Mary Ellen, imagine Corona would not determine the current situation and you would welcome us in your home or studio. Where do we speak together? My home and studio are in a wooden house built by a whaling captain for his daughter in 1833. The walls are a bit crooked and the wide wooden floor boards creak, sun streams in the many windows and the view of the tree lined street and other village homes are distorted through the old wavy glass. We might sit at a corner table where two windows meet, with some tea. Where do you come from, where were you born? I was born, raised and lived in and around New York City. How and where do you currently live and work? Now I live in Sag Harbor an old whaling village at the far end of Long Island, New York. For better or worse it’s part of the posh resort area of beach towns known as The Hamptons. Which stations and people have shaped you? Some teachers were very important to me. Much later other artists, curators and gallerists have given me tremendous opportunities to make, exhibit, and sell my work and this has transformed my life. Which authors and books can be found on your bookshelf? Well I have a lot of books as it’s the constant theme of my work! On my shelves I have mostly art monographs and books collected to photograph. I leave piles of them all over— displaying whatever or whomever I’m focused on. Which books have influenced and/or shaped you? Early on finding Giorgio Morandi’s work in books was something I kept in my head for a long time. I really loved a book on Josef Sudek. What are you currently reading and where is the book now lying at hand? “Catch and Release, The Enduring and Vulnerable Horseshoe Crab” is on my desk and “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art” is next to my bed. What music do you listen to and when? Well I do love music, jazz, blues, soul, but I never listen to it while working. What I’m absolutely addicted to are audio books, mostly contemporary fiction, I love being read to and I listen to them while working, when I have a certain flow. If you would cook something for us, what would it be? Probably soup because it’s quite chilly outside. What do you like to eat most? The local bounty, freshly caught fish and vegetables from nearby farms. Of course all better in the warmer months and eaten outside. What do you think about breakfast? Breakfast is lovely and part of my morning ritual, fruit and Greek yogurt with a splash of maple syrup is my go-to. What kind of sport or counterbalance do you practice? I’m crazy about paddle boarding, I go whenever conditions are good, i.e. not windy. The water surface with reflections and ripples is hallucinatory. I went the other night for a full moon paddle, 5 degrees, magical! Do you have special passions (hobbies) for which you are burning, and if so, which ones? Well along with the paddle boarding I kayak and swim as much as I can. I also explore the nature in my area on long walks and I’ve become so curious about birds, seaweed, wildflowers, my new fascination is lichen! Do you have a concern that you would like to share with us? Well I’m not sure this is the right format but the health of the planet and climate crisis. Do you have a personality trait that defines you? I’m curious and enthusiastic about my enthusiasms.
Mary Ellen Bartley, Portrait
To begin, please tell us your artistic vita in a few sentences.
I explore the physical and formal qualities of the printed book and it’s potential for abstraction, using primarily photography, sometimes a copy machine and now painting. I’ve made projects in the libraries of artists Robert Wilson, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, as well as Giorgio Morandi.
Mary Ellen Bartley in Giorgio Morandi’s studio, Bologna, February 2020
Two sentences about your current project and exhibition in Berlin.
The photographs on exhibit at Galerie Pugliese Levi explore the multiple meanings of the shows title Volumes , in the subject of volumes of books, the quiet volume of color palettes, the geometric volumes of the compositions and Jackson Pollock’s jazz records.
Mary Ellen Bartley, Good Night Sweet Prince
What are you most concerned about at the moment; what is on your mind?
How did you come to art? Why art?
I could draw as a child and I was very particular about arranging things not for neatness and order but for a rightness that was internal. I worked as a food photographer for magazines in New York before devoting myself to art at age 50.
What makes you happy at the moment? What is currently scaring you?
Nature and books make me happy. I’m scared of old angry white men in positions of power.
Do you believe that art has a social responsibility? And what do you think it can do?
No I think people have a social responsibility.
What makes your art special? What are the central themes of your work?
I explore a single subject and follow where it takes me, one series leads to another quite organically. I’ve been exploring books of books, copies of copies and pictures of pictures.
Mary Ellen Bartley, Morandi 1
How do you protect yourself from too much inspiration these days?
That’s a funny question, but for me focus on finishing a series or at least moving it along is crucial.
How much in your works is planned in advance – how much is created intuitively?
When I work in special libraries the time is planned and finite, but what I do there is completely improvised, I have to respond to where I am and what’s there in a new way each time.
What should your art effect on the viewer?
Engagement, delight, love.
What are your (next) goals?
Working in Giorgio Morandi’s library and studio was a huge goal for me I want to return to expand my project as my residency was cut short by the pandemic.
What is your opinion about faith? Do you have principles of faith or is there a motto?
There are a thousand ways to kiss the earth.
Which project would you still like to realize, if lack of time, courage or financial resources would not play a role?
I would like to create a unique book of each series, a book of books. I have only done this twice. I move so quickly to the next opportunity the next project I haven’t had the time.
Mary Ellen Bartley , Book Balance
What do you consider to be attributes of good art?
Art that shifts something in the viewer, expands, connects and leaves room.
Is one born as an artist*? Or is studying art compulsory in your view?
I really don’t know. Study is so enriching, but art school is certainly not compulsory, I think it’s a luxury and I guess it needs to be the right place at the right time.
To whom do you show a new work first?
Recklessly I post new things I’m uncertain of on Instagram. I’m pretty sure this isn’t good for me.
What does the first hour of your day look like?
Coffee and writing, walking to beach and back, more coffee.
Mary Ellen Bartley paddle boarding Sag Harbor
In Times of the internet of things, are galleries from your point of view still necessary? If so, why and what for?
Yes going to galleries and museums to see work is wonderful. How it’s presented is very important and can be revelatory if exhibited well.
Social media – in your view a blessing or a curse?
I quite enjoy Instagram, the international reach of it, I learn about a lot of interesting art through it. But the “likes” and algorithims and feeding of ads is certainly not ideal.
Mary Ellen Bartley, Clouds Cave
The Exhibition Volumes with works by Mary Ellen Bartley can be visited from 2nd October to 19th December 2020 at the gallery Pugliese Levi, Augustraße 62 in 10117 Berlin-Mitte. The exhibition was part of the EMOP European Month of Photography in October 2020.
In times of Corona, when travel, studio visits and personal contacts are inappropriate or even impossible, the written interview remains an important medium to introduce artist personalities, to spread their messages and to stay in touch with art lovers. The interviews are not edited or shortened by the editors and are always reproduced in original sound. Therefore, we do not translate the interview into English or German unless the interviewee submits a translation.
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