The Lionheart Five: An Interview with Mary West Quin

The Lionheart Gallery
Aug 15, 2016 3:10PM

Five questions we ask every Lionheart Gallery artist.

Mary West Quin’s work explores the paradox of photography, which makes ethereal moments into permanent images. Referencing anthropology and philosophy—she has degrees in both and reads these subjects extensively—Quin explores the distance between camera and subject that mirrors the distance between people. Her photographs of internal and external landscapes are grounded in the historical roots and questions of permanence, concerns of objectivity, and the nature of human existence, relationships, and the complex subtleties of living. In the artist’s own words, “I live in constant examination of my place and space.” 

1) Name one of your most defining moments as an artist.

Mary Quin: When my mother died. I photographed her with the 8x10 view camera for the last two years of her life. The process started as a way to connect with her in a space beyond words. It was a survival response for me. I knew our time was limited and I knew I didn’t want to spend any more time lost in words. The struggle between us and the words we tried to use to solve those struggles had eclipsed our sacred connection. I wanted to reclaim that connection and the meditative process of the 8x10 view camera was the best way I knew how. When someone close to you is dying, you die too in a way. It can become a death of frivolity, and a time of deep examining. When I sat with her and exposed those large sheets of film, I created a space of meditation for both of us. I think we all remain a five year old clutching our mother’s knee. To be an adult and sit with my mother as she died was mind bending in a way—she was just a young mother, I was just a child. It can all be over in a blink and in the span of history, it is over in a blink. Her last days etched a consciousness deep within my soul of “this may be my last day—what have I created? What am I doing with what I have?” Not one of my accumulated accolades, degrees, or shows has defined me as much as the experience of sitting with my mother in her last days. 

2) Do you collect anything?

MQ: Books, books, and more books. As a female growing up in the deep south, books have always served as a window into a world where I can connect, where things open into an unimaginable expansiveness. Plato, Aristotle, Martha Nussbaum, Rilke, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison…they create space in my reflections. [Pause.] I go to them again and again. Their words are like the greatest paintings—poetic, sensitive, intuitive—articulating the things we miss in our technology dominated lives.  

3) If you could choose anyone—and we mean anyone—whom would you pick as a mentor?

This is such a difficult question. I get different sorts of guidance from different sorts of people. While I admire many great figures and spend a lot of time reading the lives of artists, I don’t necessarily want all of them mentoring me. For me, mentoring is such an intimate act that requires both of us to be deeply vulnerable. When I find myself looking to a person as a mentor they usually possess a fierce work ethic, confidence, and commitment to a personal vision, sensitivity toward humanity and the struggles of being human and devotion to the people in their life. They also tend to be outsiders in some form or fashion. I suppose if I could have anyone as my mentor, I would choose Maya Angelou. If I had a second and third choice, maybe even fourth, I would choose Georgia O’Keeffe, Maud Morgan, Sally Mann.

Maya Angelou

Georgia O’Keeffe

4) What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

Literally, probably platinum. What I go to and rely upon as I work is Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Mary West Quin's darkroom

5) Tell us about one piece of art in this exhibition. You might describe your inspiration, your process, the title, what the work signifies to you…

MQ: Creating all of the large cyanotypes felt a little like a performance on southern summer heat—what it really feels like to be in the midst (and perhaps magic) of the most intense heat and humidity of the summer. I would coat the paper late at night, let it dry until midday the next day and then expose it. Depending on the weather and circumstances the images may or may not work. So it would be the same dance again the next night and the next. In between I would return to my favorite poets, and I would write and stay close to the mystery of the process.

Mary West Quin's "Chrysalis" exhibition is on view at the Lionheart Gallery,  July 10-Sept. 1, 2016. 

The Lionheart Gallery