For Mary Beth McKenzie (American, b. 1946), painting is a way to see and understand the world. She works intuitively, starting with a visually exciting idea and then finding her way to the finished canvas one brush stroke at a time. She is motivated simply by “the exhilarating and exhausting act of painting.”
When I paint, I lose all sense of time. I’m not making a statement or crafting
a message. I’m composing an experience of color and form. At the same time,
my paintings are deeply personal reflections of my own life and my interactions
with my subjects.
McKenzie’s intimate portraits offer windows into her world and the inner lives of her subjects. She paints from life, avoiding the camera’s flattening perspective, focusing on herself, her students, friends, and family. Around and behind her models are her studio walls, paintings, furniture, and the Manhattan skyline outside the windows. “I like having a dialog between the outside and inside within the same painting,” she explains.
Prior to starting a canvas, McKenzie paints a quick color study to work out her idea. Then, she uses thumbnail sketches to focus and balance the main elements. She constructs her compositions like a sculptor: building an armature of active lines, adding planes of color, and then carving back through the negative space. She reveals volume, space, and expressions with dabs and slashes of paint, carefully observing color, quality of light, essence of gesture. Although she hopes to express “something on a deeper level about my experience of life,” this is not a conscious aim while she is working. “When I paint, my involvement is with color and form, abstract relationships and patterns.”
There is always a self-portrait in process, both because McKenzie is her own most convenient and patient model and because it frees her to take chances. She notes, “You have models for a limited time. You have yourself forever.” The self-portraits can take many months to complete; each day she arrives with a new perspective. “I may have worked on one small self-portrait for 6,000 hours. I think every self-portrait has a hundred different self-portraits underneath.”
McKenzie’s paintings communicate a sense of time and space in their layers, their focused stillness, and, collectively, through repeated depictions of the same models over many years. In contrast to the ephemeral digital images that mark our moment, her work invites slow contemplation and creates awareness of our embodied experience of the world.