Cottonwoods, pastel, 29 x 34.
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
It’s early one afternoon in Northern California, and landscape artist Mary Silverwood is describing the terrain near her home in Monte Rio, an area in Sonoma County where steep hills wind down to the Russian River, about 6 miles from the Pacific Ocean. “This is a beautiful place that clutches at your heart strings, and nothing else will do,” she says.
Silverwood’s gray bilevel home has a loft studio, a long narrow ribbon of space that sprawls across the second floor. Windows at each end reveal views of grassy meadows and land saturated with redwood, fir, and pine trees. One of the first things you notice about the studio is a table overflowing with dozens of colorful pastel sticks.
One of the first things you notice about Silverwood is her direct approach. At 66, she has little use for artists who wax on with what she views as pompous, windy statements about their work. Recently she read a story about a landscape artist who said he “tries to capture the ethereal spirit” in his paintings. Describing her opposite approach, she says simply, “I see a tree. I paint it.”
Abiquiu Ravine, pastel, 22 x 30.
Silverwood has lived in California for more than 35 years. She moved to Berkeley in 1962 after earning an art degree at the University of Texas in Austin. She intended to enroll at the University of California but couldn’t afford the tuition. She also admits a certain apprehension about the new and wilder world she encountered at Berkeley in the 1960s. “I was this conservative person from Texas, and I was in culture shock,” she says. “In terms of art I was a modest regionalist painter amid abstract expressionism.”
Silverwood confesses she was pathologically shy, and even a wisp of criticism about her work stripped her confidence. Blocked and depressed, she stopped painting for 15 years. Instead she pursued her teaching certificate and worked with special education students. “I was the one that needed some help,” she says in a moment of self-analysis.
For a creative outlet she turned to weaving, spinning, and sewing. In 1980, trying to be practical, she signed up for accounting classes at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, CA. She quickly found that accounting held no interest for her, though, and she began slipping away to painting classes instead. Her great love of art came roaring back and she experienced a creative rebirth. To her delight, she could still paint and draw.
Rio Grande Gorge, pastel, 22 x 30.
Experimenting with pastels, she discovered an appealing simplicity—there were no brushes to wash or canvases to stretch. The experience of holding color sticks in her hand and rubbing color into the paper with her fingers was immediately satisfying.
Soon she was resuscitating a career she had given up. The second time around Silverwood painted with new fervor and confidence. For five years she toiled in her studio, grabbing every spare minute while working as a substitute teacher. During that period, she recalls, she shoved all her paintings under her bed because she wanted to work without criticism. “I needed a space to get over a fear of failure,” she says. “I had to teach myself that unless you fail you aren’t learning anything or trying anything new. I wanted room to grow.”
Up Country Reservoir, pastel, 29 x 34.
By 1988 she was entering local art shows. People started buying her work and calling her for more. A series of popular landscape posters provided a substantial financial boost, and in 1990 she was able to quit her teaching job and paint full time. “Suddenly I started feeling like everything in my life had come together. I was finally focusing on what had been in my mind and heart,” Silverwood says. “It took me a long time to become a person.”
Although she originally painted figurative work, today the California artist focuses almost exclusively on landscapes. The Silverwood signature is bold, vibrant colors—vivid blues, yellows, purples, and greens reverberate through her work. Where one eye may see pale greens or blues in the landscape, Silverwood doesn’t hesitate to render the same scene in a brilliant turquoise or fuchsia. She is constantly examining art books or visiting museums to see how artists have expressed color through the ages.
On this particular afternoon she is struggling with a painting of the Taos mountains. “At first it seemed so complicated, I could hardly endure it. I just had to leave it for a while,” Silverwood says. Now when she is blocked, she has a way of coping. She takes a break, makes a cup of coffee, and returns to her studio to work on a different painting for a spell.
Several days later the painting of the Taos mountains is completed, and Silverwood is pleased that she has captured the dark blue mountain range she finds so compelling. For those unfamiliar with Silverwood’s work, New Mexico looms large. While she still paints the hills of Sonoma, more and more she looks to New Mexico for inspiration. Every year she travels to the Land of Enchantment to take photographs and sketch the landscape she will later paint in her California studio.
The first time she visited New Mexico in 1990, she felt a sense of excitement about the landscape that inspires her palette today. “Parts of New Mexico are so high and the air tends to be so pure that I think color is intensified, especially in the mountains,” Silverwood says. “For me color has become the most important thing in my paintings.”
Her yearly New Mexico ex-cursions unfold every fall, and she usually travels into the region north of Santa Fe, where the aspens are a brilliant yellow and there’s a touch of snow on the mountains. She might stop in Abiquiu or wander through the rugged, rocky cliffs of the surrounding landscape. Once back in her studio she will translate her renderings into paintings as she applies pastels to black rag paper, which she says allows the full impact of the colors to emerge.
Silverwood still seems amazed that she can support herself with what she loves to do. She grew up poor, one of four children of a domineering Southern Baptist mother during the Depression. As a young girl in Fort Worth, TX, she drew constantly and while in high school studied art and visited many museums. To this day, she says, her family doesn’t understand exactly what she does for a living, but that isn’t bothersome. She is sure of her direction and how she wants to spend her days. “I love to be alone with the landscape, think about it, and paint it. I love getting lost in my work. A piece gets hold of me, and I can’t leave it,” Silverwood says. “So I keep working as it is getting darker and darker outside, until my nose is pressed against the paper.”
In her spare time she has returned to teaching, but it’s art she talks about in classes. She has a special message for women who left art careers behind to raise families or pursue other interests. “I tell them to have the courage to restart after they have left their longing to make art behind. They will find the skills are all there,” Silverwood advises.
As for the future, she wants to continue to see and paint landscapes that excite her. “I want to go to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, drive up to Durango, CO, and view the landscape along the highway east of Zion National Park in Utah where Maynard Dixon painted,” Silverwood says. “I don’t think I have by any means finished with the Southwest.”
Photos courtesy the artist and Joyce Robins Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in April 2001