By Kara Tatone Cascade AE Feature Writer
She is a Jill of all trades. An educator and author, a wife, a mother of two daughters, a greyhound rescue dog owner of two, a rescue cat owner of two, a hiker and nature lover, and a caretaker for fish, tadpoles, and even tiny garden snails—MaryLea Harris is also an accomplished artist. She draws from natural landscapes to tell the stories of trees, and life, from root bound beginnings to budding leaves and stout limbs.
“Nature is my biggest source of inspiration,” says Harris. “And trees and their roots are representative of our own bodies. I like the way the trees reach into the sky and the secret life of roots themselves. I am always fascinated.”
Born in Iowa, Harris became an East Coaster residing in Northern Virginia for nearly 30 years and made her way West spending time with family in Colorado. She eventually landed in Bend with her family and fleet of pets in 2013. And while treescape art is her mastery, the Pacific Northwest’s forests presented her a test.
“Moving to the Pacific Northwest, it was the conifer trees for me that were super intimidating. For me, I love being in Bend and the weather here…there is so much sunshine. Being able to get outside when it’s hot and the shade that actually works here,” she laughs.
Her rescue cats, Hazel and Charlie, and rescue greyhounds, Pippi and Ginger, are her sunny Bend studio companions keeping her company with her artistic endeavors which span from painting and mixed media to sculptural books, art quilts and fiber arts. And most recently, abstract maps.
“They’re all best friends,” Harris says, a self-proclaimed hippy artist. “And there are some paw prints in my paintings.”
As most artists work—creating, recreating, plunging into a creative idea, walking away from that idea, and finally having acceptance with one’s work—Harris is not exempt. Some of her paintings she says become thicker and thicker as she reworks a piece of art, layer upon layer, color upon color.
“Some paintings are really obvious what the start and the end is, but sometimes I have to walk away from it for a couple weeks, or months…or hide it or paint over it,” she says. “My paintings can be very thick, sometimes three or four paintings over the original. I like it better, like the great masters who used canvas over and over again. I’ve gotten more comfortable with this technique.”
Harris utilizes, and recycles so to speak, plastic gift cards as her tool in moving, spreading and layering paint. “They serve as a reminder of how consumer-driven our society is and how quickly we replace nature with manmade materials,” she says.
Prior to her move to Bend what changed Harris’ artistic spectrum was unfortunately experiencing a friend and family member’s battles with cancer. Both her art and her rescue dogs, that survived racetrack abuse, helped Harris’ healing process.
“It put me in a dark place, I was pretty broken,” says Harris who at the time resided in Virginia. “My whole thing with the positive and negative influences in my work came out. My Happy Little Leaves and Happy Little Trees series came out. After moving to Bend and starting to make art again, it was my art therapy. I started over with the sunshine and walking in the woods. I am so happy here.”
Harrris’ resume is impressive with both her time in Virginia and her new home in Bend. She has jumped right into the artist community here creating a performance art piece for the 2015 TEDxBend and a featured artist for Simplicity Homes for the 2015 and 2016 tours of Central Oregon Builders Association, she was an active member of the High Desert Art League and co-group organizer for the Women’s Artist Group. Her work can be found in multiple galleries in Bend and Sunriver, and she is a faithful presenter in Bend’s First Friday gallery walks.
“I’m exploring color, texture, and line. I’m focusing on the interplay of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ space as I reflect on my own positive and negative growth experiences from the past few years,” Harris writes of her tree series. “I’m using these trees as a form of art therapy to explore living more simply while celebrating nature, color, texture and line. I want the viewer to feel happy and playful. I want them to be in the moment and feel joy. Life is short and meant to be celebrated.”
The Happy Little Trees and Happy Little Leaves series was inspired by one of Harris’ favorite childhood artists, Bob Ross, who she says she’s made a small tribute to his whimsical and magical artistic base with her series. Full of the colors of the rainbow, Harris’ collection includes small and large paintings, intuitive paintings and mixed media.
Harris’ formal education includes receiving degrees in studio arts and art history with an emphasis on painting and printmaking from Sweet Briar College. She later received her master of fine arts in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Currently, Harris is working on a map series, not specific topographic or geological maps, but abstract maps, “to explore connections, belonging and where we are going in our lives.”
“Maps to me are a really true and real thing, when I’m making them I’m channeling parts of my soul. And of course, playing with color. Maps are really doing well and authenticity is something I really try to do. Authenticity is greater than being perfect,” says Harris.
When not in front of her canvas, Harris draws on her elementary art teaching expertise promoting resources for fostering creativity for children’s crafts and activities via her website Pink and Green Mama she founded in 2008. And there is no doubt raising her two daughters, now a fourth- and eighth-grader, further inspired sharing her craft with children, parents and educators.
“When I was teaching kids they always asked me what my favorite color is…I always said rainbow,” says Harris.
But blue she admits is her favorite color of the rainbow.
“I love every shade of blue.”