BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The bouquet collages and trees exploding with vibrant color by School of the Art Institute professor Mary Lou Zelazny draw you into the Carl Hammer Gallery, surrounding you with summer on an unseasonably icy April day. Although photographs don’t fully capture the brilliant layers of her paintings, allow yourself to feel the summery warmth of her work as you read.
Looking closely at the landscapes and still life paintings of trees and flowers on view at her fifth solo show at the gallery, you see that they are really collages: flowers, leaves, and, in one painting, dizzying bees, butterflies, and harem-like figures cut from other canvases or materials. We were eager to learn more from Mary Lou about these eruptions of color she creates.
Kevin Carney and Ava Carney who wrote the catalogue essay on the show titled Novum Vivarium describe this fresh take on Dutch bouquets and plein-air landscapes:
“In the studio, voluminous piles of mono-print material—collecting like shed leaves and petals—are scrupulously and deviously reassembled. The resulting trees and flowers possess a quiver and tremor that is simultaneously familiar and uncanny.
“Although Zelazny’s trees do reflect a few centuries of art history, their assertive, almost explosive personalities are focused on the future.”
We met up with Mary Lou at a coffee shop near her Jefferson Park studio, where we discussed her career and technique. The artist has been painting for 40 years, experimenting with the different light each season brings balancing time between her students and her own work.
“I have always loved color, in its different moods and meanings. It’s tied to the seasons, the changing light, and how you feel day to day, even more than color. I love painting nature in real time and combine outdoor work with studio time. It’s balancing life and teaching. I try to have regular hours—I am not a morning person but I love to paint right after lunch.”
Mary Lou grew up in Logan Square surrounded by a grandmother, aunt, and mother whose artistry was expressed in a variety of crafts. She teaches in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute.
“My students come from a very talented pool from all over the world. Some have made incredible breakthroughs and have high potential. I advise them to always keep working and tell them that good work will always be seen. It is, of course, very hard to predict who will be able to make their living through painting.”
We asked Mary Lou is she has a favorite painter:
“Picasso has always been a big influence on me. When I was younger, I particularly loved Renaissance and Medieval painting. At the moment I am drawn to 19th century European painting.”
Mary Lou says she loves the spontaneity of her collages and unlike the 16th century Dutch painters who frequently placed their bouquets in rare Chinese porcelains, Mary Lou’s vessels are lucky thrift shop finds.