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May 22, 2024

A Visit to the Vibrant World of Ashley Mary Art

Ashley Mary is a Minneapolis-based artist known for her dynamic use of color, her mural making, and her design. You might encounter her work adorning the walls of your favorite coffee shop, enlivening a pair of Hippy Feet socks, or adding vibrancy to the earrings donned by your fashion-forward friend. Her work is a testament to the transformative power of color and spontaneity.

 We were fortunate to visit Ashley in her sun-drenched studio and watch in real time as she created a beautifully balanced piece on canvas that dances between chaos and serenity. Her South Minneapolis home-turned-artist’s loft houses dozens of painted canvases, thrifted and reworked clothing, stained glass, and, of course, her sweet pup Ren. Read on to hear how Ashley got started in art as well as her creative process, from the initial stages of art-making to the final piece, and what we can expect to see from her in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get started creating art?

I first started making art in college. I took a few creative electives, including a painting course, which, to be honest, I didn’t really love. That’s not where I fell in love with studio art. That happened in a printmaking class which led me down a rabbit hole of collage making. Collaging was my gateway into becoming a painter and abstract mark making. And then five years out of my undergrad, I went back to school at MCAD for graphic design. That’s where my world expanded into how I could apply my art in different formats in different spaces. So doing more product design, doing more mural work, and exploring all the different ways I could bring my studio art into other spaces. It’s been a journey for me about the last 20 years of doing this art thing. 

How do you approach a blank canvas?

If it’s a looser style of my work, the first thing I decide is what the first few marks I want to make are—the bigger anchoring marks. If I’m doing a more gestural organic piece, like the one that I worked on today, my first goal is to anchor the painting. So I’ll do some larger marks. From there, I’m really trying to create a spirit of curiosity. I’m trying to use my hands in different ways, trying to use the tools in different ways. And I want everything to have a feeling of movement. And for me, I’m just expressing feelings. It’s a play space. I’m not trying to think too hard, I’m trying to allow it to be a space where I do the exact opposite, because I’m thinking so hard most of the time. So this is a space to let go of that part of my brain and to really be in touch with my insight. Painting from an intuitive space and not getting too stuck in my head, but getting outside of it and working for more of a heart and spirit space than a headspace. Some of my paintings are very informed by my collage work, they can read more graphic in their nature. Those start with me making a mini collage on paper, and then I’m blowing it up into the final piece. Currently though, I’ve been really craving more gestural mark-making, more mess, free, big work that’s what I’m craving more of. In my mural-making that’s definitely an itch I just want to scratch right now.

Let’s talk about how you pick the color palette of a piece.

Color is my love language. I love playing with color. I would say I generally am drawn to a certain palette, so a lot of my works use softer tones, warmer colors, pops of saturation. I don’t really go gemtone bright on too many things—‚or did I just totally lie to your face? People probably do look at my artwork and think it’s pretty bright. But right now, I’ve been in a mood like these purple blues. That’s it. That’s the mood for me. That’s new for me. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been drawn to  pink, green, yellow, that sort of space has been really sweet. It must be subconsciously related to springtime and  life coming again and seeing  flowers pop up,or I’m just craving sun and green and grass.  I’m having a relationship with the color. A lot of times when I’m putting my first color down, it’s like a call and response. So the pink goes down. And then I’m like, ‘who does the pink want to hang out with?’ Then the green goes down. And I’m like, ‘who’s coming to their party?’ And they are all relating to each other, it’s one big dance. And each color is informing the next move that I make. I’m also thinking about what texture I want to inform a color that I might choose.  If I want it to be really watery, I’m usually going for something kind of soft and ethereal because I want to use a brush and allow it to kind of drift. If I want it to be a poppy color, a lot of times I might go for a pastel because I love how a crayon looks in a more bright color. I love that rough texture. Sometimes the tool dictates the color. Usually my feelings are what I want to look at. Color has the power to change the way we feel. And so, it’s a feeling experience to be in front of the canvas for me.

Where do you see your art moving?

