Celebrating Creation and Conservation: The Mixed-Media Journey of Mary Robinson
"Printmaking is often a very collaborative process, so through many years of teaching printmaking I believe that I have also become more communally oriented"
Hailing from Columbia, South Carolina, Mary Robinson is an artist of many disciplines, embodying the essence of creative re-imagination in her unique and thoughtful works. A mixed-media artist who relishes in finding the extraordinary in the mundane, she is currently the director of the Printmaking Program at the University of South Carolina School of Visual Art and Design, where she also teaches. Robinson's distinct approach to her craft involves printmaking in diverse media, creating objects from repurposed fabric, and making handmade paper. In her studio, she weaves together disparate elements to uncover new interplays of color and form.
Robinson's works are intrinsically inspired by the natural world; from the intricate patterns made by acorn woodpeckers she observed in Inverness, California, to the pulse and rhythm of life, Robinson endeavors to convey the potent energy that unites all living things. This interconnection with nature is an underpinning philosophy in her artistry, beautifully highlighting a delicate balance between creation and conservation.
Robinson's artistic journey has been one of exploration and education. She graduated with a BFA in Studio Art from the University of Colorado-Boulder, proceeded by an MA in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then an MFA in Printmaking from Indiana University-Bloomington. Robinson's passion for printmaking was sparked while assisting Master Printer Andy Rubin at UW's Tandem Press.
Above, Pieced: Brown Small, collaged artwork by Mary Robinson. Image courtesy of Mary Robinson.
Presently, Robinson is engaging with the community of Breckenridge, Colorado, as an artist-in-residence at Breck Create, a creative hub that's in partnership with the Saddle Rock Society. The residency offers artists from all over the globe a space to focus on their artistic process, interact with the local community, and foster a spirit of creativity and togetherness.
During her residency, Robinson has led several impactful activities, ranging from teaching a Kids Camp to making filament from repurposed plastic sleds using a Precious Plastics extruder machine. A mixed-media artist in every sense, she has been involved in creating a braided rag rug, running a workshop on beading with repurposed materials, and making beads from repurposed paper and fabric.
Furthering her ethos of recycling and repurposing, she gratefully uses fabric and yarn donated by the community for her projects at Breck Create. She hashtags her social media posts with #maryrobinsonstudion #repurpose, #breckcreate, #gratitude, #community, #cherishedscraps, #materialappreciation, and #artistresidency, reaffirming her commitment to community, creativity, and the appreciation of materials, however humble they might be.
Above, Svalbard Seed Vault Exhibition Handbound books on display at Tromsø bibliotek, Tromsø, Norway. Image courtesy of the Global Seed Vault in Svalbad, Norway.
Q & A with Mary Robinson
Dawn Hunter: Mary, you've built your career around repurposing materials in your artwork. Can you share a story about a particular piece where the material's past life brought a unique depth or perspective to your creation?
Mary Robinson: The series of works titled Pieced are made from my collection of fabric scraps, and I know where each little scrap comes from. For example, in Pieced: Brown Small, there are pieces of clothing belonging to my mother, my husband, my friend and myself. There are also leftovers from a quilt I made for my newborn nephew. There are pieces given to me at a workshop I took with Gee’s Bend Quilters Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway. And there is fabric onto which I screen printed patterns in a natural dye workshop I took with Donna Brown who founded the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden in Denver. When I look at these scraps stitched together I can’t help but see the interconnection of a larger community—those mentioned above but also the unknown workers who manufactured the various fabrics. (continued below)
Inspiration, patterns created by Acorn Woodpeckers.
Inspiration manifests in Mary Robinson's work. Ovals carved into matrices which were used to create her relief monoprint series, Chorus.
Dawn Hunter: Your inspiration often comes from the rhythms and patterns of nature. Is there a specific instance in nature that inspired you recently, and how did it manifest in your work?
