Trained as a painter, MaryEllen took up working for the National Park Service after her senior year at College. While working at Fire Island National Seashore, MaryEllen gravitated quite naturally towards painting the incredible natural landscapes that surrounded her. MaryEllen’s success has grown to afford her residencies in many studios and National Park centres around America. Now that it is more important than ever to protect our natural environments, MaryEllen has made preserving and protecting the landscape a major part of her day to day duties as a ranger. All while capturing it with her paint brush.
We have had the huge pleasure to discover her work online. In our interview we spoke to MaryEllen about her artwork, and the ways in which she works outdoors to capture nature at its best.
What first inspired you pick up a paint brush?
According to my mom, and I do remember this as well, we were day hiking a portion of the Appalachian trail in Vermont when I told her I had gotten pictures of some things from the walk. This was before everyone had a camera on them, so when she asked how I had them, I showed her my sketchbook with some watercolor washes over sketches of plants and birds. Observing and documenting my activities through art started early.
Apart from the beautiful landscapes that surround you, what else inspires your artwork?
It is a process that allows me to find home in the environments I find myself in. But even though I work from life editing is important. For me paintings are not meant to look like photos, and working from life captures the immediacy. I also try to use portions of my profits to buy artwork from artists I admire, which is a win for me and also, as someone who sells their paintings, is a boost to those I buy from directly. The years of working for the Park Service has lead me to reach out to artists I see who may be good matches for a Park Service Artist Residency. I have an email of resources and how-to’s that I will send to anyone who emails me. It is a great feeling when I hear I actually connected someone with such an experience.
Is there another artist(s) that has inspired you and your work?
Rockwell Kent has been a huge influence. His love of a place, and simple ways of expressing it, really inspire me. In college I was in a gallery in New York City looking at landscape paintings and thinking “this person is in a New York gallery and is working plein air. I can do this.” Then we started talking to a man about it and remarking on how wonderful it was to see, and it turns out it was the artist, Eric Aho, who was in the gallery to pack up his show. In today’s world of people trying to make what Instagram audiences want has led to a sameness in a lot of landscape art. Aho is making something stunning.
I also was fortunate to have professors who are professional artists and encouraged me to work from life and pursue the art career I wanted. They are Kellyanne Monaghan, Jen Maloney, David Hornung, Carson Fox, and the late Tom McAnulty. They taught me about balance of work life and art life and that being a professional artist is not limited to those who can make all their money from art. I was given a strong foundation of technique first, rather than chasing concepts without any means to make them. Part of the curriculum included a class on the business end of the art world, and I use the skills I learned all the time.
You mention that you are a park ranger – how has this job role had an impact on the artwork that you create and the relationship you have with the national parks?
So I was a painter first. In college I was working at a lighthouse and had a lot of downtime in the winter. This was when I started really diving into landscape painting. There were rangers working on the same island and I thought I would apply to be one in the place I already loved. I sent out 6 applications and got offers from my home park and Glen Canyon. I chose to move to Glen Canyon, which was the best thing I could have done. From then, till now I have continued to grow as a ranger, but my motivation comes from a desire to live in and protect my subject matter.
Having participated in several artist residencies within parks I built a reference email detailing things park service residencies are looking for, what an artist may get from the experience, and where they can find deadlines. It is thrilling to have people ask me for this information, and even better when they apply. I have a unique position in that I understand what the park may want, and what artists want, so I consider it a way of giving back if I share what I have learned.
The longer I live and work in the National Parks, the more I see them as a network. When something threatens a place I have never been, but that I know is important to our country, I want to support its protection. Not every park needs to be a Yosemite or a Yellowstone to make it worth protecting.
Where in the world would you love to visit to spend some time painting?
I have been reading a lot about the Craighorns in Scotland. I think I need to go there at some point. And one benefit of social media is exposure to artists and nature writers working abroad. If I am to follow the footsteps of many of my influences I am due to go north, and I would love to see Svalbard, or Nova Scotia. I have always been attracted to northern landscapes.
You paint most of your art pieces on location, what benefits do you feel this gives you?
I get to make choices. When working from photos I have trouble being painterly. The image is already figured out so to speak. When looking at a landscape I am in I have to predict future weather and lighting. I need to commit to stopping a particular moment when things are moving. And the time committed to sitting there helps me feel a connection and have a reason to document. A photograph is too fast for me.
I am fortunate that where I live is remote, and cell service is spotty. Chances are wherever I am painting I do not have reception. In many ways painting outside allows me to have less discipline, because the distractions are minimal. I cannot update anything instantly, and I am glad to have a time to reflect on an image before sending it into the world.
What is your next big subject to focus on?
I am moving to Georgia on the east coast of the USA for quite a few months next year. The landscape there reminds me of home (NY) and the opportunity to dive into the lighting that happens where there is humidity is going to be a nice full circle. This training is the last big chunk of time my job requires, so after I will be able to plan my life in advance and am going to start applying to art residencies again.
A small goal I have that I think will have a big impact is to check in with every person who has emailed me about residency info and see if they have taken any steps to applying. Because the momentum you have when you are first interested in something does not go away, but may get re-directed at something else. I want to kindle that excitement. Productivity breeds productivity, and usually I leave these conversations more motivated to get to work.
To see more of Ellen’s work, or find out more about her, please visit here website.