Lately, I’ve really been loving interacting with fabric and paint. I’ve been keeping a lot of loose canvases around and scraping my brush and palette knife off on them with hopes to do something with the fabric. For example, behind me this chair was a chair reupholstered using a drop cloth of mine. And when I was finished making it  I thought, ‘God, I love how that turned out,’ and I couldn’t have planned it. I did not make the chair and then paint the chair-  I found some painted rags and then re-upholstered a chair. So right now, I’m asking, ‘What more can I do with fabric?’ I’m doing a collaboration with Dust Collective based out of Des Moines and we’re going to launch a little capsule collection of some clothes. Right now the fabric that’s behind you is this huge roll of vintage fabric that I’m just painting on roughly, and then Dust will sew some clothes out of it. But I’m interested in textiles right now, both intentionally painting them, but also what happens with the scraps piece of canvas I use as rags and what opportunity is there, and it feels endless. You could do clothes, but then there’s also the whole home space. I really have loved doing furniture stuff and even just recently went wild on an old wicker chair I found at a thrift store. It turned out so fun and strange. And I’d never done that before. Furniture space is really intriguing to me—I’ve always loved furniture and interior design. I’m definitely interested in home spaces and interested in making my own home. So where can I go with my art in all of that? Where does my art-making my mark-making start to influence the textiles and furniture that I’m also creating my own home with. 

How do you know when a work is done?

It is a feeling. A lot of times, too, it’s looking at it with a design eye. I’m looking for a sense of balance, good negative space. I’m looking for a lot of opposites—I want chaos, and then I want quiet, I want movement, and I want stillness, and I want light. Density and open space. A lot of my more abstract works, I think if you were to look at them, you’d find those moments of opposition. And that, to me, is almost like breathing in and out. I’m trying to create, essentially, visual balance with an underlying theme of wildness and play. Sometimes it takes a long time, or I’m repainting three times over until I say, ‘Okay, it’s finally balanced.’ I can go too hard. That’s usually the thing I might correct if I do too much. Sometimes I have a hard time being like, ‘No, it’s okay to leave this not fully filled in.’ It’s better if I don’t try to rush the process, though. Usually, if I let something sit around long enough, I will change my relationship with it.

Let’s talk about your feelings when you first got into this space.

Getting into art-making has definitely been one of life’s largest surprises. There was never an intention there to set out and become a studio artist. I sort of fell into it at first after college, but then I think my ‘yes’ really came when I chose to go back to school and study design formally. And then from there I was just saying ‘yes’ to a lot of things to figure out not only what I liked doing but what I was good at and what gave me good energy. I would do art direction, prop styling, illustration packaging, design and print and pattern stuff. I was also sharing my art in online spaces, and I had to really decide if I wanted to claim the visual language that I was putting out there and consistently claim it as my own, or continue to put those in spaces where I was working under an agency or working under another brand’s name.  I was just falling in love with my studio practice. I was falling in love with the materials I was using; I was becoming more confident with them; I was becoming more familiar with them. Having that graphic design background that I got from going back to school opened up my world in ways I wasn’t anticipating. I went back to school thinking I was going to become a graphic designer. And then what happened was, it actually gave me this tool, this toolbox to not only keep supporting my studio art, but to expand my studio into all these other spaces, my analog work could play in the digital sandbox in exciting ways. 

Murals was a huge one—I never, never set out to do murals. But when I got my first opportunity to do one, I just fell in love with creating art on a large scale. And the same thing with any other products I got to work on or any other brands I got to collaborate with, seeing my work on new formats. What kept me coming back to my studio work and what I kept identifying with is that this was a space where I could play and experiment and use my hands and get messy. It was a space where that could be celebrated, and it fit and it worked. 

The things I’m best at in my studio are not good things in lots of other spaces. But in this space, they can thrive. And so part of my life’s journey has been to figure out where, what, who am I at my core? What am I like? What do I like doing? How am I? And then, what spaces, within work, can those things be an advantage and can thrive and be celebrated. 

What’s been kind of sweet is making my art and giving myself permission to be fully who I am here in my studio. It’s been sweet to watch, or have other people sort of share with me that they felt maybe they can do that too. And that making things in messy ways or in playful ways doesn’t have to look like anything specific or it doesn’t have to even mean anything specific. It can just be about a feeling, about your experience with the materials and your relationship with the materials. And that can be expressive. That can be enough. I think a lot of folks who are interested in making art and using materials get so intimidated by it. It becomes so precious. I want to destigmatize that and come back to how we used to use materials when we were little, where it’s like,this is just a play tool. This is just a time to let my brain relax, or time to light my brain up. 

Something messy and wild and imperfect is so much more interesting to me than anything that is supposed to look like ‘how it’s supposed to look,’ you know, whatever that means. I think imperfection is the most beautiful part of us as humans. I also hope that what I’m bringing to my own studio practice, aligns with how I want to be within my own spirit. There’s a relationship there for me that I think I’m constantly sorting out myself too. I don’t think I’ve got anything figured out, but there’s kind of a back and forth between what’s happening inside of me and what’s happening on the canvas, and hopefully I’m always moving towards a sense of wholeness and a sense of permission to just be here and let this happen as it is. And not get too much in my own way in that process.

For more info visit ashleymary.com and follow Ashley on instagram @ashleymaryart

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