank you!

Check out Mary Lonergan at