The work of Mary Jane Ward embodies an inherent grace, and for good reason: trained in classical ballet, Ward enjoyed a career on the professional stage prior to devoting her energies full time the new creative outlet of visual art. Now based in Ohio, Ward still espouses the energy and fluidity of a dancer in many of her compositions, which adds to their compelling nature. Ward graciously shared her thoughts on her evolution as an artist for our latest installment of the “Contemporary Charcoals” Series. For more on Ward’s art, please visit her website.
Amanda in Grisaille, 14″ x 18″ oil on panel, painted while studying at Grand Central Atelier, 2013
What is your favorite collection to visit? What collection/museum in on your visit wish list?
I resist naming a favorite anything, but a collection that has made an impression on me is the Rodin collection at The Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I saw it last a few years ago, when I visited the museum to see the [Anders] Zorn retrospective. I loved that show- especially his etchings- and I made a point to spend some time with the Rodin collection while I was there. I remember seeing Rodin’s work for the first time when I was 14 in France with my 8th grade classmates. I of course took a photo with Le Penseur, posing in his position. Seeing Rodin’s work now, as an adult and as an artist, I loved the raw nature to some of his sculptures.
Apple Study, 8″ x 10″ charcoal, chalk, ink wash on paper. 2016
My wish list includes the Met Breuer’s Unfinished- I would have loved to see that. I’d also love to visit more Land Art. Last summer I had the incredible experience of visiting [Robert Smithson’s] Spiral Jetty with my partner Amery Kessler. The necessity of a sort of pilgrimage to see these works attracts me. I found the experience of traveling out to Spiral Jetty transformative. Certainly, entering the doors of a museum or gallery changes your environment enough to place you in a slower, more contemplative, possibly more open state. But to travel for hours in open landscape, through uninhabited areas, feeling much more a part of that landscape than an observer of it, is incomparable.
Christina Yoho Portrait Sketch, 12″ x 9″ charcoal, chalk on tan paper. 2016
In your opinion, what sets charcoal apart from other artistic media? What is the greatest challenge to working with charcoal?
The first thing that comes to mind that sets charcoal apart is it’s tonal range. Having worked a lot in graphite, and only recently beginning my experimentation with charcoal, I am excited about the rich dense darks that charcoal can achieve in a short amount of time. I’ve been using it more and more for portrait sketching, and it allows me to create a 3-dimensional feeling space very quickly.
Chuck, portrait sketch, 12″ x 9″ charcoal, chalk on grey paper. 2016
A fun challenge to a quick portrait sketch is to find an efficiency to the line. When I’m teaching, my time for a demonstration sketch is often very limited. With charcoal I can get my observations down on paper very quickly, and it stays easy to adjust or erase. Another challenge comes in the light areas of the sketch, as I have to teach my hand a new, lighter touch – to express the details that interest me without exaggerating them with heavy marks. It’s a learning process!
What is one thing you cannot live without in the studio?
Ample time and good light. Those might seem like obvious answers, but they are so important. I get distracted easily, and it’s only when I know I have a good amount of unrestricted time in the studio that I can really settle into something. Otherwise I try to multitask- I can always think of all these little things I should get to, mostly organizing or cleaning, and I’ll get set up for one project but get drawn into another. And good light makes everything in the studio more inviting.
Above the fog on Nacimiento Fergusson Road, 6″ x 6″ oil on panel, painted en plein air in Big Sur, California. 2015
Do you collect art? Whose works hang on your walls?
I can’t say that I’ve been able to collect art yet, I’ve been too nomadic for that. At the moment I have the pleasure of renting a house from friends in Columbus, Ohio. They are both artists and they raised their family here, and the house is filled with their paintings and drawings, paintings by their son, and photographs of their daughter who is an incredibly accomplished modern dancer. It’s a lot of fun. I do tend to keep a few pieces of art around me- some small prints of my mom’s botanical watercolor paintings and a mug with a sculpted face that my brother made, pottery that my dad and my mom made.
Pine tree study, New Hampshire, 12″ x 8″ charcoal, chalk, ink wash on paper. Drawn while participating in the Hudson River Fellowship, 2015
If you could buy any one work of art, what would it be, and why?
I don’t know exactly what, but at the moment it would come down between two artists, Andrew Wyeth and Arthur Matthews. I love the combination of sensitivity and grit in Wyeth’s paintings. They are so beautiful; I’m in awe of his work. And Arthur Matthews’ paintings of California are high up there for me. I love his paintings of the Monterey landscape and his dancing figures. Both my parents grew up in Northern California, so although I’m from Oregon, I also feel a strong sense of home in the landscape of California.
Making a graphite study of roadside flowers in Big Sur, California, 2015. Photo by Amery Kessler.
Tell us a bit about your background. What do you consider your greatest artistic accomplishment?
I come from a family of artists- my parents’ ceramics studio was in the basement of our house, my immediate and extended family were all creative, nearly all in the arts in some way. Drawing and painting have been a constant interest for me for as long as I can remember, but my first career was as a ballet dancer. I went to one year of college for ballet, did not do well, but went on to dance professionally for 9 years. I moved all over the country in order to take jobs and keep dancing. I would sketch my friends in my free time, drew lots of self portraits and experimented with painting. I always planned to transition at some point into being primarily a visual artist.
Self Portrait, May 2016, 12.5″ x 7″ oil on panel
That transition happened while I was living in New York City. I was still dancing, but finding myself more and more interested in honing my painting skills. I was struggling to get what was in my head translated into paint. I was working at a restaurant and a friend there told me about the atelier where he was studying classical drawing and painting. I went for a little tour, and signed up for night classes. I ended up spending 3 years there at Jacob Collins’ Grand Central Atelier, joining the Core Program, studying with incredible artists. I learned so much in that intense period.
Self Portrait in Charcoal, 12″ x 10″ charcoal on paper. 2016
I don’t know if I would call it an accomplishment exactly, but I am proud of my journey so far through my identity as an artist. I’ve embraced the possibility of connecting with powerful work outside my own specialty. I’ve been honored to assist my partner with some of his work. One huge accomplishment was touring his work Drum Casket to 26 US states in August and September of 2013. We drove the piece around the country in a 1968 Cadillac Hearse and shared it through small interactive sessions in galleries, museums, living rooms, backyards and parks. It was a lot for two people to take on.
Mary Jane painting at Van’s Beach, Michigan. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, August 2016. Photo by Amery Kessler.
Another accomplishment I’d like to share concerns my identity as a dancer. I have a vivid memory of a conversation with OSU Professor Emeritus Vicki (Vera) Blaine a couple years ago, I told her that I used to be a dancer. She corrected me, “Once a dancer, always a dancer.” That really moved me- there is so much self-imposed judgement and discipline to being a dancer that it can incredibly difficult to stop pursuing that career. On the surface, the statement may even seem cliché. But her words sank in, and I feel strengthened by the idea. Even if you’re not dancing that’s not something you can leave, and neither can it leave you. In fact, it seems obvious now that every part of one’s journey affects and informs what follows. So my past life as a dancer is now present in my pursuit of drawing and painting.