The Vanishing Rural Landscape, a Solo Exhibition by faculty member Mary Beth Akre will open Thursday, October 25 from 5-7 at Loyola University’s Julio Gallery. Besides the oil paintings we discuss, Akre will also be exhibiting installations created from found, natural forms, photography, and wax encaustic.
Cara Ober: What made you want to start painting the local landscape? How many years have you been working this way? Please describe your process, technique, and materials… for example, do you work in plein aire or do you use photography to capture the imagery you paint?
Mary Beth Akre: I painted my first landscape in a painting class at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1983. We went out to a farm off of Cromwell Bridge Road, near Loch Raven, and I was hooked. I have painted other types of paintings, both representational and conceptual, but I always have painted landscapes. I paint on site, in the plein air tradition. I enjoy the sensory experience and you just cannot duplicate the light and color with a photo. I use oil as my medium and people have told me that my style is painterly. I don’t know how to categorize myself, but I do like to create the illusion of space that the landscape can provide. I also like to create my own language of marks to depict what I see. Light and color are also integral to what I see and how I paint.
CO: What are the types of landscapes you prefer to capture and why? Are your images based on specific, local places and, if so, where?
MBA: I paint near my home in Bentley Springs, in northern Baltimore County. I have been painting mostly in southern York County Pennsylvania for the past few years, in New Freedom, Shrewsbury, Glen Rock, Stewartstown, and Loganville.
CO: Many of your landscape paintings come off as pastoral and idealized, with fluffy white clouds and undulating natural greenery. However, the title of your new show – The Vanishing Rural Landscape – effectively transforms these images into a mirage. The title of your show completely changes the content and emotional affect of your paintings – from ‘happy little clouds’ to a mournful loss. It really takes them in an ironic direction. When you started this body of work, did you aim to create positive images in order to contrast them with a more negative message? How do you want viewers to experience your works, in relation with the show’s title?
MBA: I felt the need to document the farms and open spaces in my area since development and housing are steadily taking over. I don’t think my landscapes are idealized. I just see the world that way. I want viewers to understand how priceless open vistas/spaces are. Once they are gone, they are gone. There isn’t a compromise. The title of my show is a way that I can advocate for action to preserve a way of life, ecosystems and habitats. I am starting to understand that I need to be a part of the defense against the relentless pressure from “Progress.”
CO: How do you feel about the development of Maryland’s farmland and natural landscapes? Do you have a personal connection to this phenomena?
MBA: I am saddened and alarmed by the encroaching development in southern Pennsylvania. Northern Baltimore County seems to be faring better. Perhaps stronger and more organized opposition and stricter zoning laws are helping to preserve farms and rural areas.
CO: As an artist and college professor, and as a mother, how do you view your role in this issue? Do you feel a moral obligation to educate those around you about this issue? What can people do to prevent further destruction of the local landscape? What do you suggest?
MBA: As a mom, I want my daughter to be able to appreciate and enjoy the natural world. This idea started long ago with the National and state parks systems. As the population increases I think it is essential that one of our priorities should be preserving areas of wilderness, but also farmland. It isn’t just about being able to see the natural world; it is also about preserving ecosystems and maintaining habitats. We aren’t the only creatures on the planet.
As an artist I have participated in the Valley Planning Council’s “Art for Land’s Sake” benefit art exhibitions over the years. Proceeds from the show go directly towards preserving open space in northern Baltimore County.
As a teacher I find that I need to advocate for an issue that is so crucial to me. In one of my assignments, I ask my students what issue in the world, or their community really matters to them. We talk about justice and how they can create change with just an image. They build a collage around an issue in social justice and so become a part of a tradition of artists who help to create change in the world with visual images. I am beginning to see that I can do the same with my own work. Some ways that each of us could become a part of this is to become more educated about zoning and the zoning process. We need to be aware of the ramifications of each small change to established zoning rulings. Not knowing, and therefore not acting aren’t good enough.
CO: Do you think you will ever paint McMansions, suburbia, or the urban landscape? Or, do you think it is more important for you to emphasize the places where you feel a strong visual attraction?
MBA: One of my great pleasures is to be out in the landscape. It brings me joy. Not just happiness, but deep and profound joy. I have such a strong visual connection to the natural world that I cannot imagine painting a landscape with a gas station in it. But I may have to if it means preserving what brings me such joy.
The Vanishing Rural Landscape will be up through November 20, 2012. For more information about this exhibit, go to www.loyola.edu/gallery.