In her work shimmering light, painter Mary Garrish captures more than the majesty of the coastal landscape; she conveys a unique sense of awe that attunes us to something larger than ourselves. Her work is a shade beyond beautiful—it’s healing. In fact, Garrish was a physician for more than two decades before she was a full-time artist. Having no exposure to art growing up, she gravitated toward math and science, eventually graduating from medical school and becoming a doctor.
The turning point, her artistic meet-cute, came when one of her kids asked her to draw an animal. The result drew frank criticism from her pint-size client, and the gauntlet was thrown. “I bought two books on drawing, and when I read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, I realized drawing is geometry, which I’m very good at,” Garrish says.
Reading how-to books eventually led to a steady string of art classes at a local museum. When her kids were old enough to go away to summer camp, she started attending workshops. One of her first was with renowned landscape artist Scott Christensen, who would become her mentor. Over the years, painting became a happy addiction that led to retirement in 2005 and a second career as an artist.
Today, Garrish’s specialty is impressionistic oil renditions of plein air landscapes. She begins by painting outside, or en plein air, working quickly with oils or gouache to capture scenes. An essential part of her process is creating color notes, small 4-by-6-inch studies on linen that record color and color value as the scene in front of her changes with the light. Back in the studio, these small drafts serve as aide-mémoire that remind her of a scene’s emotional and technical foundations. Using her “notes,” which are works of art on their own, she then interprets the studies into larger paintings.
Broadly, the heart of impressionism captures fleeting moments, as measured by light and motion. By design, impressionism reminds us of the transient nature of time, which not only keeps us plugged in to the little voice that encourages us to gather rosebuds while we may, but also encourages us to stay fully immersed in those small, simple moments when they happen. Happy people know that mindfulness is the secret to staying grounded in a world moving at machine pace, so one could argue that impressionism is even more relevant today than ever before.
Garrish’s work is impressionistic in the sense that she doesn’t paint precisely what she sees—only the impression the scene made on her heart and mind. Her work is often vivid, but it doesn’t have the broken color of other impressionistic styles. Her work is especially otherworldly, ethereal and timeless, in no small part due to her intentions.
First and foremost, the artist says she is looking for peace. “My husband and I camp a lot, and we are lucky to have a very peaceful existence,” she says. Whether she’s painting the ocean, scenes from the wildlife refuge near her home or the rolling hills of Provence or Tuscany, Garrish is so highly tuned in to how light and landscapes change from minute to minute that it seems she doesn’t so much look for peace as stalk it. In appreciating art, it’s easy to overlook that the first step in creating a beautiful work is knowing what’s worth painting.
A scroll through her portfolio at Hagan Fine Art reveals a rich cache of magnificent moments frozen in time. The color, perspective and value of the light captured in Lily Pads make the viewer feel like they’ve stumbled into a secret water garden; in Choppy Seas with Boat, we hear the slap of the waves against the hull and smell the gathering storm. Inspiration Sunrise surely was captured on one of those rare and precious days when impending clouds give you the beach to yourself. Garrish isn’t just painting what she sees; she’s painting something we can feel.
And yet, she’s still experimenting. “When you start learning, you’re just trying to render a scene, which is hard enough. Then, when you’ve got a bit of a handle on it, you can start interpreting it and making it your own,” Garrish says. One of the techniques she’s working with is called scumbling, in which she applies an opaque tone over an entire painting, then wipes it off here and there. The process brings the values closer, making the darks lighter and the light colors darker. Scumbling creates a fantastically moody atmosphere, such as the storm-passing vibe we get from Choppy Seas with Boat.
Garrish also experiments with surfaces and occasionally paints on aluminum. “It’s fun to change surfaces and do things differently, and I love aluminum because it gives me a lovely backlit effect,” she says. In Inspirations on Sunrise, she painted on aluminum and used many layers and even wax to achieve the mood and texture. While she’s enjoying experimenting, Garrish is also enjoying teaching workshops, doing demonstrations and teaching techniques through a video series. This year, the artist is off to Scotland to search for inspiration, and she hopes to make an appearance at Hagan Fine Art on her rambles.
“There is a specialness about Mary’s work,” Karen Hewitt Hagan, owner of Hagan Fine Art, says. “It’s accomplished and mature yet ever-changing as she experiments with new techniques, like painting on aluminum. It’s hard to describe how refreshed her paintings make you feel, but then you meet her, and you understand that the feeling is a direct translation of Mary’s joy and zest for living.”
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.