We had the good fortune of connecting with Mary Wilhelm and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mary, why did you pursue a creative career?
Honestly, I fell into this career path more than anything. Sometimes I feel like I should have had some divine calling to be a painter, a cloud-parting-voice-of-God-hearing moment, but it was really something that just sorta happened. It wasn’t even my first “dream job”! When I was six or seven, those were to be either a taxi cab driver, or paleontologist (probably because I like talking to people… and dinosaurs are cool)! Drawing, and painting were something that I had always done intuitively, but I didn’t necessarily approach it as a viable career option till I was in undergraduate. Having gone through an engineering program that allowed me to try my hand at more monetarily lucrative career paths like architecture, I found that I was really only happy when I was painting. I loved the ability to tell a story through my work; coming up with characters, compositions, and colors that could evoke a certain mood or feeling. I also just love every aspect of painting; if I’m ever in a conversation with another human and we hit upon the subject of painting/painting materials I always have to give a disclaimer that the conversation just got about 40 – 50 minutes longer due to my enthusiasm, and inability to stop, talking about paint. But I think I actually still ask myself “why” I really chose this path… and it’s not always a clear answer. I made a conscious decision about my path when I finally got into undergraduate, and that choice has only solidified as I’ve gotten older, but sometimes the answer to the “why” still feels a bit nebulous. Art and painting has always been the way I express myself; it is the way I analyze and process the world around me. I’ve always found this path to be the one where I felt the most fulfilled, but to a certain extent it was also the one I felt I was really GOOD at.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
My work focuses on using animals as allegories for people. I’ve always been drawn to painting and drawing animals more than anything other subject, and my research currently focuses on the overlaps between human and animal behavior. On top of the animal imagery that features heavily in my work, narrative plays a huge part in my paintings as well. More often than not, each painting starts as a story (some real, some not), or as an imagery conversation between the characters that I translate onto the canvas. I spend a lot of my time listening to historical podcasts, political satires, biographies of famous figures (I’m currently working on a 48 hour long biography of Ulysses S. Grant), and watching documentaries on contemporary culture . I couple that with a deep interest in animal psychology and behavior, often seeing strong overlaps between these two interests. As much as humans try to separate ourselves from the natural world we ultimately fall back on patterns that more closely resemble our animal counterparts. In terms of how I got to where I am today, a lot of that has to do with discipline, and a whole lot of luck. The drive to create is a constant ebb and flow; my practice is one where I aim to be in my studio at least once a day doing *something*. I might not necessarily work on a new painting, but even if I’m just in there sharpening pencils, I’m at least in the studio and working. For me, it’s all about building a structure into my practice where the act of creating, as much as it stems from passion, also stems from discipline. There have definitely other challenges in this process; even though I have a fair amount of confidence in my own painting practice and ability, I can’t always help when a rude intrusive thought wiggles way into my brain that makes me overthink my own choices. Learning to acknowledge my own anxieties, but to not let them control me has definitely been a learning process, and one that is still an ongoing thing that I work on.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Oh! I’ve actually done exactly this with two of my best friends that I’ve had for over 15 years! One of my favorite art spots is the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum! They always have really fabulous art openings, and shows. The atmosphere is always really lively, with live music, drinks, and food during openings. Not to mention the shows are beautifully done, and I think they open up a really great critical dialogue for the arts community here in Phoenix. The nature in the valley is amazing too! I always love the Desert Botanical, I live in Tempe so the Botanical gardens are a stones throw away, and being that close to a location that really showcases the variety of desert life here in Arizona is amazing. As a huge fan of live music too I always adore (pre-covid, mind you) going to the Van Buren, Crescent Ballroom, and Rebel Lounge for live shows. The Rebel lounge is probably my favorite, considering the small venue size and variety of artists that go through there. In terms of eating and drinking; Some of my favorite restaurants are the Lodge in Tempe, Zu Izakaya in Scottsdale, Blue Adobe in Mesa, and Taco Guild in Phoenix.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My shoutout has to be dedicated to all of my art teachers that I’ve had along the way of my career. In high school, undergraduate, and graduate school I have been really lucky to have a series of professors and teachers that have always been incredibly supportive of my work. My high school art teacher, Mrs. Iacobucci, is probably the one I can credit the most with. She is someone who really encouraged and supported my work throughout high school when I was really trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be. Another two big influences were my professors in undergraduate, namely Lilian Garcia-Roig and Carrie Ann Baade. Both are astounding professional painters that I learned from during my time at Florida State University. They really pushed me technically and conceptually as a painter, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of both of them.
Images edited by Rebekah Henderson