Mary Robinson: In 2017 I had a 3-week residency in Inverness, California at the Lucid Art Foundation. Every day from dawn to dusk I saw and heard acorn woodpeckers persistently creating hundreds of holes for storing the nuts they gathered. I had previously used a pattern of ovals to represent humans, linking the ephemerality of human lives to musical notes. Inspired by the woodpeckers and taking advantage of the reproducibility in printmaking, I carved many small ovals on multiple matrices and printed them in a variety of ways at the residency. I continue to use this pattern regularly, and it can be seen in the previously mentioned work, Pieced: Brown Small; in the printed, hand-bound books I created for the permanent collection at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbad, Norway; in many of the Regeneration works; and in the Chorus series of large woodcut prints.
Mary Robinson, Regeneration 4
Handmade paper, thread, collagraph, relief print, gouache and glue on mulberry paper, 13”x 10.5”, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Mary Robinson, Chorus 3,
Relief monoprint on Shiramine paper, 46”x 38”, 2021.
Courtesy of the artist.
Dawn Hunter: As an artist, you've led various workshops and taught at a Kids Camp during your residency at Breck Create. How do you feel teaching influences your own work, and what do you hope your students take away from these experiences?
Mary Robinson: I have really enjoyed teaching a broad range of students over the years in terms of age, experience and cultural background. I believe that the flexibility and openness I have brought to teaching has made me more relaxed and open as an artist and human over the years. I sometimes see a fear of failing in students that I used to experience. Helping students to embrace process and flexibility has helped me get past rigidity and tightness in my own work. Printmaking is often a very collaborative process, so through many years of teaching printmaking I believe that I have also become more communally oriented. This summer I have been inspired by the wild and beautiful imaginations of 4- to 12-year-olds I have been working with. (One 8-year-old made a portrait of “Mr. Toast” and wove a sweater for him without worrying about whether or not this made sense.)
Dawn Hunter: You've spoken about your gratitude for the ongoing donations of fabric and yarn for your project at Breck Create. Could you describe how community involvement enhances your artistic process and impacts the resulting artwork?
Mary Robinson: Involving interested participants in a community art project can make members feel more connected and invested in their community. This summer’s Invitation project at Breck Create has stimulated dialogue about art, home, community, environmental sustainability, and material waste. For me, the donated materials become creative prompts that trigger new ideas. The challenge of not buying anything new for the project has propelled me to use materials in ways different than what I’m used to. It has been exciting to see both kids and adults transform simple triangles of magazine paper into beautiful paper beads, and to see their perceptions of the material change.
Mary Robinson, Regeneration 3
Relief print, screen print, digital print, gouache and glue on mulberry paper, 14”x 10.5”, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Dawn Hunter: Having studied both Studio Art and Art History, how do you feel your understanding of historical contexts and movements has shaped your own artistic voice, particularly your focus on sustainability and repurposing materials?
Mary Robinson: First of all, I credit a part-time instructor from my freshman year of college, in large part, for my pursuing a life and career in art. She drove from Denver to Boulder twice a week to teach our small art appreciation class, taking us to the studios and homes of artists. Before that, I didn’t really know that you could choose art as a career and, more importantly, as a way of life. The artists we visited seemed to live holistic, creative lifestyles in beautiful, unique homes. I remember feeling on a deep level at age 18: “I want to live like this.” Over the years I have been influenced by many artists whose work doesn’t necessarily look like mine: the pulsating marks in Van Gogh’s paintings; the sense of fleetingness in Stan Brakhage’s films and Francesca Woodman’s photographs; the dedication in Frank Auerbach’s paintings of the artist trying to capture something about his small group of subjects again and again for decades; Richard Long’s use of walking as a medium; and the rough, earthy sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz. Studying art history has given me a sense of connection with humanity across time and geography.
Many of my art professors at the University of Colorado encouraged us to think about the content in our work and promoted social awareness. One of my painting professors gave us the assignment of addressing a social issue in a painting. I remember painting a man from behind looking out over a city covered in trash. A few years later when writing my art history master's thesis about the work of Betye Saar, I was impressed by Saar's appreciation of material, her habit of recycling, and her recognition of the power of objects, for example when she incorporated her Aunt Hattie's belongings in Record for Hattie. About her materials Saar states: "The objects that I use, because they're old (or used, at least ), bring their own story; they bring their past with them. I have no idea what that history is. If the object is from my home or my family, I can guess. But I like the idea of not knowing, even though the story's still there.