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Where Spontaneity Meets Sanity: The Ethereal Watercolors of Mary Wright

Creation Story.jpg

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

Artist and environmentalist Mary Wright's eyes sparkle affectionately as she talks about her time in Japan -- ink painting classes with her teacher in Tokyo, kind encounters with strangers on trains, the clumsiness of English-language signs in railway stations, the Japanese reverence for nature. Her stay there was over 50 years ago when Japan was still rebuilding itself after the devastation of WWII. After two years teaching art to the children of U.S. Air Force personnel near Tokyo, she returned to Southern California deeply affected by her experience in Japan. Her mixed-media watercolor paintings, inspired in part by the spontaneity and spirituality of Japanese sumi-e, or ink painting, took on a mystical quality that has defined her work ever since. Over the years, in her paintings and in the regular art workshops she leads, she has used her dynamic, intercultural brushwork to express her love of nature, her spirituality and a profound desire to restore "environmental sanity" to the world.

Mary has had a formidable partner in this mission. Shortly after she returned from Japan, friends introduced her to architect Eric Lloyd Wright, grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright who famously incorporated Japanese aesthetics into his architectural design. A common admiration of Japanese artistic and spiritual sensibilities brought Mary and Eric together, and for over 50 years now, the Wrights have shared a life where art, architecture, nature, environmentalism and spirituality interconnect. And in both their work, Japan has played a role.

The Wright Ranch, Malibu, photo by Paul Casson | Courtesy of Eric and Mary Wright.

At the Wright Ranch, high up in the Malibu Hills, the Wrights live, work and host events that honor their ideals. Looking out at its giant boulders, wild chaparral landscape and breath-stopping view of the Pacific Ocean, Eric continues to evolve his grandfather's legacy of organic architecture, using sustainable materials and state-of-the-art technologies. "In my work, my first inspiration was nature," he explains. "Japanese architecture and aesthetics provided me with a confirmation of my beliefs." Their home/office is a charming example of organic architecture with a Japanese flavor. Built around two vintage trailers -- repurposed into the kitchen and Eric's studio -- the wooden building has the low beam structure, corridors and diffused light of a traditional Japanese home. (A third trailer, perched right at the edge of the property and overlooking the sea, serves as their bedroom.)

"Black Water Snake" by Mary Wright, 2013, watercolor on paper | Courtesy of the artist.

On their land, Mary and Eric hold community gatherings at equinox and solstice, celebrating powerful moments in many ancient calendars. They have also held many Buddhist events, including musical concerts as part of the World Festivals of Sacred Music. To honor Native American spiritual traditions, they hold regular sweat lodges here and, and Mary has worked with local elementary schools to make puppets that recount and revitalize local indigenous legends. Mary's efforts on the Board of the Ballona Wetlands Trust have helped to protect this ecosystem from commercial development. In her light-filled studio at the back of the main house, Mary conjures up with her brush ethereal imagery that suggests the power of all of these natural and spiritual worlds. This is apparent in her paintings of East Asian zodiac animals, in particular the Snake (specifically the Black Water Snake), which lords over our current year. Building up the body of the powerful serpent with a series of black ink dots, she melds them together to create a slender black form that writhes across the surface of the paper. From its body, multicolored dry strokes of pigment radiate outwards exuding energy and light.

More typically, her paintings evoke the power of the natural elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. For these works, and indeed most of her paintings, she rarely plans the form she will paint; instead she prefers to let the materials be her guide. "Only when an artist doesn't know what he's doing," she insists, "does he do good work." Using Japanese brushes of various sizes and types of animal hair, she applies the ink and pigments to paper that is sometimes dry, but often wet to allow the color to spread out organically over the surface like tiny capillaries of color. What results are delicately layered yet potent expressions of the energy of a crashing wave, a gust of wind or a blazing forest.

"Sky Meets Water" from the Water series by Mary Wright, 2001, watercolor on paper | Courtesy of the artist.

In the works in her "Water" series, even though her medium is Western watercolor, her Japanese ink painting training is at its most evident. In "Creation Story," a series of strong curved strokes build up into a large spherical form which at once suggests the tubular wave idealized by seasoned surfers in California and beyond, and an enso, the ink-painted circle used by Japanese Zen monks for meditation. Much of the energy in this image is created by leaving areas white - like the center of the wave - which adds depth to the whole form. In more tranquil image from the "Water" series, "Sky Meets Water," a beach scene is suggested in a balanced composition created almost entirely of blue and white. A variety of strokes are employed to capture the moment waves breaking on a shore in a vibrant expression of her admiration of the power and beauty of the sea.

"Fire 1" from the Fire Series by Mary Wright, 2008, watercolor on paper | Courtesy of the artist.

To these vividly colored abstractions, Mary often applies found objects from nature such as tree bark, leaves or shells, tethering our natural world to the spiritual realm that her brush has created. In "Fire 1" from her "Fire" series, she lays the skeleton of a large leaf over a glowing, persimmon-colored form suggesting the power of art and the spirit to give new life to nature. Indeed, the interconnection of us all with art, nature and the spiritual is what drew Mary to Japanese art and philosophy, and it is at the heart of Mary Wright's life and her work. In her studio are the words of the contemporary Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh: "We are all leaves of the same tree. We are all waves of the same sea. The time has come for us to live as one."

Mary and Eric Wright at their home. | Photo by Meher McArthur.

Mary Wright will lead her annual Art from the Land workshop at the Wright Ranch Saturday July 20, 1pm-5pm and her annual Art on the Land Art Show Sunday July 21, 12pm-6pm.

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Top Image: "Creation Story" from the "Water" series by Mary Wright, 2010, watercolor on paper | Courtesy of the artist.

About the Author

Originally from the UK, Meher McArthur is an independent Asian art historian, author and educator based in Los Angeles. She has two exhibitions currently touring the U.S.: "Folding Paper: The Infinite Possibilities of Origami" (th...
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